McLaurin Steppers find the beat through discipline, mutual respectPublished 12:00am Sunday, April 22, 2012
NATCHEZ — The performances don’t garner crowds like a football game, the coach doesn’t get paid and the players are barely pushing 5-feet tall.
There’s no ball or equipment other than a boom box, their body parts and the beat.
But for fourth-grade student Kaylyn Stampley, the days she has practice with the McLaurin Steppers, she gets out of bed with a pep in her step.
“(Practice) is the only thing that got my day started this morning,” Stampley said.
And members contend it’s the coolest honor in school.
Every Thursday and Friday afternoon, the echo of 24 little elephants can be heard stomping to the beat of teacher Lerone Anderson’s cane in the McLaurin Elementary School gym.
Anderson, a former stepper on the Kappa Kappa Psi fraternity stepper team at Alcorn State University, is the McLaurin Steppers coach who sets the beat the children follow with their ears, feet, hands and hearts.
Stomping on the floor, clapping their hands and moving in carefully plotted formations in unison, this group of students can pump up audiences to study for the MCT2 test, celebrate homecoming or compete with rival step groups.
Though the students look up to Anderson and describe him as “intelligent,” “smart,” “funny,” and someone who treats them “really really good,” Anderson didn’t earn their adoration and respect by doting on the students when they didn’t deserve it.
“Unacceptable, unacceptable,” Anderson repeated at a recent rehearsal.
“It was not clean enough,” he said.
No one said a word or even rolled their eyes. They just did it again like he asked. One more try and something was still off.
“Did y’all come to practice or not?”
But behind their backs, it’s a different story.
“This is my superstar team,” Anderson said. “They can rival some of the fraternities.”
Anderson, the son of a McLaurin teacher and graduate of Natchez High School, has been teaching at McLaurin since 2008.
Principal Alice Morrison knew about this background as a stepper in college and asked him to start up the group again.
A McLaurin Steppers team was started by another male teacher years before but had since dissolved.
So Anderson took on the task.
“The year of 2008-2009 — that was my first dynamic team,” he said.
He does, however, have high expectations of them, maybe because he knows what they’re capable of as students, steppers and a support system, he said.
On a Saturday in August, right at the start of the school year, Anderson had a light stroke, which impaired his ability to walk.
“Aug. 31 really blew everything up,” Anderson said.
That month he was diagnosed with neuropathy, a symptom of diabetes he had dealt with for years. The lack of feeling he had in his legs became more pronounced after his stroke.
“Before that I was walking fine.”
He missed a couple of weeks from school and said he was scared to face how he would continue working with the steppers or even be an effective teacher.
Anderson said he can walk with his cane, but since he has no feeling from his knees down, he easily trips and falls if he’s not paying attention to a crack in the floor or change in terrain.
“It’s a shot to the ego sometimes, but (my students) don’t allow me to feel bad or feel sorry for myself,” Anderson said.
He said he loves dealing with the fourth graders, because they’re just starting to develop personalities they’ll keep the rest of their lives.
“They’re so charismatic,” Anderson said.
He said one of his students, Savannah, recognizes when he’s having a bad day just by noticing if he’s walking slow.
“She’ll worry about my blood sugar, like, ‘Mr. Anderson, do you need me to get you a snack,’” Anderson said.
“Sometimes I forget who’s the teacher,” Anderson laughed.
With his affection for the steppers, comes an expectation.
In order to be a member of the group, students must maintain a 79 average in every subject.
“I don’t care if it’s 100 average in math if you have a 67 average in social studies,” Anderson said.
When quarterly report cards come out, Anderson said the students line up and show their grades to him, already accepting they’ll be put on probation from the group for the next performance if the make two points below a B.
He said he doesn’t expect straight As from all students, but he tries to push them to do the best they can.
“I tell them I want you to do 10,000 times better than I do, and you have a long ways to go because Mr. Anderson is a beast,” he joked.
One area he doesn’t budge is behavior. Students know they’re off the team if they get an office referral.
“We have to have respect for adults,” said stepper Anthony Thompson.
Anderson said the parental support he’s seen from this group of steppers has been the best he’s seen in years.
“I love (the parents) for that,” he said.
Students said there’s something different about Anderson.
“He’s a great teacher,” said Alexis Myles, a stepper.
Even as fourth graders, the students recognize Anderson’s dedication.
“He will give up his weekends and Thursdays to be with us,” Stampley said.
“That’s important,” Myles said, nodding along with Stampley.
“He treats us like we’re his 24 kids,” Myles said, to which other steppers agreed.
As Anderson starts out the beat with his cane, sitting on his backless roller chair in the gym, the students give the “train” move another go.
This time, he closed his eyes — waiting to hear the first misstep. He pointed his cane at the mistake, gave another instruction and watched them repeat it for the fourth or fifth time. Finally, they got it.
“Perfect form, I love it,” he said.
All 24 children smiled wide, looked at each other and moved around like giddy children for a moment, not the young adults who earlier had accepted criticism with grace.
“That was impressive,” he said.
Anderson said he, along with his helper, former stepper Jeromy Hodges, are continuously impressed with how well this year’s group works together.
“I’m scared for how good they’re going to get (next year),” Anderson said.
The team’s next performance will be Saturday at the Natchez-Adams School District spring concert at Natchez High School, to which the public is invited. The concert starts at 7 p.m., and the Steppers will come on stage at approximately 7:30 p.m.
“At least I can watch, and I still feel like I’m part of the culture,” Anderson said.
“I still feel relevant.”
By passing on the beat and choreography, Anderson said he feels like he’s involved in some unwritten tradition, whether he’s the one center stage or not.
“That will never die, the beat is immortal.”