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County step team heading to Chicago for nationals

Posted: April 8, 2014 3:59 p.m.
Updated: April 9, 2014 5:00 a.m.

It’s been just a little more than four years since the Rho Chi Kobras step team came in second at the national Music Step Fest in Nashville, Tenn. Now, the “next generation” of local steppers -- the Kershaw County Diamonds -- are aiming for the top, this time in Chicago.

Back in 2010, the Kershaw County Diamonds was known as the Lil’ Diamonds, with members often stealing the show from their older role models at local step shows. According to Brian Mayes of Family Life Outreach -- who has sponsored the team his wife, Roberta, coaches -- the Diamonds team is made up of both Lil’ Diamonds who have grown up and relative newcomers.

This is no hobby. Step dancing is a percussive form of dance using the entire body -- including the feet, hands and voice -- to produce rhythms and sounds. There are elements of gymnastics, break dancing, tap dancing, marching and other art forms. Competition is fierce, especially on the high school and college level.

The Kershaw County Diamonds includes both middle and high school students and, unlike four years ago when the team was exclusively out of Camden High School (CHS), boasts students from all over and even outside Kershaw County.

“Kennedy (Allen) was a member of the Lil’ Diamonds. Her family moved to Richland County, but her mom continues to bring her over here to be on the team,” Mayes said.

In addition to CHS, other members include students from Lugoff-Elgin middle and high schools, Camden Middle School and North Central High School, he said.

“Roberta’s goal was to reach students in every school and she’s doing a good job of that,” Mayes said.

Roberta Mayes worked on the Kershaw County School District’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students that is ending soon. Mayes said his wife has worked as services coordinator of the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Job Readiness for Teens program in Kershaw County.

“They just got another grant from DJJ through the schools. That means they’ll be able to take on more kids for the program,” he said.

Mayes said CHS Principal Dan Johnson has also helped out by providing space for the Diamonds to practice and by giving all CHS members of the team excused absences to go to Chicago.

When the Rho Chi Kobras won second place in 2010, they pretty much locked in the Diamonds to be invited to future nationals competition. There are some qualifications to meet, so teams don’t get to go every year. Mayes said he and his wife got the invitation for the Diamonds in November. The proposition of taking more than a dozen kids and their parents to Chicago isn’t cheap, however.

“When we looked at the numbers, we didn’t know how we were going to do this,” Mayes admitted.

Luckily, he said, he had ALPHA Center Executive Director Paul Napper as a mentor of his own.

“Paul has been real busy the past couple of years, but we sat down and talked and he told me, ‘You’re going to be my project,’ and he’s done that,” Mayes said.

The two began working on a concept that should come to fruition in mid-June: a night time flag football league. The league will run for six weeks, three nights a week from 6 to 9 p.m., the hours when “teens get in trouble,” Mayes said, adding that it will be open to both boys and girls. He said the effort is supported by Kershaw County Recreation Department (KCRD) Director Joe Eason and the KCRD’s Shane Duncan who are both on the league’s board.

Putting the league together required not only logistics but fundraising.

“Paul told me about some strategies about fundraising. We raised $20,000 in an hour” for the new league, Mayes said, adding that he and Napper are also working on an upcoming weekend trip to a S.C. Waterfowl Association camp with a number of 9th graders (see sidebar).

Nappers’ mentoring helped prepare for the Chicago trip, Mayes said. He said he and his wife learned that the bus trip to Chicago would cost $5,600; rooms at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Conference Center by O’Hare Airport would cost another $3,700 for a total of $9,300. With strategies in hand, Roberta Mayes and the Diamonds team sacrificed 10 consecutive Saturdays to fundraising, including bake sales and car washes.

“They raised every nickel,” Mayes said. “They worked and worked and they earned that.”

There was also a good bit of local generosity. Mayes said the Diamonds only charged $5 per car wash, but that some people came out and donated $20 or even $100 to help support the team.

At that point, Mayes contacted an old friend of the Kobras: Hops Tours, a bus company that came to their rescue four years ago. Another bus company bilked the team out of $1,500, leaving them stranded in Camden. Hops picked up the team and got them to Nashville. Mayes said he contacted Hops again this year, but found out they weren’t available.

“Carolina Adventures, out of Chester, agreed to help out, quoting the same price as Hops,” he said.

With everything in place, the 16 students, 15 parents and the Mayeses are slated to leave Camden at 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

“We’ll stop in Lexington, Ky., or somewhere in Tennessee for breakfast,” Mayes said, adding that the entire trip should take about 13 and a half hours and expects the team to sleep most of the time on the bus.

Thursday night will be a “free night” to explore the many restaurants and a shopping mall near the hotel.

Friday, the team has been invited to tour Northwestern University along with many, if not all, of the other teams competing in Chicago. After that, it’s to the Hyatt Hotel across from the Crowne Plaza for a College Day-like event where a number of universities and colleges will be set up to explain what they have to offer to college-bound students.

Getting kids to college is a huge part of what the step team program in Kershaw County is all about, Mayes said.

“It’s a chance for them to look at different schools -- to open their minds and eyes to the idea that there are other options for them. If they qualify for USC, then they can go to the University of Michigan. My and Roberta’s goal is for these kids to have something in their hands. Now, their minds are focused on college,” he said.

Mayes noted that many traditionally black fraternities and sororities have step teams, making them even more attractive to students like the Kershaw County Diamonds. Through the step program and other means, more than 100 students have been assisted with the work it takes to find grants, scholarships and other financing to go to college.

“We just did the paperwork for (Diamonds member) Jarvis Fortune. He’s the only senior on the team and he’s going to Winthrop,” Mayes said.

He said more than 90 percent of students who have participated on the step team -- from the Kobras to the Diamonds -- have gone on to some form of higher education. They’ve come back to help out, too.

Among those who have stayed in Camden to work locally is Shynell Wells, known as “Professor” on the original Rho Chi Kobras team.

“She’s now an assistant for Roberta,” Mayes said.

The “Kaptain” of the old team, Shakeem Coleman, started at Francis Marion and is now a junior at Lander University. Mayes said Coleman has agreed to go on the trip to Chicago to act as a mentor to the Diamonds. Jaylen “Klutch” Loney, who attends Benedict College is involved both with the step team and other dance-related projects.

“He teaches cheerleaders dance moves,” Mayes said, “and comes back to every show here and does a routine.

Even extended family members are in on the fun and hard work, as Mayes’ niece, Victoria Langley, is a student coach at Coastal Carolina University (CCU) and will also be going to Chicago to help out.

In fact, other connections to Coastal Carolina may be of future help.

“We’re working with (CCU) to bring the nationals to South Carolina in the next few years, or, if not that, step camps,” Mayes said.

Parents are helpful, too, he said.

“We have got the best set of parents this year,” Mayes said. “They came to every fundraiser and, out of 16 kids, we have 15 parents coming as chaperones on the trip.”

Friday afternoon, after the “college day” event, all the competing teams will meet up at the competition site, Wheeling High School, for a giant pizza party. Rehearsals for the big event are that night. Mayes said the competition begins Saturday at 11 a.m., but that the Kershaw County Diamonds’ performance won’t be until at least 5 p.m. One thing he does know: who at least one set of competitors will be.

“At the 2010 nationals, we came in second. We were beat by a St. Louis school and they are on the card again,” he said.

Sometime Saturday, the Diamonds will know if their hard work paid off and they can return home as Kershaw County’s newest national championship team.

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