Classy Steppers excel in both dance, academics

Video of a Barton Chapel Classy Steppers rehearsal.

When Pamela Jackson Washington organized Barton Chapel Elementary School's Classy Steppers in 1993, her goal was to provide girls with a positive extracurricular activity.

Fifteen years later, the step team has become known as "one of the best," she said.

This year, it has competed in four step competitions and won all of them. That's nothing new for the team, though. It has been placing in competitions since it began.

"Each win is just as exciting as the first," she said. "Most the step shows they have been in are against high school levels because that's the most challenging for them. It's an awesome experience for our girls and gives them an incentive to work hard."

Classy Steppers consists of 13 steppers ages 9-12 and three mascots who are in first and second grades.

"The mascots do a lot of our inspirational dances. Sometimes, we bring them out at the end of a performance to showcase them. It gets them used to being in front of people so hopefully by the time they get in the upper grades they'll be ready for the team," she said.

Stepping, often performed by predominantly black fraternities and sororities, has become a popular activity for non-Greek-lettered teams over the years, said Mrs. Washington, a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

One of the reasons is that, like dance, it's another art form for pupils to explore, she said.

"Stepping is being able to express yourself through body movements, beats, stomps, rhythm. It tells a story," she said. "You can express yourself without talking through stepping."

To organize a show for competition, team members build off steps that Mrs. Washington creates, but they also come up with their own.

"It gives them a sense of control and ownership to the group," she said. "I usually have them split up into groups, and they each come up with a step. I never tell a girl that I don't like a beat or a step. If we don't decide to use a particular beat. I tell them to remember it, and we always go back and incorporate it with another step."

Just as important as the steps is the music used during the show, she added.

"They tell me the latest songs, and I listen to it to make sure that it's clean before we use it in our shows," she said. "We want to keep the shows up to date and capture the audience's attention, but I also keep in mind that they are little girls. So some of the street dances that are out there, they can't do. It wouldn't be appropriate."

The team practices for hours to prepare for a show. However, the experience, not winning, is what's stressed.

"I tell my girls that we are there to have fun. It's OK if we don't place," she said. "We go and do our best. No matter what, we are going to leave the competition with our heads held high and a smile on our face, and we're going to congratulate whoever does win."

When the steppers compete, they feel a lot of emotions, but nervousness isn't one of them, said Amberia Johnson, 10.

"When I see some of the other teams, I'm like 'Whoa! They're good,' but it don't make me nervous. It just makes me want to go out there and do my best," said the team's assistant stepmaster.

Amber Shelton, who is the stepmaster, agreed.

"A lot of teams are good. I just think that we put our heart into it and we know that, win or lose, we tried our best. When we think like that, it makes it easier for us to think about our performance and not about what everyone else did," said the 12-year-old.

The steppers are achieving in the classroom, too.

"About 95 percent of the steppers are honor students. Their grades range from all A's to A's and B's," Mrs. Washington said. "All of them are interested in going to college. We talk about their goals and what they need to do to get there. We're not just about stepping. We're about motivating. So, if stepping is going to motivate them to go to college, then so be it."

Mrs. Washington said that the team that began as an after-school activity has grown to become her "pride and joy."

"They are Barton Chapel's awesome 13. Thirteen girls stepping hard with much style and grace," she said. "They're my angels. That's the Classy Steppers."

Reach Nikasha Dicks at (706) 823-3336 or nikasha.dicks@augustachronicle.com.

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