On Monday nights at Hillside Community Center, in a space that looks to be two-thirds lunchroom, one-third studio, six dancers drill moves, run routines and sweat. They work as one unit, then break up into pairs.
Their 21-year-old team leader, Miguel Contreras, reminds them to think about making an impression on the full audience, not just the front row. They chide one another: "Move over. You hit me last time." But they smile, and their grins grow when they know they've made mistakes.
They know they'll get it right before long. The members of this group, L.I.F.E. Step Team, have been recognized as top in the nation in their genre — even if you may have never heard of them, or what they do.
"It's like making your body a drum set," Contreras says of step dance, or stepping. "You make your own beat, in a different style, in different ways with your body." He adds that the only basic movements to step are stomp and clap, "but you gotta make that creative and make it a different beat than any other team."
Dancers use footsteps, handclaps and spoken word to turn intricate rhythms and sounds into spirited performances. It's a striking amalgamation, somehow equal parts military, marching-band and hopped-up-kid. They slap against their arms, knees, legs, feet, leaving red marks and sometimes bruising behind. Without any background music, every beat is sharp, and every silence makes an impact.
Contreras says when the dance form was brought to the United States with slavery, the slaves used moves like these, called the "boot dance," to communicate with one another when they weren't allowed to speak in the fields.
Following World War I, according to Soulstepping by Elizabeth Fine, historically black Greek-letter societies began significant growth into major universities. Indications of the existence of stepping begin appearing in documents from Howard University in 1924. Fine writes, "While movement and communication patterns from African cultures are clearly evident in stepping, college students forged it out of their rich African American performance heritage of dance, speech and song."
From college campuses, stepping has enjoyed a steady growth — to high school teams and community teams like L.I.F.E.'s. It's shown up recently on shows like MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, and in national competitions such as the Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite Step Off, now in its second year.
Time of their lives
L.I.F.E. members are involved for a variety of reasons. Contreras fell in love with step the first time he saw it, at Sierra High School, and still gets a rush from performing — especially since audiences are encouraged to be vocal, even during performance. (He adds that it's a great workout.) Pikes Peak Community College student Brittany Ooman was a dancer who saw step as a new challenge. For some others, this team means support in other ways.
The local nonprofit L.I.F.E. (Love Is Finding Everyone) was founded in 1993 by Springs resident Elaine Bowers, who grew up heavily impacted by Martin Luther King Jr. — her father was in the military and King stayed with her family while touring peace rallies in 1959. As an adult, Bowers wanted a way to empower young people, ages 12 to 23, and build tomorrow's leaders. Through community outreach, in particular volunteering, and academic achievement, students who are members of L.I.F.E. have opportunities to earn scholarships for education.
Contreras says members volunteer at places like Colorado College's soup kitchen and local nursing homes. And they put on fundraisers, such as their 10th annual Step, Dance and Talent Show at Colorado College this Friday. The Step Team has added an extra evening of rehearsal to the normal twice-a-week routine for its exhibition, but the attention will be focused on the 15 or so entrants who will show off their skills to local judges, hoping to walk away with cash prizes and trophies.
It was a similar competition — though on a much larger platform — that gave the L.I.F.E. Step Team some well-deserved attention. Last fall, Black Entertainment Television put out a call for step teams across the country to submit performance videos. BET officials ultimately selected the most impressive — and that was L.I.F.E. — for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to perform live on the station's flagship music show 106 and Park.
"I felt like a celebrity," Ooman says. "Honestly for that three days, I did."
Good, better, best
The majority of the current team — consisting of Contreras; Ooman, 18; Frankie Ricotta, 18; Dominique Petitt, 19; Celina Rodriguez, 19; and Antonio McGee-Crockett, 22 — has been together for four years. Ooman credits Contreras for keeping the group solid. "If it wasn't for him," she says, "we probably wouldn't be a team. He definitely holds us together."
A good thing, since the experience hasn't been all free airfare and fancy hotels.
"We've never really had a steady place to practice until now," Ooman says. "The entire four years we've stepped at the college in the hallways, in Celina's garage — they had to clear it for us. We've stepped at the park, at the basketball court at night."
Now that they've been able to settle in at Hillside, in exchange for volunteering at the site, they can set higher goals.
For her personally, Ooman is sending out applications to colleges, where she'll use the scholarship funds she's earned through her time with L.I.F.E. She'd like to leave PPCC and head to New York University, or possibly out of the country, to pursue degrees in international business and linguistics.
Other team members, too, have college aspirations. After he graduates from Coronado High School, Ricotta will head to the Air Force Academy Prep School.
Closer to home though, Ooman predicts great things for the L.I.F.E. Step Team.
"Honestly right now, I feel like we're all trying to go farther than just Colorado. We have a lot of bigger goals than just staying here and performing at the shows. We're trying to do a lot of bigger things, possibly commercials and stuff. Definitely striving for the best."
Click here to see a video of the L.I.F.E. team!