BELLEFONTAINE NEIGHBORS • The “gentlemen” of the Gentlemen of Vision step team are behaving more like what they are: teenage boys.
On a Tuesday evening in the cafeteria at Riverview Gardens High School, they scrap and tease each other, shouting from one end of the small stage to the other. Their coach, Marlon Wharton, has to bellow to try to rein in the scattershot energy.
The three dozen or so boys sit shoulder to shoulder, their tennis shoes — red Chuck Taylors, navy-striped Pumas and solid-black Nikes — dangling over the edge of the stage. They are eager to start the three-hour practice.
But that won’t happen until Wharton says his piece. The Riverview Gardens guidance counselor is not happy. He removes his blazer. “I feel like we don’t have a national competition coming up,” he begins.
They do. It’s next month in Dallas, and the Gentlemen of Vision are the returning champs.
But messing around at practice is not the only offense that has Wharton hot under the collar. “I see your grades,” he says. “It’s like you’re waiting for me to say something … .
“Excellence is what we stand for! If you don’t have excellent grades, and you don’t have excellent character, you don’t have to be here.” Wharton expects that the three weeknights the team doesn’t practice will be spent studying.
“Fall in,” he says, wiping his forehead. “I’m tired of talking.”
The team forms four lines across the stage. A lanky boy in a red T-shirt leans back and shouts, “Attention!” with an extra-long punch on the last syllable. After a few false starts, a steady beat of claps, slaps and stomps pulsates through the cafeteria.
Stepping is a kind of performance with its roots in South African gumboot dancing. It gained popularity in the United States within African-American fraternities and sororities. Wharton describes it as “your body becoming an orchestra.” Arms, hands, legs and feet generate rapid-fire percussion.
The gestures are frenetic yet precise. Each angling of an elbow or swinging of a shoulder is done in time with every other stepper, the thumps magnified by the intensity of the movements.
Wharton, 44, got involved with step as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha at Jarvis Christian College in Texas.
He started Gentlemen of Vision in 2009 with the help of several volunteer coaches and added a middle school team, Young Men of Vision, the following year.
There are about a dozen step teams in the St. Louis area, based at schools, churches and community centers. Gentlemen of Vision is run as a nonprofit. About 40 percent of the boys attend Riverview Gardens; seven other school districts are represented.
Most of the boys come from low-income homes. The program is free, but the cost of uniforms and travel can add up. So they sell pizza and hold fundraising parties, and Wharton applies for grants.
Any student who is willing to abide by its pillars of academics, leadership and service can join Gentlemen of Vision. There are no cuts, an unusual decision on the competitive step circuit. Wharton’s team is about twice as big as most.
He sometimes uses that size as a motivator. “You’re going to be so far back on that stage,” he tells one boy who has been goofing off, “your mama’s not even going to know you’re in the show.”
Before last year’s national championship, he had to drop from the roster a junior who didn’t heed his warnings.
“He was failing two classes, so he showed up to the (departing) bus to wish the guys well,” Wharton says. The lesson was learned. “He’s a senior this year, and his grades are looking real good now.”
In the United States, about 60 percent of black males complete high school, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Since Wharton founded Gentlemen of Vision eight years ago, 350 boys have gone through the program. Each one has graduated high school and gone on to college.
Wharton credits their academic success to the connections they make on the team — to each other, their coaches and their community.
“When I was in high school I played sports, so I know how much impact a club or organization can have on a young man,” he says. “You see a lot of guys come to school and disappear. They don’t see the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture includes a summer leadership camp, dozens of performances at schools and civic events around St. Louis and out-of-town competitions and exhibitions. When the team travels, they visit nearby universities. This month, they performed at Southwestern Illinois College and the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
“We bombard them with academics and academics and academics, and before long they start to believe. We’re real big on exposing them to everything,” Wharton says.
The team’s vice president, Christopher Dailey, is only a junior, but he already has his sights on Xavier University of Louisiana. Christopher, a student at Hazelwood Central, has been stepping since middle school.
“They show you the pathway of higher education,” says the 17-year-old. “And how to get through oppression and just being a minority. It’s about brotherhood and mentoring.”
The older boys help keep the younger ones in line, teach the choreography and offer encouragement and support.
Quincy Benson, 15, was recruited by Gentlemen of Vision members when he started high school last year. Now a Riverview Gardens sophomore, Quincy says that what he thought would be a hobby has turned into part of his identity.
“We all understand what we’ve been through. We all have the same stories,” he says of his teammates. “It just feels like home.”