Step Afrika! Blends Dance and History in “The Migration”

Step Afrika! dancers perform The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.

On June 6, I attended a performance of The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Step Afrika!, a nonprofit dance company, staged the production. 

“If you love the visual arts, if you love dance, if you love music, I think this show has so many elements in it that is really a must-see production,” founder C. Brian Williams told a local NBC reporter. 

Williams founded Step Afrika 30 years ago. The world-renowned group uses the dance styles of historically Black fraternities and sororities, traditional African dances, and contemporary dance and art forms in the works they create. Stories, music, and dance are woven together to create artistic productions that celebrate the experiences and achievements of African Americans.  

Before the performance I spoke with Williams about The Migration. It depicts a pivotal event in American history. Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated six million Black Americans left the South for the Northeast and Midwest in search of better lives. They wanted to escape the racist Jim Crow laws of the South, which limited their chances for jobs, housing, and education.

In the early 1940s, Jacob Lawrence, a young Black artist, memorialized the cultural impact of the movement in his Migration Series. Sixty colorful panels tell the stories of families like his who moved North to escape brutality and mistreatment. In his paintings, Lawrence celebrates the resilience of African American communities despite centuries of oppression. The works are on display at the Phillips Collection in D.C.

“When you see the performance,” Williams said about The Migration, “you will not only see the dancers perform, but you’re going to see Jacob Lawrence’s paintings projected on screen. We’re trying to bring his paintings to life.”


Xander with C. Brian Williams, who founded Step Afrika! in 1994


Step Afrika has become a cultural ambassador worldwide, entertaining and educating audiences in more than 60 countries to date. The group is known for its mastery of percussive dance, or stepping, which uses the body as an instrument to generate rhythmic sounds. Choreographed footsteps, claps, and words generate sounds similar to a drum, tambourine, or other percussion instrument. 

“Some of my best memories of Step Afrika are when we were traveling around the world, be it in Africa, Central South America, or the Middle East, using the arts to bring different people together,” Williams said. “That’s what I love the most.”

Education is a core part of the dance company’s mission. “We do lots of programs in schools,” Williams said. “There are three things that are super important to stepping: teamwork, commitment, and discipline.”

The organization also hosts a one-week camp in D.C. called “Summer Steps With Step Afrika.” It is open to students in grades 4 through 12. The goal of the group’s education programs and camps, Williams said, is to celebrate stories and traditions beyond the dance floor, preparing young people for success in life.


Step Afrika! seeks to bring people together through the arts, Williams says. 



Top and bottom photos: © Jati Lindsay; middle photo courtesy of the author