“Check one, two, three,” two characters sing into hand-held microphones, grooving in gold-rimmed sunglasses. “This is Benny on the dispatch, yo.”
Cut to eight dancers in front of a Monsey Trails bus who start stepping: stomping, clapping, slapping their thighs, doused in rhythm.
This scene arrives toward the beginning of “In the Stuy,” a Bed-Stuy adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” — created, performed and filmed by the students and staff of Brooklyn Transition Center, a special education high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Each year for a decade, the center’s arts teachers have put on a musical, and in this year’s — filmed because of the coronavirus pandemic — step has a starring role. “In the Stuy” will be screened on June 3 (for friends and family) and June 4 (for the public).
There has been a step club for five years at Brooklyn Transition Center, which serves students ages 14 to 21. Step, the tradition of percussive movement that gained popularity in Black fraternities and sororities, helps the students at the Center who benefit from highly specialized instruction — like those on the autism spectrum or with emotional and behavioral issues — release excess energy, focus better in class, learn a skill to be proud of and socialize.
Shakiera Daniel, a dance teacher and instructional coach, leads the step club, which she started in 2017. “In addition to just dancing, it’s a lot of life lessons that come out of it,” Daniel said recently in a courtyard of the school . “And just helping them grow into young adults.”
The step team tends to attract students with behavioral issues, Daniel, 31, said, and their home room teachers will often reach out to her, asking for her support.
“They know that I’ll go and talk to the kids,” she said, and “what I say will hold some weight because again, they really like dance, they like step, they like socializing with the kids that they’re with . They like performing.”
Daniel “goes hard” with recruitment in September, she said, then holds three-part auditions in October. This year 60 students showed up to try out, compared with just a handful when she began.
“If they can hold a steady beat, then that’s all I need,” Daniel said “A lot of the students that I have never have stepped in their lives, or even heard of it. And then they’ll try it with me, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing.’”
In the “Benny’s Dispatch” scene of “In the Stuy,” three women start stepping, clapping and slapping in mesmerizing synchronization. Dressed in black, their T-shirts read “#DanceSavesLives,” “#LoveWins” and “#TakeAKnee.”
It was Daniel who came up with the twist for the show’s title. “’In the Heights,’ it was not sitting well with me,” she said. “We need to gear it toward where our students live and the area that they see, that they’ve been exposed to.”
Kate Fenton, a drama teacher who directed the musical, used the same artistic license to thread in story lines about inflation and gentrification. The show addresses the challenges facing Bed-Stuy, a historically Black neighborhood, but also celebrates the culture it’s steeped in.
In one scene, Daniel’s step team dances to Iggy Azalea’s “Work” inside a hair salon — reminiscent of the “No Me Diga” scene in “In the Heights.” When possible, Fenton used songs students already knew and incorporated them into the story.
And she also incorporated neighborhood spots familiar to the students. The hair salon scene was shot at Da Shop barbershop around the corner from the school. Next door to Da Shop is Genao, a Dominican restaurant with a luxe lounge, where a step routine was shot, this one evoking the club scene of “In the Heights.” Set to Panjabi MC’s “Beware,” the number has a Bollywood flair, and dancers sport vibrant scarves knotted around their waists.
Desiree Wilkie, 16, a student who lives in the neighborhood, often goes to Genao with her mother. Wilkie, who started stepping with Daniel this year, said she wanted to try it because so many in her family her grew up stepping.
“Since we all got siblings, little ones,” she said, she wants to show them how the students express themselves through step, so the kids can “see how high school feels.”
The opening routine, to the title song from “In the Heights,” was filmed on Ellery Street, right outside the school. In that number, Abigail Bing, 19, dances front and center, performing an intricate step sequence with flow.
Bing joined the step team this year, and participated in the musical for the first time. She said that since she was little she has wanted to be an actor, dancer and stepper. “I always wanted to become one of them,” she said. “That’s my biggest dream now.”
Also in that number is Asahiah Hudson, 21, who has been stepping since middle school. At Brooklyn Transition Center, he said he had found friends through dance and mentors in Daniel and her assistant choreographers, Annette Natal and Mikyaa Haynes.
“Step means to me, it means confident and be powerful and be stronger as a team,” Hudson said. “When I work with Ms. Daniel and the team I feel happy and powerful.”
Daniel has been stepping since she was in seventh grade in Hershey, Pa. While choreographing the musical, she said, she would get home from work to Corona, Queens, and stand in front of a big mirror, playing songs and trying out new footwork.
Step practice, which happens during school hours, was increased to two days a week in preparation for “In the Stuy.” Step, Daniel said, is a great incentive for students to stay focused and teaches them how to vocalize their feelings.
For Dante Neville, 16, who started stepping with Daniel last year, step is a way to let out extra energy. When he returns to class after a rehearsal, he said, his concentration his is improved.
“When I’m in class,” he said, “I don’t pay attention and I feel like if I do something that makes me focus, I’ll feel much happier.”
That sentiment rings true for many members of the Brooklyn Transition Center’s step team. Onstage at rehearsal, they light up after a practice well done, hugs and high fives ringing through the auditorium. Step, as Hudson put it, means confidence.
“This place would be a lot more hectic had step not been a thing,” Daniel said of the center. “That feels good to say.”