The 12 girls played out the beat in unison. They slapped their legs and clapped three times. Before they turned and marched across the gymnasium floor, they made one giant stomp with their pink shoes. "Let me see you do that over again,'' said Cindy Robinson. "It was a little off.'' The girls scooted back in line. They started the routine again.
The Dunedin High School Omni Steppers team is one of 16 Florida groups preparing for the two-day Step-Off Extravaganza this weekend.
The first part of the competition will be Friday night at Dunedin High School. On Saturday, during the popular Florida African American Heritage Celebration at Heritage Village, three teams from four age categories will advance and compete for a chance to be named the Best Step Team in Florida.
The four categories are elementary school, middle school, high school, and college and community level.
Stepping is a historically black art form. Each team member plays a heavily rhythmic beat using his or her body as the instrument.
Robinson, a physical education teacher, is the coordinator for the Step-Off Extravaganza. She started the Dunedin High step program 16 years ago.
The winners not only have to demonstrate excellence in choreography and teamwork, but also must succeed in incorporating the theme, "Speak out against drugs, violence and racism,'' in their routines, Robinson said.
The stepping competition is only one of the draws for the African American Heritage Celebration, now in its 12th year.
Presented by the Pinellas County African American History Museum, the free event also will include gospel music, storytelling, ethnic food booths and history presentations, said Randy Lightfoot, a St. Petersburg College professor and president of the museum.
There will also be an added element to this year's program. At 3 p.m. Saturday inside the Pinellas Room at Heritage Village, between 20 and 30 students from Pinellas County high schools will participate in a youth forum exploring reasons young black males struggle in school.
Last August, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released a report stating that Pinellas County had the lowest graduation rate for black male students of any big school district in the country.
"The theme of the celebration has always had to do with education, and we know that when students see themselves — when African-Americans see African-Americans in the curriculum, they study — they do better. So we're still including programs like an African-American scientist and inventors exhibit, with children making the presentations,'' Lightfoot said.
"But this year, since we have been hammered by the Schott Foundation, we wanted to include the forum for the youth,'' he said. "We want to hear their ideas on why males are not successful.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.