On a Wednesday afternoon at P.S. 446 in Brooklyn, about a dozen girls picked at an after-school snack of mini cheese pizzas, buttered corn, bananas and milk. They chatted amongst themselves in a stuffy cafeteria on the ground floor of a brick school building in Brownsville that’s almost a century old.
Some wore pink, red and purple for Valentine’s Day and others dressed up as the elderly, with curlers in their hair and fake pearls around their necks, in celebration of their 100th day of school.
Within minutes, they lost interest in their food. Niakeeya McCollum-Mason, a coach whom the kids call Ms. M, stood at the end of a long cafeteria table choreographing the latest addition to the dance team’s step routine.
One by one, they approached her to learn the moves. Before long, most of the girls were practicing in the narrow gaps between the tables, groaning when they forgot a stomp and cheering when they finished the last steps in unison.
After all, this team of eight to 11-year-olds didn’t become two-time national step champions just by sitting around.
Stepping is a percussive dance with African roots that involves using hands, feet and chants to create a strong rhythm. Competitive dancers across the country often begin training at a young age, but the sport is most popular in Southern cities like Atlanta, where the National Step League hosts its championship competitions every June.
Cafeteria workers at Riverdale Avenue Community School chuckled when the girls break into dance. The 15-member team, known as the RACSteppers, rehearses twice a week, and the cafeteria is always one of their first stops before they file into the auditorium for practice. In a school where all the students fall below the poverty line, a snack is mandatory for everyone who participates in an after-school program.
Asha Isaac, another coach for the team, said the award-winning dance program is a hidden gem in Brownsville, a neighborhood with a reputation for poverty and violence.
“That might be the reputation, but that’s not who you are,” Isaac told the girls. “You can go to school, do step and be champions.”
Shameka Foderingham said her 10-year-old daughter Skylar was ecstatic after she came home from a successful performance at the national competition in Atlanta last June. Foderingham said she hopes her daughter will retain that feeling of victory.
“When she gets older, she’ll realize she can do anything,” Foderingham said.
Principal Meghan Dunn, who is white, encouraged teachers and staff to form the team in 2014 after Isaac did a short step routine as part of a Black History Month skit. At first, the dancers just performed for parents, teachers and students during school events. In 2016, they competed for the first time and that June, they were one of only four elementary school teams in the country to qualify for nationals.
Isaac said it was unreal when their inexperienced team edged out a well-known Atlanta-based competitor for first place and came home with a trophy as tall as some of the students. After their second national title win in 2017, the dancers performed a short routine for onlookers at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. When the team boarded its flight, Isaac told the plane crew they could store the trophy in overhead bins, but the pilot overheard and secured it in the cockpit with him instead.
Many students fly for the first time en route to competitions. Families are responsible for covering students’ airfare in addition to a $65 fee at the beginning of the year, but coaches organize several fundraisers to help with those costs. Isaac said it’s fun to watch the kids’ eyes widen in surprise as the plane ascends to cruising altitude.
Every year, about 150 incoming third to fifth-grade students try out for RACSteppers. Everyone here wants to step, Isaac said. For the lucky 15 who are dedicated enough to make the cut, step becomes a big part of their lives. Teachers have to ask them to stop practicing in class or while they’re waiting in line for lunch. Sometimes, the kids don’t even realize they’re doing it, Isaac said.
Foderingham said the program is a great motivator for her daughter, testifying to the power of extra-curricular activities to provide wide-ranging benefits, including academic ones.
“It keeps her out of trouble,” she said. “She knows if she doesn’t do her schoolwork, I’ll take her off the step team.”
Isaac said all the dancers and their parents have to sign contracts promising to adhere to the school’s core values of respect, awareness, collaboration and success because their fellow classmates – especially those who plan to try out for the team once they’re old enough – look up to them as leaders. Teachers will also hold students accountable by checking in with coaches when students aren’t behaving in class or completing their schoolwork.
“I always tell the kids, school comes before step,” Isaac said.
Toward the end of their Wednesday afternoon rehearsal, the girls arranged themselves in a T-formation. The four groups of students faced different directions, but their feet pounded against the gray linoleum floor in a powerful unison.
Isaac surveyed the group before focusing in on one of the smaller girls at the front of her line. The student knew the routine, but kept looking back at her team members for guidance.
“You’re doubting yourself,” Isaac told her. “Just do the step.”
It’s one of many lessons she hopes her protégés will take with them after they graduate from the program. Isaac said she used to make students run laps around the auditorium whenever they said there was a dance move they couldn’t do.
“Now when they go to say ‘I can’t,’ they stop themselves mid-word,” she said. “I hope that’s something that translates to real life.”