Drums beat in the background. The Mid-Missouri High Steppers clap their hands, move their feet in a fast–paced pattern.
The steady rhythm connects them as they practice their precise movements with confidence. Dancers move off to either side and sit on the ground. The drummers take center stage. The dancers get up and perform again. The drummers move back.
They know they’re good.
“When we mess up, the audience probably doesn’t even know because we perform so well,” said Peninnah Nelson, who will be in the seventh grade this fall at Lange Middle School.
Peninnah is a member of the High Steppers, drill teams composed of about 150 dancers, drummers and “flippers” — boys who do gymnastic flips — in grades three through 12. The High Steppers perform choreographed street dances, military drill maneuvers and gymnastics moves in time with percussion instruments.
Besides learning dance and rhythms, the program focuses on student success in many aspects of life. Members are guided by the High Steppers Creed, which they have to memorize, about how to act in the group, in school, at home and in other areas of their lives.
The creed was written by the vice president of the High Steppers board of directors, Michael Richards, a friend of High Steppers founder and drill master Rolando Barry. It reminds students to have a positive attitude and work hard at whatever they do. For example, the group has 45-minute study sessions before each practice during the school year to encourage good grades.
This summer, when schooling is less of a priority, the High Steppers’ board is thinking about how to expand the Master Show group. The year-round performance group is one of three in the program.
Board member Erika Buford said expansion plans include traveling to more regional and nationwide competitions, hosting a 2006 competition in Columbia and exploring different music, dance and culture.
“We see this as a footprint for other towns, cities and states,” said Buford, a High Stepper more than 20 years ago whose 12-year-old daughter, Breaunna Bragg, is in the Master Show Group.
The Master Show Group is a citywide group with students from almost every school in Columbia, Barry said. The other groups are based at Blue Ridge Elementary School and Lange Middle School.
The Master Show Group has nine shows this summer, he said, with the farthest in White Hall, Ill. In order to be part of the Master Show Group, a student has to know the creed, be able do the steps and have a C or better grade-point average, Barry said.
Barry started the High Steppers in 1979 with two goals in mind: to bring discipline and a sense of accomplishment to children who knew little of either. He had six ideas he wanted his early High Steppers to learn: personal development, self-esteem, a positive attitude about life, self-accountability, creative self-expression and improved school performance.
“People are amazed that there is an individual willing to work with kids, especially in today’s society when you have kids pulled in all directions,” Barry said.
The Blue Ridge and the Lange groups practice two nights a week during the school year. This is the High Steppers’ first year at Blue Ridge and third year at Lange Middle School as after-school programs; Barry said he hopes the program can get its own building.
“Once we get our own building, we will be in the position so that people from all parts of the city can come and join us,” he said. “Administrators and teachers from other schools have expressed interest that they would like something to help motivate their kids.”
Buford said she and Barry would like to broaden the program to include college awareness and preparation.
“We would like to see one-on-one tutoring with students, but any tutors are needed,” she said. “We also are looking for assistance in getting laptops into the program.”
Buford said the program is a good way to keep children off the streets. “I wish more boys were involved,” she said. The program has 26 boys, about one-sixth of the total.
Parents whose children are involved in the drill teams have seen more discipline in their children’s behavior, Barry said. The High Steppers themselves have also have seen change.
“Being part of the High Steppers, you learn how to rely on your friends and listen to your instructor,” said Jay Chase, who will be in seventh grade and plays drums for the Lange High Steppers. “When you play the drums, you have to listen really well.”
Katie Shipman, who will also be a seventh-grader at Lange, said she has learned to be more independent. “I have to have self-confidence to get up and do stuff by yourself,” she said.
Buford, meanwhile, said her daughter used to be quiet. “Now she reaches out to more people — and she loves to dance.”