Classes at Apollo High School have just ended, and members of the school's newest dance team are rehearsing for their upcoming show.
In a wood-floored gym, Coach Shana Black sets up a colorful boom box. Students of all sizes and ethnic backgrounds line up on the floor – some wearing jeans and crop tops, others colorful hijabs. Some are chatty, others shy.
But when the music starts, they all come alive, feet stepping and hips swinging. There are lots of smiles and a few giggles.
To join the Apollo Majorettes, students don't need to pass a nerve-wracking audition, or have any dance experience.
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“That's all that mattered to me, is them wanting to dance,” Black said.
Black, a paraeducator at Apollo, started as an assistant coach for St. Cloud's competitive high school dance team, but she said it wasn't a good fit. She asked school officials if she could start her own team.
“I just went the old-fashioned way, and got a piece of paper and pen,” she said. “And I just went around the school and asked kids if they wanted to join the dance team I was making.”
More than 100 students signed up, and about 70 showed up for the first practice.
“That's when I knew it was serious, that it was going to be kind of bigger than what I anticipated,” she said.
Black, who's originally from Texas, has a background in majorette, a high-energy dance style that's often performed with a marching band at historically Black universities.
Central Minnesota audiences aren't always sure what to think, she said.
“The kids recognize it, but the adults really don't recognize it,” Black said. “So they don't know when to clap. They don't know when to cheer. They kind of just are lost by it. But in my culture, this is what we do.”
The Apollo team, now in its second year, performs a variety of styles, including majorette, hip hop, step and cultural dancing. Black lets the kids bring their own personality and ideas into the choreography.
For many students, dancing comes naturally, she said.
“It’s already in them,” Black said. “Most of the stuff that they do, you really can't teach that. You just have to be born with it. And a lot of them are born with it. It just took someone to unleash it for them.”
Black gives each dancer a majorette name to capture their personality and build their confidence such as Queen, Chosen, Gifted, Potential.
“Anytime they feel down, anytime they feel left out, anytime they feel like they don't have anybody, by having those names, they remember they're part of something big,” she said. “And they use that to push forward through any challenges that they have in life, whether it be in school, a test or anything.”
Samira Mohammed is a senior in her second year on the team. At first, she wasn't sure she wanted to join.
“I was kind of nervous. I wasn't used to joining school activities,” she said. “But Ms. Black, she was very persistent.”
Now, Samira said she loves dancing, and is a team captain this year.
“I've made so many friends throughout the years. We're so connected through dance,” she said. “Everybody was just so supportive. Everybody claps, everybody cheers for you. Even if you feel shy, you will eventually come out of your shell.”
Samira said she used to be nervous to perform in front of people. But she's gotten used to it. Her Majorette name is “Wow Factor.”
“Ms. Black gave me that name because she says that I make people say, ‘Wow,’ she said. “And when you see me dance on the stage, you just go, ‘Oh, wow, she's very good.’ I love it. I want to make people say. ‘Wow.’”
Sixteen-year-old Majeda Quansah's Majorette name is “So Fly.” Her face, framed by a bright blue headscarf, lights up with a radiant smile when she's dancing.
“I like how close we are. I also like how supportive everybody is,” Majeda said. “You never feel left out. You always feel included.”
While most of the dancers are female, the team doesn't exclude anyone.
Seventeen-year-old Jayce Morales was always interested in dance, but worried about being the only boy on the team.
“I get judged all the time, like at school,” he said. “But as soon as I joined the team, I didn't feel like that. I felt like I was just like everybody else.”
A favorite memory is the first time he performed with the Majorettes and did a solo.
“I just remember everybody cheering for me,” Jayce said. “And it just kind of like lit a candle inside of me. That's how I knew that I wanted to keep dancing.”
It's clear that the students see Black as more than a coach. She pours her heart into the team. She even drives the kids home after practice, after funding for the activity bus ran out.
More than anything, Black said, she wants her dancers to know they belong. She hopes they remember her long after they leave high school.
“I just want them all to know that they all matter individually, and I see them,” she said. “That's all I want for them, is to be seen and to be heard and to be recognized for positive things that they're doing in their life.”