This high school musical teaches confidence, power and teamwork
“Check one, two, three,” two figures sing into handheld microphones, growling in gold-rimmed sunglasses. “It’s Benny on the wire, yo.”
Cut to eight dancers in front of a Monsey Trails bus starting to march: stomping, clapping, slapping their thighs, doused in rhythm.
This scene comes near the start of “In the Stuy,” a Bed-Stuy adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” — created, performed, and filmed by the students and staff of the Brooklyn Transition Center, a specialized high school. in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Every year for the past decade, the center’s art teachers have staged a musical, and this year – filmed because of the coronavirus pandemic – the stage has a starring role. “In the Stuy” will screen on June 3 (for friends and family) and June 4 (for the public).
There has been a step club for five years at the Brooklyn Transition Center, serving students ages 14 to 21. Step, the drumming movement tradition that has gained popularity in black fraternities and sororities, helps students at the Center who benefit from a highly specialized education. – like those on the autism spectrum or with emotional and behavioral issues – release excess energy, focus better in class, learn a skill they can be proud of, and socialize.
Shakiera Daniel, a dance teacher and educational coach, runs the step club, which she founded in 2017. “Besides dancing, it’s a lot of life lessons that come out of it,” Daniel recently said in a court from school. . “And just help them grow into young adults.”
The stage team tends to attract students with behavioral problems, said Daniel, 31, and their homeroom teachers often contact her for support.
“They know I’ll go talk to the kids,” she said, and “what I say will carry weight because again, they really love dancing, they love stepping, they love socializing with kids. who they are with.. They like to play.
Daniel is “going strong” with recruiting in September, she said, then holds three-part auditions in October. This year, 60 students showed up to try, compared to just a handful when it started.
“If they can hold a steady pace then that’s all I need,” Daniel said. And then they’ll try with me, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing.’
In the “Benny’s Dispatch” scene from “In the Stuy,” three women begin walking, clapping, and slapping in mesmerizing synchronization. Dressed in black, their T-shirts read “#DanceSavesLives”, “#LoveWins” and “#TakeAKnee”.
It was Daniel who came up with the twist for the title of the show. “‘In the heights’ didn’t sit well with me,” she said. “We need to orient it to where our students live and the area they see, to which they have been exposed.”
Kate Fenton, the drama teacher who helmed the musical, used the same artistic license to thread stories about inflation and gentrification. The show addresses the challenges facing Bed-Stuy, a historically black neighborhood, but also celebrates the culture in which it is steeped.
In one scene, Daniel’s step team dances to Iggy Azalea’s “Work” in a hair salon – reminiscent of the “No Me Diga” scene in “In the Heights”. Whenever possible, Fenton used songs the students already knew and incorporated them into the story.
And she also incorporated neighborhood spots familiar to college students. The barbershop scene was shot at the Da Shop barbershop around the corner from the school. Next to Da Shop is Genao, a Dominican restaurant with a fancy lounge, where a step routine was shot, this one evoking the club scene from “In the Heights.” Set to Panjabi MC’s “Beware,” the number has a Bollywood flair, and the dancers sport vibrant scarves tied around their waists.
Desiree Wilkie, 16, a student who lives in the neighborhood, often travels to Genao with her mother. Wilkie, who started walking with Daniel this year, said she wanted to try it because so many of her family members grew up walking.
“Since we all have siblings, little ones,” she said, she wants to show them how students express themselves in stages, so kids can “see what high school feels like.” .
The opening routine, to the title track of “In the Heights”, was filmed on Ellery Street, just outside the school. In this number, 19-year-old Abigail Bing dances front and center, executing an intricate step sequence with fluidity.
Bing joined the step team this year and participated in the musical for the first time. She said that since she was little she wanted to be an actress, dancer and stepper. “I always wanted to be one of them,” she said. “It’s my biggest dream now.”
Also in that number is Asahiah Hudson, 21, who has been walking since middle school. At the Brooklyn Transition Center, he said he found friends through dance and mentors in Daniel and his assistant choreographers, Annette Natal and Mikyaa Haynes.
“Step means to me, it means confident and being powerful and being stronger as a team,” Hudson said. “When I work with Ms. Daniel and the team, I feel happy and powerful.”
Daniel has been walking since she was in seventh grade in Hershey, Pennsylvania. While choreographing the musical, she said, she came home from work in Corona, Queens, and stood in front of a large mirror, playing songs and trying out new footwork. .
Step practice, which takes place during school hours, was increased to two days a week in preparation for “In the Stuy”. Step, Daniel said, is a great incentive for students to stay focused and teaches them to express their feelings.
For 16-year-old Dante Neville, who started stepping with Daniel last year, stepping is a way to release extra energy. When he returns to class after a rehearsal, he says, his concentration improves.
“When I’m in class,” he said, “I don’t pay attention and I feel like if I do something that helps me focus, I’ll feel a lot happier.”
That sentiment rings true for many members of the Brooklyn Transition Center stage team. On stage at rehearsal, they light up after a well-done practice, hugs and high fives resonate in the auditorium. Not, as Hudson says, means trust.
“This place would have been a lot busier if the stage hadn’t been a thing,” Daniel said of the center. “It feels good to say it.”