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Step Afrika! returns to ArtsEmerson with ‘Drumfolk’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Step Afrika! returns to ArtsEmerson with ‘Drumfolk’
The dance company Step Afrika! performs “Drumfolk.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARTSEMERSON

Step Afrika!, the first dance company devoted to the art of stepping, returns to ArtsEmerson this fall for a two-week engagement of their newest production, “Drumfolk.” Previous productions by Step Afrika! honored African American artists and the history of stepping; in this show, running Oct. 5–16, the artists peer back into American history.

“Drumfolk” reflects on the Stono Rebellion of 1739, an uprising during which 20 enslaved Africans in South Carolina used their drums to incite a revolt. Though the rebellion was quelled, it was an early example of American protest, significantly before the well-known Boston Tea Party. And it used the power of drumbeat and music to fight for change.

“Protest is as American as apple pie, quite honestly, and we know that it’s pushed the country along for centuries — from the women’s suffrage movement to LGBTQ rights to civil rights,” says Step Afrika! Founder and Executive Producer C. Brian Williams. “These 20 Africans who led this rebellion in 1739, are they really the forefathers of American protest?”

The dance company Step Afrika! performs “Drumfolk.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF ARTSEMERSON

Stepping is a rhythmic and percussive dance form created in the fraternities and sororities of historically Black colleges and universities in the early 1900s. The style itself is linked to the Stono Rebellion as well. In the wake of the revolt, enslaved people were forbidden to have drums and so they began to use their bodies as percussive instruments, adapting to carry on the culture in new and innovative ways. That same style of utilizing the body as the music is at play in stepping.

“These are monumental moments in American history that we’re finding most Americans have never heard of. Step Afrika! has been studying this historical moment and its result for many, many years,” says Williams. “’Drumfolk’ is our effort not to retell the story of the Stono rebellion, but how we’ve been influenced and inspired by this American moment.”

Just as protests are often a collective initiative, Step Afrika! creates its projects cooperatively. You’d be hard pressed to find a piece from the company that was choreographed by only one person. Each piece takes shape as part of a group artistic process, bringing together historical stepping movements with new interpretations on a theme. As the group evolves, so does the work.

“There are works that we’ve been doing for over 20 years in the company, but they’re completely unrecognizable from when we first performed them because as new artists have come in, we’ve brought their energy into the work and allowed the process to naturally change and evolve,” says Williams.

“Drumfolk” is highly interactive, he says, with the company acknowledging and engaging with the audience from the very beginning of the show. Here in Boston, where so many important acts of resistance in the American Revolution occurred, the show will be a poignant reminder that there are other histories that need to be told.

“Although it’s about a heavy piece of American history, joy is still at the center of the work,” says Williams. “African Americans have contributed greatly to the creation of the nation, and this is just one more example of how African people have transformed the country we live in today.”

African American artists, ArtsEmerson, Drumfolk, Step Afrika!, Stono Rebellion