One minute the practice gym echoes with jokes and laughter, and the next, it fills with rhythmic stomping and clapping. More than just an extracurricular activity, the Unity Step Team is cherished by its members.
The Unity Step Team, or the Unity Steppers, abide by the motto of “bringing folks together, building community, and embracing being unique, unsilenced, and unified.” Celebrating self-identity, and specifically encouraging students of color to live unapologetically in their skin, is at the root of the team’s culture.
“It’s really about being you, not being scared to be you and allowing yourself to know that it’s OK to be who you want to be,” said Justyss Smith, freshman team member. “Having a group of people like that around you can really brighten your day or your week and [give you] something to be happy about. I hope that this group of people can really help inspire the town.”
In “Stepping,” a dance art form originating from African roots, percussion is created with hands and feet. Popularized by historically Black universities and colleges, stepping has been a staple of Black fraternities, sororities and drill teams across the country.
Much of the choreography centers around intricate footwork and stomping, clapping, body percussion, and chanting.
With members from both Lawrence High School and Free State High School, the Unity Step Team is technically a school club, but works more like an athletic team with practices and performances. They’re currently preparing for Pack the House, an annual winter athletics showcase and variety show at Lawrence High, set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29 in the main/east gym.
Most members never had experience stepping prior to joining the team but said the environment allowed them to fit right in and learn quickly. Smith said she did competitive dance for four years and wanted to try something new in an accepting environment, so she became a Unity Stepper.
“I did a lot of contemporary and jazz [dance] and not a lot of just being loud and standing for who you are, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to try that,” Smith said.
Junior team member Kiana Sales said she and her teammates can depend on each other, making their team chemistry strong.
“It builds my confidence, and it gives me a place to just release everything that I deal with outside of Step,” Sales said. “They all became like my brothers and sisters. It gives me another family outside of my biological family.”
Junior team member Maxx Krause agreed with that sentiment and said the Step Team has been a personal haven.
“It gives me a place to be, like it lowkey got me out of a lot of bad situations, and it gave me another home when I didn’t want to be at home or when I didn’t feel at home in my own home,” Krause said. “It gave me a place to really solve my anger and to be who I am — Black and proud.”
District athletic coach and social worker Audrey Trowbridge founded the Step Team around six years ago. Trowbridge is also a social worker in the district, the sponsor of the Black Student Union across both high schools, and the first Black woman to be head coach of Lawrence High’s track and field team. Though she serves as the Unity Step Team coach, team members said she’s more like a mentor, looking out for their best interests and being someone they can truly rely on.
Krause thanked Trowbridge for providing some of the “most support I’ve ever had in my life.”
When Trowbridge teaches choreography during practice, she’s often up on her feet, demonstrating the steps alongside them.
She’ll break down sections, often splitting the team up into groups to nail each part before putting the routine all together. Precision is key, but Trowbridge said she encourages everyone to add their own flair — and they better “bring it.”
Team members said some of their favorite performances so far have been performing at the 31st Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration in January at Billy Mills Middle School as well as attending their first competition last year, when they got to travel to Missouri as a team and ended up placing third. They also placed third at the Lawrence High talent show, performed at the Bert Nash Community Breakfast on Nov. 2, and last January performed at the Lied Center’s Ovation USD 497 Talent Show.
Trowbridge said this is a rebuilding year since multiple team members graduated last year, but she expressed excitement for this group of 14 returners and newcomers.
As the Step Team looks to grow the program moving forward, team members said they welcome all Lawrence high school students who want to be a part of something special. Most members didn’t have experience stepping before joining, so those who are interested in trying something new are encouraged to take a leap.
“Any coming up Lawrence High or Free State kids, I suggest you join it. It is a great place and is a lot of fun and it’s dope,” Sales said.
Krause added, “This is really a family. We got everybody’s back no matter what — through thick and thin, arguments and all — we’re always there for each other. So if you really just need a safe place or want to be heard, this is it.”
Keep up with the Unity Step Team on Instagram, @unity_steppers_.