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KC Diamonds take it all in Battle of the Border
Step team wins first place and peoples choice awards
KC Diamonds - Practice
The Kershaw County Diamonds practice in the Jackson Teen Centers auditorium Thursday afternoon. The teams next competition is in January and the girls have already been invited to a national championship meet in Daytona Beach, Fla., later in 2015. - photo by Martin L. Cahn

Smiley, Quiet Storm, Showtyme, Precyse, Tailor Made, Terminator, Lieutenant, Havoc, Live Wire, Dimplez, Eyes and Eclipse. If they sound like female gang names, you’d be right and wrong. They’re the “better gang,” the Kershaw County Diamonds and they are step dancing champions.

They are better known in real life as, in order, Kayeisha Salmond, Constance Torres, Tyrisha Barnes, Alexis Boykin, Mashylla Murphy, Kennedy Allen, Makaila Allen, Hope Gumbs, Haveonna Greene, Nehia Greene, Venezela Greene and Keema Bracey. These 12 high school students, most from Kershaw County, some from other districts, are members of the Jackson Teen Center (JTC). As the Kershaw County Diamonds, they competed Dec. 6 in the Bennettsville “Battle of the Border” in Marlboro County featuring teams from both South and North Carolina.

The Diamonds competed against four other high school step teams. Not only did they beat out the Royal Dolls of Columbia, which won the Camden Mayor’s Cup a month ago … not only did they beat out the one team the Dolls were reportedly afraid of, S.C. Elite of Richland County … the Diamonds won Bennettsville’s collective hearts. The Diamonds didn’t just win just first place Dec. 6, they also earned -- as measured by applause -- the People’s Choice Award.

“I am so proud of you,” Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan told the girls during a brief visit Thursday afternoon at the JTC. “You’re going to be rocking at nationals. You know what it looks like now. Teams from Chicago and L.A. -- they’re going to be quaking in their boots when they see you.”

JTC Director Brian “Mr. BB” Mayes, who -- along with his wife, Roberta -- oversees the step program, said the Diamonds have already received a letter from national step competition organizers inviting the Diamonds to Daytona Beach, Fla., next year.

“They sent a letter congratulating them on (the Dec. 6) win and inviting them to nationals,” Brian Mayes said, “and they sent a copy of the letter to the mayor.

He said indications are a regional step meet will be held in Camden ahead of the national competition. When Morgan asked him where the team would keep their two trophies, Brian Mayes said he’s going to try to get a trophy case into the JTC to show them off.

“My chest went out when they called you out for people’s choice,” he told the Diamonds.

“Your enthusiasm is going to take you 20 feet further than without it,” Morgan added. “It’ll take you as far as your skills can go.”

In addition to the first place and People’s Choice trophies, the Diamonds also received a cash prize of $300. Brian Mayes said the team plans to buy duffle bags with the winnings.

In the meantime, the team is looking ahead to January when it will compete in another area meet.

“We’re getting so many invitations, we can choose where we want to go,” Roberta Mayes said.

Not just any girl can dance with the Diamonds. For years -- since forming the step program as part of Family Outreach Ministries -- Brian and Roberta Mayes have held strict standards: maintaining good grade point averages, not getting into trouble at school or at home, and showing up and participating in practices.

During its official grand opening in November, Brian Mayes cheered JTC students’ overall “B” averages on KCSD report cards. The Diamonds are no exception, whether they are from Kershaw County or Richland County, like Kennedy “Terminator” Allen; or Keema “Eclipse” Bracey, who hails from Sumter’s Chesnut Oaks High School.

When, as she listed off a number of qualities Diamonds members have to display, Roberta Mayes reached “respectful,” a round of laughter bubbled up from the girls, sitting around some tables pushed together so they could talk about the Bennettsville win.

They laughed even harder -- with lots of finger wagging indicating “no” -- when asked if there was any trouble in that department. It turned out they were just being teenagers. Having fun is part of that. Co-captains Makaila “Lieutenant” Allen and Contance “Quiet Storm” Torres said stepping is not only fun, but a way to get away from the real world.

“We have a passion for it,” Makaila said.

That passion is evidenced in the longevity of team members. More than half the Kershaw County Diamonds -- seven of them altogether -- have been stepping since at least 2008. Then, they were known as the Lil’ Diamonds and practically stole the show at the November 2008 step show at Rhame Arena.

The Diamonds grew up not in the shadows of but under the tutelage and inspiration of their older counterparts at the time, the Rho Chi Kobraz. In 2010, the Kobraz traveled to Nashville, Tenn., for their first-ever national competition and placed second -- a major accomplishment celebrated by the city of Camden.

Kobraz members still return to Camden to help out the Diamonds, who all said they appreciate it. The Diamonds’ winning routine in Bennettsville is the same one they showcased during the Mayor’s Cup in November: a dozen school girls start at their desks waiting for recess; when it comes, they jubilantly play games, all to the beat of songs for step dancing.

“That came from a routine the Kobraz did,” Makaila said.

On Labor Day, barely six months after winning second at the national competition in Nashville, the Kobraz traveled to Disney World to compete in the 2010 Disney Step Classic. They earned an “excellent” award, the competition’s top honor. The Kobraz -- a high school step team -- then competed at Benedict College in a show featuring teams made wholly of college students. They won first place.

The Kobraz’s routine for both wins was a precursor to the ones the Diamonds used to win in Bennettsville.

“We also look online for inspiration,” Makaila explained.

Constance said returning Kobraz members also help the Diamonds in perfecting routines.

Separately, Roberta and Brian Mayes said they have every expectation the Diamonds’ winning ways will be copied by other teams in an effort to snatch future step dance trophies. Apparently, the sincerest form of flattery in the step dancing world is imitation.

Another way the Diamonds have emulated the Kobraz is setting an example of good sportsmanship for step teams everywhere.

“They cheer for everybody,” Brain Mayes pointed out, something he said other teams and competition organizers appreciate.

The Diamonds also have a passion for academics and their futures. Several of the Diamonds talked about attending two- and four-year colleges and what profession they’d like to pursue. Constance plans on following in her mother’s nursing footsteps; Makaila’s looking at a pre-dental program. Kayeisha “Smiley” Salmond” is looking at becoming an orthodontist while Mashylla “Tailor Made” Murphy would like to run a daycare center. Kennedy said she wants to join the Navy, not too surprising considering she showed up for practice Thursday in her Richland Northeast High School JROTC uniform.

The girls of the Kershaw County Diamonds are proud of their accomplishments and of being on the team. Nehia “Dimplez” Greene, one of the original Lil’ Diamonds, showed off the team’s new jackets, for example. But the Diamonds is not a team to rest on its laurels. Even with a month to go before their next competition and still a little tired from the “Battle of the Border,” the girls filed off to the JTC’s auditorium to stretch out and practice moves.

It’s what they know they need to do not only to win competitions, but to keep on being the “better gang.”