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Highsteppers dance team marks 30 years
Present-day Highsteppers take pride in the 30-year heritage of the dance team.
By Lauren Kelly
1982. The year may not seem important to the young generation, but some may remember that doctors performed the first implant of a permanent artificial heart in 1982. The first issue of USA Today was published and the Weather Channel aired on cable for the first time. In 1982, Michael Jackson released “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time, and the first CD player was sold. Many parents will remember watching “Poltergeist” as children, half-scared to death by its ghosts, and “E.T.” bringing universal wonder and excitement to all.
While these worldwide history-making events occurred, in little old Karnes City another historical marker began. The Karnes City Drill Team, better known as the Highsteppers, began its legacy.
“For us to sit here and look over 30 years at what we gave birth to, and how it continues to just grow, and flourish, and change, it’s amazing,” founders Debbie Martin and Sherry Sommer said. “We were there from the beginning and we’ve seen it rise higher than we ever imagined.”
This fall marks the 30th year since the Highsteppers began, and a few dozen former members and sponsors gathered Oct. 19 at the high school for a pregame reception in their honor.
“I was sitting with a bunch of people at the football game and there were eight pep squad members and six cheerleaders,” Ms. Martin recalled. “I said to someone next to me, ‘If they paid me a little more, I bet I could get a lot more girls out there’ and a couple of weeks later they contacted me and asked if I was serious.”
In 1983, Mrs. Sommer joined her sister, Ms. Martin, as sponsor.
“The neatest thing is the relationships that have been built,” the women said. “We were a family. We loved them, and they loved us.”
To see who was committed, the sponsors made it mandatory that the girls be on pep squad one year before they could dance on drill team. That following year, around 100 girls joined the pep squad.
“Quickly, we even had districts contact us about how to start a drill team,” Mrs. Sommer said. “We helped Nixon-Smiley and Floresville. We stepped out, and to think that it’s lasted 30 years is unbelievable.”
“I feel very proud that the Highsteppers have been around this long,” former Stepper and now sponsor Emily Gotthardt said. “An organization can only thrive if it has a strong foundation of high expectations, leadership, and morals.”
The girls 30 years ago practiced Monday through Thursday sometimes till 10 p.m. and had cuts Wednesdays. The Highsteppers still continue this tradition.
“During my time as a Highstepper, discipline and perfection were very high on our list,” said Ms. Gotthardt, who took over as sponsor this fall. “Even though Highsteppers is a fun organization, it requires responsibility, punctuality, discipline, and manners. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for goofing off. Most of the girls that were involved in Highsteppers during my time would say it was very strict.”
Providing discipline for girls who come from varied backgrounds is a huge byproduct of this organization.
“The majority of these girls weren’t best friends; they came from every walk of life,” Mrs. Sommer said. “That’s what amazed us. They began to build a team, and there was so much laughter; we all had fun with it.”
In the first years of the Highsteppers, many girls remember dancing to songs like “Beat It” by Michael Jackson and “Greased Lightning” from the movie, “Grease.”
“It was all new to us, so we had a lot to learn. It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun learning what being in the drill team was all about,” 1982-84 Highstepper Stacey Kelley said. “Our first time going to camp we all got to go to what was TLC in Seguin. When we got to camp, we were so excited; we all jumped off the bus, grabbed our stuff, and started running to our dorm. We were screaming and hollering and jumping over bushes, and when we looked around we saw all the other squads walking in single file or marching with their hands behind their back acting respectful. Trust me; we had a lot to learn.”
Ms. Gotthardt, who graduated in 2005, recalled her favorite routine of all time was a high kick to “Crocodile Rock,” which the girls are performing again this year.
Science teacher Melanie Johnson also helped out Sommer and Martin and eventually became a sponsor herself. Johnson made up the alma mater routine the girls still use today.
“I always loved to dance and took several dance classes in college. I liked the discipline and precision,” Johnson said. “I know they have put in many hours of practice for their performance -- and it shows! The dedication and commitment is amazing.”
The 1994-95 and 1996-97 teams qualified for and attended nationals. The team also qualified in 1997-98, but did not attend.
“It has been an amazing experience, one I wouldn’t trade for anything. I feel blessed to be associated with such fine young ladies,” Johnson said. “I hope they know I was tough because I loved them and cared about how they presented themselves.”
The first year there were 13 girls on the squad; as dancing fever increased, the Highsteppers grew to a proud number of 29.
“I still get goose bumps when I watch the girls high kicking on the football field,” 2000-02 Highstepper Erin Kroll Baumann said. “There’s a lot of pride knowing how much work goes into perfecting those routines. It’s a wonderful feeling seeing it continue.”
This year, the Highsteppers are invited to perform at halftime during the Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl Game.
“It’s an honor to be able to take part in an organization that has been around this long,” Major Bridgette Matula said. “The Highstepper organization has not only helped girls get better at ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ but also helped them grow as young women. It’s very exciting that I’m able to watch these girls mature from where they started to where they are now.”
Bridgette has been a Highstepper since she was a freshman; after being an officer previous years, she tried out and became major. She attributes her success to Penny Armstrong, former sponsor.
“Her energy was almost contagious, inspiring the girls in every aspect of their lives,” Bridgette said. “She made us each feel loved and feel the need to do our best -- not only on the field but also in life.”
The Highsteppers perform at each pep rally and at halftime of every game, dancing to the band feature.
“I am so glad that the program has not only continued, but flourished. It has had a long line of great leadership,” 1982-84 Highstepper Julie Braun said. “I remember feeling a real joy when I danced. We were not as great as the Highsteppers today, but we did have a great time and great memories.”
Many former Highsteppers remember the hand-made uniforms, fresh flowers, and the white gloves the girls were always required to wear.
Gotthardt, who still practices dance routines with the group, said the team puts joy in her life.
“I love to smile, and give people a performance they can enjoy,” she said. “Dancing was the best way that I knew how to do that.”
She advises Highsteppers to enjoy this time and apply the discipline and camaraderie they are gaining.
“Being on time, looking your best, having your manners, and most importantly, being humble. If you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen,” she said.
As for the founders, Oct. 19 was a time to celebrate the past but look forward to the future.
“We laughed together and we cried together,” Ms. Martin said. “We had great highs and lows, and I think that’s life.”
Lauren Kelley is a junior at Karnes City High School. The managing editor of the Badger Times, she is a cheerleader and member of the National Honor Society, Student Council, and FCA, as well as the volleyball and track teams. Lauren hopes to become a marine biologist or pre-K teacher, with a little side work as a journalist. She is the daughter of Danny and Carol Kelley.
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