Dressed in colorful native African garb, they danced to a drum-ladened song that takes you back to the days before traders brought Africans to this country and sold them into slavery.
Then they changed into modern gear and displayed their best hip-hop moves as Rob Base's It Takes Two filled the studio on Robertson Street in Brandon.
When practice moved to a third routine, they draped themselves in beautiful white outfits and gracefully glided across the hardwood floor to the sounds of an all-star ensemble singing Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing.
Making the three performances that much more impressive was the fact the talented dancers were all kids, eager to shine for an upcoming show that will pair them with professionals from around the world.
A Passage Through Time: A Celebration of the African-American Journey Through Music brings together students from Leonard's Academy of Dance with a unique troupe of military veterans who found common ground on a dance stage in Germany 20 years ago.
The curtain rises on the show Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Blake High School Auditorium.
The show promises to take the audience on an educational and spiritual experience that covers the most significant chapters in black history, yet the passage traveled by academy owner Leonard Mardis' young dancers are equally important.
Using the show, Mardis and his instructors have immersed their young proteges in lessons about black history. Now they understand the term Middle Passage, and the names Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X are more than just images they've seen on T-shirts.
At the same time, the instructors instilled values about what it takes to succeed in the world of dance.
"We teach that all those things you use to improve yourself on stage — discipline, resilience, diligence — that it's just as important that they use those skills outside of dance," explained instructor Melissa Sadler, who just finished performing in an off-Broadway play.
The chance to inspire the next generation is one of the factors driving the military veterans to come together for the production. Known as the United Nations of Dance, the group of former and current military personnel first formed in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1991.
Despite various deployments and assignments, the group stayed connected and eventually performed Passage two decades ago while many of them were stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Through the years, they have reunited in various cities — including a 2006 show at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall — to re-create the production, never letting travel stand as a hindrance.
It's no different this time, with more than 100 cast and crew members traveling from 23 different countries. The group includes veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, but it's all family in Mardis' eyes.
"That bond and support is there no matter where we live, what branch we served in or what color, religion or background," Mardis said. "We are a diverse bunch."
The production, which includes salutes to Motown and modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, as well as noteworthy speeches from actors portraying historical figures such as Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, aims to educate and spread a message of love and acceptance.
"You're going to feel heartache, you're going to feel joy, you're going to laugh," said Mardis, who once took the United Nations troupe to his hometown of Grenada, Miss., for a performance.
"A lot of the more mature members who have experienced a lot of this often come up and give us comments on how it related to them and how it made them feel, because they've lived it."
Mardis opened his own studio five years ago after a military assignment brought him to Brandon in 2004. He spent his first two years teaching at Miss Judy's Dance Academy before venturing out on his own.
This year, he added his 100th student while continuing to offer classes in hip-hop, jazz, ballet and other dance forms. He strives to take the kids beyond what they see on music videos.
"When they see (ballet, modern dance) on TV, they don't see people who look like them doing it," Mardis said. "Then they take themselves out of the equation and say, 'Because I don't look like that, I can't do what they do.'
"Hopefully, this play will reach some of those kids."
In the end, this is a performance that deserves to be championed because it's not only teaching history, it's putting young artists in a position to make history.
That's all I'm saying.