Jenaya Smith stands in front of her team of girls from Yeadon ranging in ages from seven to 16. She eyes each of them like a sergeant sizing up a platoon. Her instructions are concise.
“Five, six, seven, eight,” Smith repeats during practice at Yeadon Hall. She wants to see it. She wants to hear it.
Smith’s group, the Royal Excellence Step Team, is always pursuing that one fantastic noise – the sound of one person stepping.
Step is a type of rhythm dance in which the participant’s entire body becomes an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps. Hands are referred to as “blades” and should be kept straight with fingers together. One of the main difficulties of step is that each member has to step at the same tempo and at the same exact time.
“With step, it’s a way you can express yourself. You have to have passion and be sharp,” explained Smith. “You are making a song through your body.”
“It has to be very precise or it’s not going to look like step. It’s not going to look like anything,” said Adama Marah, 12.
For Royal Excellence, step not a seasonal activity; it is a year-long commitment. Smith, the founder and president, started the team in 2014 that practices twice a week at Yeadon Borough Hall (the girls live in Yeadon and some walk to practice) to stay sharp for performances (most notable venues include New York’s famed Apollo Theatre and Temple University).
“I just love to perform. I live, breathe and do step,” said Taniya Rose-Croft, 15, who attends Upper Darby High School.
As a member of the Yvette Calvin’s cheerleading squad at Penn Wood High School, Smith got her first introduction to step and fell in love with the art. She learned precision moves, passion, energy, and voice projection all of which are key components to step.
At Temple University in 2001, she started the Temple Ladies of Excellence Step Organization. It provided the framework for her to bring it to her native Yeadon where she still resides.
“I have a passion and love for step and want to give back to my community. It means that much more to me to be able to impact the youth,” says Smith. She graduated from Villanova with a masters degree in 2015 and is a human resources professional at a Fortune 500 company.
“I’m excited when I come here. It’s a team and a sisterhood. We learn how to be classy ladies and how to be respectful,” added Marah.
Smith is teaching the girls step but she takes the most pride in being a mentor and positive role model. She extols the importance of community service, time management, life skills and education. The organization mandates that each member maintain a “C” average or better.
Two of Smith’s daughters make up the squad of about 15. Jaylene McFadden, at age seven, is at the front of the formation and is the most diminutive but her enthusiasm matches her cohorts. Jordyn McFadden, 10, started step two years ago and doesn’t think its weird having her mother as a coach. She even asks to practice at home and calls Snith an “amazing” coach.
“Step brings friendship and dedication to girls and brings a family together. It’s so powerful. It’s an outlet to express yourself and is an amazing thing to do,” said Jordyn of the team.
“I have one of the most dynamic, awesome hard working and determined group of young girls,” said Smith. “They are phenomenal. They keep me going. They are the ones who help me strive for excellence. They are like my extended family members.”
For the Royal Excellence Step Team, one beat, one sound demonstrates the importance and benefits of teamwork and working together cooperatively to achieve performance goals.
“It’s not just about step,” Smith says multiple times.
She wants one sound – the values of education and dedication to family and community – for all her girls.
And she wants it to echo far beyond Yeadon Borough Hall.