FLORISSANT • The girls huddled in the corner of the gym as the game clock ticked down to halftime, their arms linked, hands clutching the shiny bundles of silver and black.
They said a prayer. Then came simple encouragement from senior Sierra McKenzie.
“Remember your stuff,” she told her team. “Y’all know what to do.”
The McCluer Pommies, a team of 12, take their job of spreading spirit at the high school and in the community seriously.
It hasn’t been so easy this year. Unrest after Michael Brown’s death forced cancellations of practices. The team lost some funding. There are difficulties raising more money.
Team members brush it off, like they do their nerves right before a performance. Music starts, and a dozen straight faces flip to wide smiles, matching the energy in the moves on their faces. Once they start dancing, everything else is blocked out.
And in midst of the challenges, there have been victories.
Longtime coaches Rega Wesley-Stewart and Jackie Allen want to keep up the momentum of the competition dance team at McCluer High after strong showings in recent years, including first place in two categories last month at a competition against 40 area teams.
“That’s a team to watch out for — that’s the reputation we want,” she said. “We just keep pushing.”
The Pommies’ roots go back more than 50 years at McCluer in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. The team has undergone several transformations since then, beginning as a team that did white-gloved, military-like precision routines.
Unlike powerhouse dance competition teams, most of the McCluer Pommies have never had any formal training.
“In many ways, we start from scratch every year,” said Wesley-Stewart, who also is a math teacher at McCluer.
There are tryouts and qualifications to earn a spot on the team, as well as interviews, parent meetings and a financial investment. A new Pommie this year paid nearly $1,000 to cover costs, minus whatever she was able to fund raise.
Students say being a Pommie is seen as an honor and a lot of work. Wesley-Stewart and Allen stress that the girls must have a commitment to both the team and their academics.
“A McCluer Pommie shall provide a spirit-promoting service, be loyal, have high morals and standards, be a good example in and out of school, and develop self-discipline and confidence,” reads the team’s website.
That mission is important, Wesley-Stewart said, especially in light of what happened in Ferguson after the grand jury decision that there would be no charges against Darren Wilson, who was a Ferguson police officer when he shot and killed Brown.
“There are good kids out there and good parents,” Wesley-Stewart said.
PIZZA SALES AND TRIVIA
This year in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, a stipend for the team averaging about $1,600 each year was cut due to lower property tax revenue.
“We hadn’t planned on that,” Allen said.
The district still pays for the coaches and transportation for the team. But other pom-pon squads in more affluent school districts have the backing of booster clubs and strong fundraising. Or they ask parents to pay for camp, uniforms or other fees.
In the last six months, the Pommies fundraising efforts have been hurt by the issues in Ferguson. The looting and property damage after the grand jury decision has strained resources.
A planned trivia night in December had to be canceled. The girls said they had trouble selling tickets. People said they didn’t feel comfortable in the area at night because of the previous violence.
The girls have sold pizza, tumblers and spirit wear. The team is trying other ideas, such as selling ads on its website. It also recently started an account with Go Fund Me, the crowdfunding website.
“A lot of people don’t have the money,” said Victoria Mantia, a junior.
In December, the team earned some of the top spots at the Yvonne Cole Dance Team Competition at Lindbergh High School. The squad took third place in the pom category and was among three teams that received trophies for “Most Memorable Routine” and “Outstanding Precision.”
It came after major flair-ups of unrest in the Ferguson-Florissant area, cancelling school for the district as well as after-school activities and practices.
For the Pommies, in August it meant a delayed start to their performance season. In November, when the grand jury announcement came, practices were missed with less than two weeks before a major competition.
‘DOING SOMETHING GOOD’
In the crowd watching the Pommies at a McCluer basketball game Thursday night was 2011 graduate Aaries Wadsworth. She came to see the team perform and her former coaches, with whom she still keeps in touch, before heading back to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she will graduate in May.
“This was everything for me in high school,” Wadsworth said. “These are a bunch of really intelligent women doing something good for themselves and the school.”
Wesley-Stewart, who was on the pom squad when she attended Metro High School, said she wants to see the team continue to improve, eventually becoming competitive enough to accept a bid for a national dance competition. In February, they will dance in the state competition in St. Charles.
And as individuals, the girls say they grow each year in their work ethic and confidence. Some said Wesley-Stewart helped them get their grades up. Others said the experience also will influence them after high school, with the exposure to college life at summer dance camps.
Jerianna Harden, a senior, remembers seeing the Pommies perform for the first time when she was a freshmen.
“I’ve got to try out,” she remembers thinking. Looking at the cost, which added up to few hundred dollars, her mom Tamie, a single parent, remembers thinking she had to find a way to make it work.
“I just want it to keep going,” Harden said.