By Marissa Lutchman Dayaram
The Elite Steppers dance team from the SONYC afterschool program at Queens United Middle School 289 began the last school year with hopes of entering and competing in the DYCD Step It Up NYC Competition. While the girls did enter and make it to the second round of the competition, what happened next was far more rewarding and valuable for the participants and their growth!
The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) created the Step It Up NYC initiative to leverage the performing arts to build community leadership capacity in young people ages 10-20. Dance and step teams not only compete, but also plan community service projects and develop citywide social campaigns to speak up about issues that impact their communities.
The teams were charged with exploring a topic related to their community as well as representing 50 years of hip-hop. The girls chose to focus on gun violence, as it is something that has been affecting them all. Gun violence in schools had become so prominent throughout the country, and the participants had peers who had been exposed to gun violence during and after school. Just within the community alone, there have been so many incidents and reports that the girls felt moved to represent this through their dance and step.
As part of the project, the team partnered with a community-based organization called 100 Suits that helps prevent violence and promote unity and safety within the team’s community, and throughout New York City. With the help of 100 Suits staff, the Elite Steppers conducted outreach on the streets, spreading their message by interviewing and speaking to people, and performing for the community as well.
At the same time, the team members were equally dedicated to achieving excellence in their dance routines. They practiced and prepped from January to June for one hour three times a week!
In March, the team discovered that their hard work paid off and they had made it past the first round.
At their second-round performance, they did not know that a special guest, DYCD Commissioner Keith Howard, was observing in the background. He was so impressed by the Elite Steppers’ performance about gun violence that he decided to feature the team in a public service media campaign. A crew filmed them, and the video was posted on DYCD’s Instagram and YouTube accounts, which in turn caught the attention of NYC’s very own mayor, Eric Adams!
Commissioner Howard and Mayor Adams were partnering on a campaign to “Stop Gun Violence,” and they invited our Elite Steppers to perform at Gracie Mansion as the opening act for the mayor’s youth summit. They hosted the team at the mansion, gave them a tour, and a private room with snacks and drinks for them to practice. After their performance, Mayor Adams met with the girls to tell them how much he appreciated what they were doing. He went on to speak to the audience about the message the girls relayed through their performance and how impactful it was.
The Elite Steppers have since been called upon for a whirlwind of performances. Most recently they stepped at a Saturday Night Lights summer kickoff event at Basketball City at Pier 36 in Manhattan and shared their message on ending gun violence. They performed for an array of guests, including Commissioner Howard, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, former NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell, NBA stars John Starks from the NY Knicks and Albert King from the Brooklyn Nets, and all the youth from the basketball teams who were in attendance.
Thirteen-year-old Elite Stepper Ava spoke for all her teammates when she said, “Being on the team taught me life lessons: how to work together, be stronger, and have respect for my teammates and myself. It was fun to experience everything that we did, traveling to the city and stepping for not only our school, but for the mayor! I can’t wait to do it again. Being an Elite Stepper is one of the best things that has happened to me so far in my middle school years.”