by Sarah Nove ’20
Whether they are stomping their feet or shouting for justice, the Step Team is not known for being quiet. In fact, it has a reputation for making noise, for commanding attention. However, at this year’s International Show, they were not the only ones making noise.
This noise started out as only a whisper–a few students privately talking to their parents, saying that the Step Team’s performance made them feel unsafe at Sherwood. The team’s chant, “start a riot,” was a powerful message, powerful enough to worry some students and their parents. It was the parents’ voices which captured the attention of school administration.
“[The parents] were concerned about the physical safety of their children at school, because the perception… was [that] the verbage used during the step performance was incitive,” said Assistant Secretary Administrator Stephanie Gelfand.
The Step Team did not share this perception. Historically, step has been a way for African-Americans to express their feelings toward their heritage and culture in a peaceful manner. Sherwood’s Step Team often incorporates activism into their performances. The Step Team selected words that would add intensity to their message. Originally, one of these words was “war,” as in “start a war.” When administration requested that they change “war,” they cooperated, replacing “war” with “riot.” The request came as a surprise for the team, as they had not been censored like this before, but they hoped that this would resolve any potential conflict.
“It’s not a literal riot. It’s more like we’re tired of not being heard,” said sophomore Anna Lumbuku, a captain of the step team. “If we said ‘start a war’ it just would have had more impact.”
Intention versus impact: that is where this conflict was born. The Step Team intended to be heard, so they chose words that would make an impact. When they were heard, the impact was very different from what they intended.
The clearest example of this is in the poem which led into the Step Team’s routine at the International Show. Ania Dewar, sophomore member of the Step Team, wrote the poem with the intention of helping others to see from her perspective. Her inspiration for the poem, she said, was a news report involving the shooting of an unarmed African-American man by police.
“I saw my little brother sleeping, and it made me sad that at 15, I have to fear for my little brother’s life … no matter where we are, just because of the color of [our] skin,” Dewar said. “I wrote [the poem] because I want people to see what’s going on through my eyes… I want them to see what I see.”
Though the poem dealt with political topics, Dewar did not intend to pursue a political agenda. In fact, until someone suggested that it would be a good addition to the Step Team’s routine, Dewar had not planned to read it publicly. Once she decided to read it for the program, the problem was, Gelfand explained, that at a mandatory school function like the International Show, performances not only reflect on the performers, but the school as a whole. “[When] we make something mandatory, when we have it in the school building, we have to keep in mind that we are not a political institution. We have students here who are of vastly different backgrounds, and when we give one political group [a platform], we have to keep that in mind,” said Gelfand.
Some saw Dewar’s reading as a political statement from the school, one that was only made more alarming by the chants of “start a riot.” This raised a question: if some forms of student expression reflect on the school, what expression should be censored? To what extent? The administration’s answers would impact the entire student body.
“The policy is changing across the board,” Gelfand said. “Anything that goes out of Sherwood… we’re keeping a closer eye on. The whole issue made us reevaluate how we go about things.”
The Step Team already began to see these changes before their pep rally performance, shortly after the International Show. The team was required to change their song, “No Limits” by G-Eazy, because the administration felt it was not appropriate. Though all explicit language was removed, the administration was concerned that the inappropriate messages in the song would still be conveyed in the clean lyrics.