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Brookhaven Middle School’s Stepping Wildcats perform for Somerville Road Elementary in celebration of Black History Month.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Brookhaven Middle School’s Stepping Wildcats perform for Somerville Road Elementary in celebration of Black History Month.

Brookhaven dance program helps students keep in step

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

A new beat is echoing through the halls of Brookhaven Middle School, and it has taken over the lives of 36 teenagers.

Stepping, a synchronized dance form made popular by fraternities and sororities at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, is now at Brookhaven as the Stepping Wildcats.

It has become so popular that the girls are stomping, clapping and chanting during every free moment. Stepping combines traditional African ritual dancing with cheerleading, tap and gymnastics.

“Their parents are sick of it, and their brothers and sisters are complaining. It’s driving everyone crazy,” said sponsor Stella Hambrick, who began the team in November.

Hambrick began the step team as an alternative to the more familiar dance team, mainly because it’s an inexpensive activity that doesn’t require uniforms. Their uniforms are matching T-shirts and jeans.

The team has strict discipline requirements, using a demerit system to keep the girls on time, performing well academically and staying out of trouble. A student must maintain a 70 average and have no more than seven tardies for the school year.

Hambrick said sponsors check progress reports and nine-week report cards. If a student is struggling with a subject, she arranges for a teammate strong in that subject for tutoring.

A student who has been to the Center of Alternatives to Suspensions does not qualify for the team. A student can only go to in-school suspension twice. If after joining the team a student gets sent to CAS, teammates decide whether she can return to the team.

If a teacher tells the sponsors that a step member is causing problems, they counsel the girls about and try to correct the problem. They’re constantly emphasizing how the girls’ actions reflect on them, their team and their school.

She said she plans to make the discipline requirements more stringent next year.

“It’s changed some girls’ whole attitude,” Hambrick said. “I’ve had girls tell me they’re trying harder to stay out of trouble because step is so important to them.”

Davis said it’s not difficult to follow the team’s strict rules.

“If you really want to be on the step team, you’ll follow the rules, be here on time, do your homework and make good grades,” Davis said.

Stepping can be done solo, but it’s most impressive when a group puts all of the elements together. One student begins the beat, and then teammates join with rhythmic combinations.

Working together

Hambrick said stepping teaches the students to work together while learning rhythm and building physical endurance.

“The most difficult part was teaching the girls to synchronize, getting their timing down together to the beat,” Hambrick said. “They know what music and the beat are, but they didn’t know how to verbalize or perform it.”

Eighth-grader Shakiyla Eggleston said the hardest part is knowing the routine and trying to perform it while standing next to someone who is out of step.

But, more importantly, Hambrick said, the program builds self-esteem. Hambrick and co-sponsors Meleighsa Guster and Shena Ivey and volunteer coach Janine Woodruff let the girls design some routines. Of course, this led to the constant practicing at home that’s driving folks bonkers.

Crystal Bass said she often meets with her friends, Jasmine Wilson, Chelsey Nance and Ariana Townsend at one of their homes.

“We like to incorporate hip-hop with the rhythm of a clap and stomps,” Bass said.

If the students design a routine, they must, however, be willing to perform it for their teammates and then teach it to them. Hambrick doesn’t let the students criticize. Cheers greet the end of a solo performance.

Shy and quiet-spoken, eighth-grader Shaquita Davis was one of the few students with experience in step before trying out. She learned step at summer camp as a 9-year-old. She said she has found a way to express her “true self. It lets people know I’m not that little girl who sometimes thinks she knows everything.”

They performed at a basketball game in January, and then again Tuesday at Somerville Road Elementary.

“I was nervous at first, but then I realized they (Somerville Road students) are just like I was a year ago,” Bass said. “They were just wanting to see us perform and enjoy it.”

Davis said she looks forward to performing for her Brookhaven classmates Friday. She wants her friends to watch her closely and cheer loudly.

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