Jakari Sherman, the former Artistic Director of Step Afrika!, recently finished a two-year tour with The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, of which he is also the director. Under Sherman’s guidance, the production brings the kinetic energy of step, tap, and other dance traditions to the famous sixty-piece collection of paintings that Lawrence finished at the age of 25. Engaging the movement of people with the movement of dance, Step Afrika!’s Migration begins by contextualizing Lawrence’s work within a narrative of the African diaspora to America: the talking drum in Africa, the turmoil of slavery and the theft of the drum, and the creation of new artistic traditions in the wake of these traumas. The first half of the production ends with a piece called “Wade Suite,” using “Wade in the Water” to emphasize the importance of the church as a site of Black American culture and spirituality. The second half directly enacts the iconic central images from Lawrence’s collection, including the extraordinary voyage North by train and the separation and reunion of families. Here, the number called “Trane Suite” tells of the journey of three men as they explore the cityscapes of the North along with their wives that join them. The production closes with a piece entitled “Chicago,” highlighting what the program calls the “collective self-transformation of those who made it North.”
Originally a commission from Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection, which holds half of Lawrence’s series, The Migration has taken Step Afrika! across the country. The production has received several awards along the way, headlining the Presidential Black History Month Reception in 2016 and appearing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The piece is a triumph for Sherman, whose work as a dancer and dance educator—from competitions in his youth to studying ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick—has affirmed step’s vital place in American culture. As Artistic Director for the first professional company devoted to step, Sherman has dedicated his life to educating audiences about its unique history.
I talked with Sherman at a café in Washington, D.C., right as the current run of The Migration had ended.
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You’ve been traveling with The Migration for a while now. But you are based out of both Houston and D.C.?
Yeah, I’ve been going back and forth throughout this Migration tour, in town or on the road, traveling for the show. But Houston is my home.
And you just finished a run here in D.C.?
We did. We were at the Hartke Theater, which is on the campus of Catholic University. We were there for a two-week run, and it was amazing. We’ve been touring now for two years. We started in DC and we finished the run in DC. This is the end of The Migration for now, which is kind of bittersweet.
Now that you’re at the end of this run, would you mind walking us through where step began for you?
Growing up, I was into music and the sciences. Art through music essentially was my thing. I found my way into stepping via percussion. I was in marching band, and I found a love for stepping because of its rhythm. In Houston, competitive stepping during the early nineties was really big. I started off competing with my school step team and just found a love for it. Then I stepped when I went to college. During and after college, I went back and worked with children and the step team I had been in. They got noticed by the Houston Rockets and they asked me to form the first NBA Step Team. So that was the beginning of my professional stepping career.
I came to Step Afrika! in 2005, after joining them for a trip to South Africa in 2004. I really liked their work and it felt like I could contribute to what they were doing artistically. So, I came into the company in 2005, and by 2007, I was tapped to be Artistic Director of the company, and I did that for seven years until I went to Ireland for my Master’s degree. Shortly after I came back from Ireland, we began the Migration run.
That’s quite a journey. So many people get into step in college, but you were already well versed by the time you got there.
I think that discovering step in college has traditionally been the pathway. But at this point the youth stepping world has really grown, and there are stepping leagues now with a lot more people getting into step earlier in life. They are given access by members of fraternities and sororities who, because of their missions related to community service, were going out teaching stepping, like I did, in their high school or maybe their church or other community centers. So now there’s much more access to the form than there was.
What was it like getting your Masters in Ethnochoreology at the University of Limerick?
Going to Ireland and doing ethnochoreology was an important step in my own need to understand the tradition and art form of stepping in a greater way, as well as to lay the foundation for scholarly research connected to the form. In seeking to do graduate work here in the States, there was the challenge of not having formal dance training because most programs are based in classical ballet or modern dance. I didn’t come up through dance, I came up through drums and percussion and inheriting the tradition of stepping, so that was a challenge for me. I went to Ireland in part because of their tradition of percussive dance and in part because it was a welcoming place. I discovered a lot of similarities in Irish step dance culture and stepping culture, especially as it relates to competition, which has been the basis of the form.
Did you find it illuminating to study the ethnographic elements of choreography in an academic institution?
The folks who are really passionate about stepping, they’re really seeking to understand the art form more. They’re seeking a sense of legitimacy. I’ve always been seeking that, and one of the ways I did this was trying to get people to see stepping as an art form. Going to Ireland really helped me to problematize the idea of stepping as an art form, because doing so seeks to elevate it to a point where it’s just something that is done for entertainment. Going to Ireland helped me to recognize step for the tradition that it is, as a folk tradition beyond just being an art form. Because I think we try to elevate things to art to legitimize them.
What similarities or differences did you find in how ethnochoreology approaches dance relative to what you learned in Houston?
In our culture, stepping isn’t seen as something on par with the other legitimate art forms, so we seek to compare it to ballet. Going to Ireland really strengthened me to accept step for what it is, to present it for what it is, and to teach people about the parts of the tradition that are beyond the performative—and to use that to educate people about the form and why it’s meaningful to people. That sort of work is not even about establishing the legitimacy of step anymore, but as a byproduct of these efforts, the legitimation ends up happening.
Where are your studies taking you now?
I found Ireland to be a nurturing environment, and it really helped me to develop a greater sense of compassion for people as I’m studying everything that relates to dance. So now my research involves diving into the history of stepping, and I have a theoretical basis and framework through which to view that. It has given me a great position to now speak to people about the form and bring greater understanding—even for myself—about why we do what we do. It has helped me to explain where step comes from, and to dispel a lot of myths about stepping and its history.
What makes Step Afrika! unique as a dance company?
Step Afrika! was created to share the culture of stepping and to expose people to the art form, because early on the only people exposed to stepping were those in a fraternity or who were on a college campus where this was happening. Step Afrika!’s aesthetic is a blend of the whole of stepping rather than specific to one fraternity or one sorority. It’s evident when people come into the company—they come in with a particular style. Even when folks are not Greek, they maybe only stepped in high school or with their dorm, but they still have a very distinct style. When they join Step Afrika!, they have to break that and learn to engage with a lot of different step aesthetics. We are trying to represent all of stepping to the fullest extent possible.
Then there’s another layer of using step for narrative or even experimentally, like blending stepping with rock music or classical music or jazz, as you saw in Migration. And now we’re taking other forms, like visual art, and creating stories with all of these artistic mashups.
One of the things that was amazing about The Migration was that it involved step, tap, soft shoe, and European traditional dance. It was this amazing amalgam of recognizable Black dance, but it was also in conversation with European dance traditions.
We have so many different artists in the company, so many different talents. When we initially created the Migration in 2011, we ran it for a few weeks here in DC, building the show around the talents of the artists that we had at the time. We had tap dancers, we had modern dancers, we had a few West African dancers—and of course, stepping is the backbone of it all. So we built The Migration with those wide-ranging skill sets. We decided not to create everything based in stepping, forcing the whole company to learn and adapt to that, but instead asked how we could create work for the people that we have in the company to showcase their talents, and that’s how the show came to be.
But now that The Migration is established, you now recruit to fill specific roles?
Exactly. I think the development of Migration was an interesting process, a bit of growth and experimentation that landed really well with the company. Because we have so many people in the company, you don’t often get people who come into Step Afrika! who are really refined steppers. Most people do step for a couple years in college and that’s the extent of their stepping career. At most, someone would do it for three years, or maybe they learned in high school, but it’s not something they’re necessarily engaged in or practicing every day.
When you learn to step, it’s not like you start after school at 5.
Yeah, while modern dancers start when they’re three and then when they go to college there’s a whole curriculum available to them. There’s a learning and refining process that we go through in the company so we are able to incorporate these skill sets that people have honed over a long time and blend those with the stepping.
How did the production process of The Migration begin?
Brian Williams is the founder and executive director of Step Afrika! The Phillips Collection, here in D.C., was interested in doing something around the Jacob Lawrence series, and they had some conversations with Brian. They commissioned us to come up with something to connect with Jacob Lawrence’s work. It launched a period of research for me to just learn as much as I could about Jacob Lawrence and about The Migration, and that was the beginning of our work.
What proved to be the most valuable research for the production?
What was most valuable for me early on was spending a lot of time at the Schomburg in Harlem. There were some reference books that I used to study the series. But the first thing was just going there and reviewing archival material from the time period: some of the letters that were written from the people in the South to the people in the North, or the job postings calling people to come to the North. Those sources gave me texture, just looking at these old papers, they gave me a sense of the time period and allowed me to begin to create something that was—I hate using the word “authentic,” that’s such a problematic word—but something that I felt could connect to the texture of that time period. We knew that the through-line was Jacob Lawrence’s work and we knew what the narrative was, but how do we tie in the visual art with the stepping, with the music, with all these different dance styles? I think that early research really helped those elements to gel.
I was amazed by the ways your interpretation seemed to be responsive to Jacob Lawrence, the history of Black dance, and the existing repertoire of Step Afrika!
It was sort of kismet the way it all came down from the Phillips Collection. “Trane,” for example, was a piece that we already had been working on for a while, and “Wade in the Water” was part of Step Afrika!’s repertoire for a long time, and they just all fit together in the piece. We start with the drum on what we imagine is the west coast of Africa and then the Middle Passage section. And then all of the scenes lead up to the drums being taken away, and what that meant not only for art but for spiritual traditions. Drums and music were such a big part of spiritual traditions, as we see through “Wade in the Water” and the messages that were passed through African American spirituals, and this narrative was woven into the Migration story.
How do you interact with audiences that have never seen step?
We want people to know about the history of stepping, a dance form created by African American students. It’s percussive, it involves using our hands and our feet to make music. I think it’s important for people to understand that making sound, making music, and making gesture are equally important in the form. We are the music, essentially. These are just some of the identifying features about stepping that people see but maybe don’t always recognize. So we want to have people understand the tradition and that it comes out of fraternity and sorority culture.
One of the misunderstandings is when people try to connect stepping directly to Africa. A lot of people say stepping comes from Africa, whereas we would recognize the lineage of stepping in forms that originate in African culture or in the culture of Africans who were brought here. Stepping was created here in America, in part as a response to drums being taken away and the forms that evolved because of that. Those are some of the aspects of step that people don’t necessarily know about.
Do you get a lot of people who confuse step for tap?
Yeah, they look at tap dance and they’re curious about the connection. There’s a need to talk about the grammar and the language of stepping and what we call it. For the most part, people are very open to receiving knowledge about what stepping is.
Are there people who were originators or progenitors of stepping that you’d like audiences to be aware of?
It’s less about individuals and more about groups of people. We look at folks who were instrumental to the Civil Rights movement on their college campuses, and how their activism gave form to a lot of the fraternity and sorority culture. The way that they moved, the sense of militancy, gave form to a lot of the rituals and activities of fraternities and sororities. Those forms found their way into stepping. There’s a clear delineation when those movements started and how they changed the aesthetic of stepping.
There were folks who came around in the nineties in California who brought stepping to television. You have shows like School Daze and A Different World on television. You have these people who brought stepping to the forefront, but then there were all these folks who are sort of nameless, who were creating steps, who were the early choreographers who didn’t call themselves choreographers but maybe were step masters, who created a culture from which School Daze and A Different World could draw. Those are the real forebears of the form. We may never know their names, but I think it’s about honoring their legacy by sharing the stories and the lifestyles and the lives that they had to lead in order for us to have this tradition and this art form that we call stepping.
Where is your current research headed? What’s next for you?
I’m currently engaged in a project called Who Are the Step Masters? I am seeking to understand the history and the form of stepping through a search for the people who are important to the development of the form. I’m touring the country interviewing people of various ages. Right now, I’m focused on the older generations, those who would have been in college during the 1940s and 50s, who maybe were a part of sororities or fraternities and can tell me about the early days of the movement that evolved into stepping. I’m working on a photobook as part of that project, and a documentary play and documentary film. That’s where my time and energy are going.
What’s next for Step Afrika!?
Step Afrika! is engaged in figuring out the follow up to Migration. We’re asking what it is that we want to say at this point, how much we want to spin off from The Migration. We are interested in the story of the drum and the drum folk and how the drums were lost, but also how we have reclaimed the drum, whether it be through hip hop music or through other forms like the turntables or beat boxing. We’re looking at these as some of the starting points of the next production after Migration.
Thank you for talking the time to sit with me to discuss your work.
It was my pleasure.
Paul J. Edwards is a Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University and the book reviews editor for The Black Scholar.