Camden drill team provides focus in a tough setting

Sophisticated Sisters member Germaine Trusty (left), 15, teaches Nyjai Grant the routine for the audition at the Boys & Girls Club of Camden.
Sophisticated Sisters member Germaine Trusty (left), 15, teaches Nyjai Grant the routine for the audition at the Boys & Girls Club of Camden. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 15, 2013

The girls on the crowded stage at the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County looked tense and frustrated as they tried to replicate the complicated dance moves members of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters drill team were demonstrating.

About 100 girls ages 3 to 18 had come Saturday to audition for the team, which has been featured on CNN and NBC as a bright spot in a troubled city.

Tawanda "Wa-Wa" Jones, who founded the team 26 years ago, had not let the prospective members in on a little secret: Almost all would get in.

"This is not about the trophies," Jones said as she supervised from below the stage. "This is really about saving lives."

Jones, 40, who has a full-time day job helping people with disabilities find employment, works with the current team of 150 four nights a week and some Saturdays in the old Camden water tower and outside her house. Her church is giving her some space so she can expand.

"Somebody's going to have to give us a building," she said.

She sees the team as a way to give children - 25 boys are members of the Distinguished Brothers - discipline, focus, and family-like camaraderie in a place where almost everyone has known someone who died violently.

The team members have to do their homework at the beginning of each practice and must maintain at least a C average. Each is required to do 200 hours of volunteer work. Members pay an annual fee of $85 and raise money for trips.

Jones started the team because she saw a need. "There's nothing to do in our city," she said. "Everything has been taken out."

Her goal at first was to be the best. "I wanted this to be the top-notch group. We're going to win, win, win, but there were more important things to worry about."

Her focus has shifted to exposing the children to college. She takes them on field trips to colleges and watches their eyes widen when they learn that they could live in such beautiful, clean places. She says most of the team members go either to college or to technical schools.

Two rooms of the Boys & Girls Club building Saturday were filled with intense girls in sweatpants and sneakers who tried mightily to learn the team's dance steps. Most had a long way to go, but Jones said they would learn surprisingly fast.

She looks for girls with natural ability and confidence, but also just nice kids.

Sheree Smith, a Sophisticated Sister alum, brought her daughter Chasity Anderson, a tiny 3-year-old, to the auditions. "She has a lot of energy, and I just felt like she needed to do something with it," she said. Smith belonged to the group from age 9 to 14. She said it taught her discipline and confidence. "I figure if I start her up now, when she gets to be 8 or 9, she'll be set," she said.

Nyjai Grant, a petite 11-year-old, followed her instructors with focused seriousness. "I wanted to do this because it inspires me to become a good dancer and it encourages me to be more respectful," she said.

When Jones saw how tense the girls had become, she stopped the action for a pep talk. She said that she understood this was all new to them and that she just wanted to see how determined they were.

"You have nothing to be afraid of," she said. "You're here to have fun."

They relaxed a little, but it was still clear they were serious about wanting to be Sophisticated Sisters. They would find out whether they had made the team within a couple of days.


Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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