Toward the end of her freshman year at Tates Creek High School, Kiearra Brown began slacking off at school, and her grades reflected it. Fortunately, the school has a step team, which served as a life preserver that not only pulled Kiearra, now a senior, back on track but has kept her there.
"The threat of being kicked off the team made me bring my grades up," said Kiearra, 17. "If there was no step team, I don't think I would do anything. This is me. It fits my personality."
The Tates Creek High School step team, formerly called The Untouchables, is an extracurricular activity that gives some students a reason to connect with their school, just as an academic team or a drama club can. Members must meet certain grade and attendance policies to participate. Established in fall 2001, the team, one of many in Lexington, is open to all students, but it seems to appeal particularly to black students and to girls.
"I love to step," said Tates Creek junior Brandi Lindsey, 17. "It is different. You get a chance to dance and put scenes together and can tell stories with the routines."
Thirteen middle school and high school teams, and possibly some collegiate squads, will do just that on Feb. 25 for the 10th annual TCHS Step Show Extravaganza Exhibition, hosted by Tates Creek High. The middle school division will feature five squads, from Cincinnati, Louisville and three from Lexington. The high school division will have three programs from Lexington, two from Louisville, and one each from Richmond, Owensboro and Versailles.
Tates Creek's team sponsor, David Clark, a social worker at the school, said collegiate teams were contacted to attend but none had confirmed.
Stepping was first noted in 1922 at the first Inter-Fraternity Conference in Washington, D.C., for black Greek organizations. It was characterized by rhythm and precision. Later, a militaristic style was credited to soldiers returning from World War II before being adopted by fraternities and sororities.
Some people, however, think the roots are far deeper, stretching back to the cadence kept by some tribes in Africa as they marched to war.
Regardless, the appeal of stepping has moved from college campuses to the school grounds, where it is readily accepted as yet another arrow in the academic quiver to narrow achievement gaps and engage students.
The TCHS step team will perform at the Lexington Public Library-Tates Creek Branch on Feb. 21 for a Black History Month program in which the importance of stepping in black culture will be explored.
Mastering the complicated routines — which use hands to clap or slap the body or the floor, feet to stomp and voices to chant — requires teamwork and acting as a unit. Various kinds of people must work together.
Once that is accomplished, self-esteem grows, and members become part of something bigger than the individual.
"I have, over the past five to eight years, had the pleasure of having many of the step members in my geometry class," said Bo Lankster, a math teacher at Tates Creek. "I absolutely notice a difference in their pride in their schoolwork and for our school.
"When they are out there performing and chanting, 'I love my Tates Creek,' they really have to feel that," he said. "It brings a sense of pride to all our students."
Another math teacher, Charmaine Hill, agreed.
"The children seem to have a certain confidence about themselves," she said. "I have a young lady I'm almost sure would be struggling and probably would have lost her focus by now. I think it gives her an incentive, being on the step team, to keep her studies up. She likes the attention."
Clark, who has been the team's sponsor since its inception in 2001, said the concept was so popular with students that at one time, all the public high schools and many of the middle schools had step teams, many with multiple squads.
Tates Creek now limits its one team to 25 students and a minimum of 10, Clark said. Because of grade and attendance restrictions, those numbers can ebb and flow during the school year. Currently, there are 15 consistent members on the squad.
Clark, who also runs the school's Transition Program for at-risk students, checks attendances and grades regularly, and members know they risk being suspended from the team if either comes up short.
At Tates Creek, students must be passing four out of eight classes and attending school daily to be on the team. If students want to perform outside the school during school hours, they cannot have more than one grade lower than a C.
Senior Kiana Davis, 17, said the restrictions work. "It helps me keep my grades up," she said. "I've been on the team for three years and it helps me stay on track."
Most of the steps that the team performs were created by Kiearra and Kiana, the team leaders. Because of their leadership with the team, both received a Partners for Youth/Toyota Scholarship to encourage them to continue their education.
Clark said the step show will be an exhibition as opposed to a competition. He said he changed the format a few years ago to avoid the rivalries of the collegiate Greek competitions, which could turn negative.
"In high school, there is no competition. It is an exhibition," he said. "Everyone walks away with something."
Especially the members of the step teams. They walk away with new outlooks on life.
"I am grateful for Mr. Clark," Kiearra said, "for helping me and for having this step team."