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A step apart

Bakari Kitwana, hip-hop expert and former editor of The Source, came to Nazareth College last fall and announced hip-hop is becoming a political movement. I was more than a bit skeptical. It's a seductive idea --- tethering good causes to pop-culture phenoms --- but does it work?

            More often than not, the so-called do-gooders are just promoting something under the guise of a good cause. Take hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons' "One Mind. One Vote." campaign to boost voter registration. I wonder what he's selling --- democracy or his latest product, a drink called DefCon 3, which is heavily promoted at his hip-hop summits?

            And will the star-struck, newly minted voters --- who must register to vote in order to enter the events where LL Cool J, Rev. Run, et al appear --- make it to the polls on Election Day? Judging from the failure of MTV's 1992 "Rock the Vote" campaign, I doubt it. Unless, of course, Simmons can deliver big-name musicians to every polling place.

            When I first heard about Rochester Step-Off, which oversees student step teams, I mistakenly lumped it in with the whole specious You Got Served "let's-dance-instead-of-fighting" thing. The producers of the surprise hit have been making the rounds talking all sincerely about how they made the film in the hopes that street gangs would be inspired to abandon fighting and take up dancing. Riiiight.

            But after learning more about Rochester Step-Off, I see that with the right support and follow-through, dangling a pop-culture carrot can, in fact, change behavior.

            Step is a rhythmic, often syncopated, and damn loud dance form that incorporates military moves and plain old stomping. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Rochester Step-Off is an ideal model for those trying to link doing good with being cool. But it's hard work.

"We're more than just step teams," says Thaddeus Price, Rochester Step-Off program manager. "Step is just the catalyst we use to affect change in middle- and high-school-aged students. Our main goal is to see that they finish high school and go to college."

            Stepping has roots in military moves and African boot dance, which was devised by South African miners who made music by stomping their workboots. The dance is primarily performed in black sororities and fraternities, but younger kids are fascinated by stepping, especially since it got a boost in popularity when it was featured in Spike Lee's School Daze.

            As their classmates trudge through the slush to the buses after school, 23 girls at Frederick Douglass Middle School line up in four rows in a brightly lit function room. The Douglass girls' team is one of 26 --- for a total of 417 students --- in Monroe County under the Rochester Step-Off umbrella. They are the reigning champions in their category, having won the annual Step-Off competition several years in a row.

            A student leader shouts, "Are you ready?" and the deafening retort, "Ready," echoes down the halls. The girls then stamp, shout, slap their thighs and clap their hands in unison, creating a thrilling beat. Their faces are serious and they count under their breath, bending, swooping and slapping with precision. All the while they pound the floor in sneakers or hiking boots in a relentless tattoo.

            Someone misses a beat and her loud thump breaks the rhythm. The girls stop.

            "You all heard that as well as I did," shouts the 8th grader who is leading the class. At the moment there isn't an adult in the room; the kids are leading themselves.

            "You know what to do," she says. Calmly, while the other girls stand still, the girl who made the mistake runs through the entire routine again, this time executing it perfectly.

            Each team's routine is unique and kept a secret until the June Step-Off competition at the Blue Cross Arena. That event is a spectacle, with teams dressed in matching flashy uniforms drawing crowds of up to 10,000 people. At the competition, as at school, steppers are the stars.

            "They are the role models of the school," says Frederick Douglass Middle School counselor Jane Ewane-Sobe. "Everyone wants to be in it."

But life for the steppers is not all bring in da noise bring in da funk. It's also bring in da homework and da community service. In order to stay on the team, students must volunteer in the community, attend cultural development workshops, and find a community partner organization. They must also maintain a 2.25 grade point average, which can be challenging.

            "Quite a few of the children go through difficulties at home," Ewane-Sobe says. "They don't live with their parents, or both the parents work and the children are the main people in the house to take care of the little ones, or they live with parents who are abusive and into drugs."

            "Step means a lot to me," says Edison Tech senior Jimmie Beaty, who's been stepping since 7th grade. "If I wasn't in step my grades would be a lot lower. We meet with college students and they tell us what we have to do to get into college."

            Much of Rochester Step-Off's success is due to its network of volunteer advisors, teachers, and community members.

            "I'll find a math teacher to help the kids who need math help," says paraprofessional Theresa Larkin, a volunteer advisor to the Douglass girls' team. "If there's a problem on the team, if there is attitude, I'll set up a mediation class."

            Thanks to the students' hard work and their support network, 90 percent of Rochester Step-Off graduates go to college. Each college-bound student receives a $500 scholarship from the program and other students --- those who have drastically improved their grades or who are recognized by their peers as having leadership qualities --- receive savings bonds.

            When asked to describe Rochester Step-Off, Thaddeus Price doesn't even mention the step component, saying "It's a small, non-profit academic enhancement program." So it's not about stepping at all?

            "Step is what they like to do, so we reward their hard work with an opportunity to showcase their talent," Price says. "If they wanted to learn basket weaving we'd teach them that. Whatever it takes."

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