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One fast step at a time

How did one man help turn a bunch of white band students into performers in the tradition of FAMU's Marching "100"? By focusing on hearts as much as feet.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published February 12, 2007


The band grooves last month at St. Petersburg's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade.

  • Slideshow: MLK Day parade
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    [Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
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    NAPLES -- A group of high school students emerged from the tunnel inside St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, drums booming, cymbals clanging, hips swaying.

    Midway through the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Battle of the Bands and Drumline Extravaganza, the seemingly dormant crowd came awake.

    The tunnel was on one end of the field; the audience on another. The band marched toward them.

    In the bleachers, there was mumbling. The band inched closer. More mumbling.

    With the group in plain view at last, a spectator said: "Nah, man. That ain't right."

    Until that moment, all of the bands had some things in common. They could move. They could play. And they were black. Standing before the crowd now were 200 teenagers, all of them white.

    - - -

    In 1988, Collier County schools hired St. Petersburg native Oliver Phipps to teach art. Back then, there were few African-Americans in the county and even fewer African-American teachers. To retain them, the school district paired new hires with veteran black educators.

    Phipps and his mentor, Les Giles, an English teacher at Barron Collier High School in Naples, had much in common. Both graduated from historically black Florida A&M University. And both had played in the Marching "100," the school's famed showtime band.

    Giles volunteered with Collier's band and asked his protege to stop by sometime. One day, Phipps accepted the offer and was introduced to Mark Branson, the band's director until 2005.

    "I want my band to dance," Branson said to Phipps. "Can you teach them that?"

    Under the impression the band was predominantly black, Phipps replied, "No problem."

    Just then, the band members returned from lunch.

    "Here's my band," Branson said. "Teach them to dance. I want them to be like FAMU."

    "Okay," Phipps replied.

    Inside, he was thinking something else.

    "How am I going to do this?"

    - - -

    More than three years ago, when Joey Coleman was a freshman, he'd never heard of hip-hop, of rhythm and blues, of Earth, Wind & Fire - staples of the historically black college sound that Collier mimics.

    "Ever," he said. "Ever. If somebody would have asked me, I would have gone, 'Is that like an Earth shop or something? Like a climbing store?' I really had no exposure to any music."

    Coleman was in his middle school's band, but that style was - how should he put this? - "very settled. European."

    They didn't groove as Collier did. Which explains why during those first practices, Coleman was uncoordinated and confused. He flubbed the dance moves.

    "It's just really hard to play and dance at the same time," Coleman said. "It was hard keeping the trumpet at my mouth. It was hard remembering what steps come next."

    By the end of those first practices, Coleman had reached the same conclusion Phipps had.

    "There's no way in hell I'll be able to do this."

    - - -

    Phipps started out simple.

    He showed them tapes of the Marching "100" and other historically black college bands.

    He choreographed simple routines, little 1-2 steps.

    "Our first routine," he said, "I remember it like it was yesterday: The Love You Save by the Jackson 5. It was very, very simple. Just to get the kids acclimated."

    Phipps saw it as a celebration of cultural differences. The community saw it as anything but.

    Why are you doing this?

    You're trying to make them a black school.

    They aren't a black band.

    More than 75 percent of Collier's student body is white. Fewer than 40 of the 1,717 students are black. And that's how some of the students perceive the world outside of Naples.

    Every year, Phipps takes the band to the Orlando Classic, the annual matchup between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman College, another historically black school in Daytona Beach. On average, the football game draws more than 70,000 people.

    One year, Phipps was sitting in the stands with the band. "I had one of my seniors turn to me and say, 'Mr. Phipps, I didn't know there was this many black people in the world.' "

    That exchange convinced Phipps that his work was an opportunity to teach kids with narrow views about perseverance, tradition and culture.

    - - -

    For two weeks every summer, Collier hosts band camp.

    From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., members do calisthenics, practice drills, duck walks. They run the steps of the football stadium. They run a mile, twice, maybe three times. They throw up. They hydrate. They return for more.

    Phipps gives them a speech.

    He tells them about Dr. William Foster, the longtime director of the Marching "100" and the man widely credited with revolutionizing marching bands. He teaches them Foster's half-time-is-game-time philosophy. He tells them show time marching isn't a black thing; it's entertainment. He throws in snippets of black history.

    The music and the dancing come afterward.

    - - -

    Back at Tropicana Field, Phipps stood on the sidelines. Microphone pressed against his lips, he introduced Collier's band.

    "Don't let the color fool you," Phipps said. "White kids can dance."

    Coleman, the once-uncoordinated band member, and the rest of the group bumped, grinded, popped, shook, all while playing their instruments.

    The mumbling that had greeted them morphed into screams of support.

    "You better work it," a girl shouted.

    The skeptical spectator shook the hand of a band parent. "Please tell your kids you did a great job. I just didn't think I would like it, but I thought it was awesome."

    The band finished, the crowd rose to its feet and cheered.

    It was the only standing ovation of the night.

    Rodney Thrash can be reached at (727) 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.

     

    [Last modified February 12, 2007, 10:31:53]


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