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In a grim city, a drill team marches to an uplifting beat

Children in the Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team learn how to dance and how to scale life's obstacles in troubled Camden, N.J.

Column One

In a grim city, marching to an uplifting beat

Dance director Tawanda Jones watches her troupe of the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team perform. More photos

Children in the Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team learn how to dance and how to scale life's obstacles in troubled Camden, N.J.

Feb. 26, 2014

Ice and mud surrounded the water tower in a rough neighborhood in this roughest of cities. Graffiti on the tower and on boarded-up windows of nearby houses spoke of despair: "Stop the Violence." "Stop Hating." "Keep Camden Clean."

As darkness fell, police cars cruised the grim streets, their headlights illuminating barren residential blocks and commercial stretches pockmarked by vacant storefronts.

But inside the water tower, it was a different world. Girls and a few boys — toddlers to teens — peeled off coats and scarves and gathered in giddy groups beneath fluorescent lights, chatting, laughing and practicing dance moves and cartwheels. A man pulled drums from a storage space.

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At the center of it all was a cheerful woman in orange jeans and a baseball cap, with hair extensions tumbling down her back.

"Get ready!" the woman, Tawanda Jones, bellowed in a voice that soared over the din.

The crowd, including a few parents watching from the side, fell silent.

"One line!" Jones hollered.

Three dozen pairs of feet shuffled across the concrete floor as the youngsters organized themselves from tallest to smallest, with the speed that comes from practice.

Then Jones sent them marching, adjusting their arms, shoulders and posture as they stomped the length of the room to the thunderous beat of the drum. "It should not dangle at all!" Jones shouted at a girl whose arm was less than rigid.

Jones, 40, spotted someone chewing gum and ordered her to spit it out. She swooped down to pick up a pair of eyeglasses that had flown off the face of a marcher. She yelled advice, orders and encouragement as sweat formed on foreheads.

"Pick it up! March!"

It was another night of practice for the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team, which Jones started as a teenager in 1986. Since then, she and her husband, Robert, have guided the team from practicing under highway overpasses to performing on "Dancing With the Stars." They've also provided a haven for children in one of the nation's most troubled cities.

The drill team performs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More photos

Jones relies on donations to send team members to performances across the country and to buy costumes, drums and meals on the road. Practices take place in the abandoned water tower, which is warm and dry but has a moldy ceiling. There isn't enough space for the entire team — about 320 members — so Jones staggers practice, holding it four nights a week for different troupes.

Each practice seems to bring a new drama.

"What happened to your face?" Jones asked a girl who arrived tonight with scratches and welts on her cheeks. The teenager said she had been fighting with classmates who bullied her.

A tall young man approached Jones to say hi; he had been pistol-whipped a few days earlier in a robbery. "How you doing, baby?" Jones said.

His friend — also a drill team member — had been shot in the same incident. Last year, an 11-year-old team member was shot and paralyzed.

"They come in here with war marks," Jones said.

But the Sophisticated Sisters keep going, with Jones doing all she can to keep the children in school. She helps with their homework. She finds tutors for struggling pupils. She meets with their parents or guardians to be sure someone is watching over them.

"I don't want to see them go extinct," she said. "This whole thing has to do with saving lives, not just marching in front of the cameras."

Saving lives is a struggle in Camden, where nearly 40% of the 77,000 residents live below the poverty level. The FBI in 2012 said Camden, a onetime industrial center, was the country's most dangerous city based on its crime rate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lamented the city's public schools in January, saying in a speech that just three of Camden's graduating seniors had SAT scores high enough to be considered "college ready."

Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team

The drill team, under the direction of Tawanda Jones, provides a haven for children in one of the nation's most troubled cities.

Jones grew up in Camden, attended its public schools and still lives here with Robert, also 40, their three children and her mother. Her stepbrother, Andre Butler — Skeet to his friends and relatives — was shot dead six year ago. Her father rarely was around.

When she was 13 and classmates drifted into gangs and drugs, Jones looked for a way to keep herself off the streets. She joined a city-run drill team; as the oldest member surrounded by kids half her age, Jones became the troupe's de facto leader. When funding for the team dried up and it folded, parents asked Jones to start a new one.

Her grandfather bought uniforms and three drums. Jones, who loved dancing, cheerleading and marching, began holding practices for dozens of children under bridges, in parks or on streets because she could not afford to rent a hall. Robert, her high school sweetheart, played drums as Jones taught dance steps and led the team through marches and exercises.

Jones attended college for two years but dropped out to care for her grandfather. She and Robert worked at a social services agency, helping mentally disabled adults find work. In their free time, they oversaw drill team practices, fundraisers and performances.

Last year, after a string of TV and public appearances led to an influx of donations, Jones quit her job to devote herself full time to the drill team. Her daughter, LaQuicia, 23, volunteers time to choreograph routines; her oldest son, Robert Jr., 17, helps his father on drums at practices. None of them, including Jones, receives a salary for working with the team, which is established as a nonprofit.

The Sophisticated Sisters have to follow Jones' strict rules: Children must complete 200 hours of community service a year, keep up with their homework and maintain at least a C average.

Jones takes the older children on college tours, often paying for the trips herself. Destiny Bush, now 24, went on one of the tours, visiting three universities with Jones after joining the drill team as an eighth-grader.

"I come from a family where over 90% of the people don't even have high school diplomas," said Bush, who is pursuing her master's in education at Washington State University.

When feeling overwhelmed by work or school, she still finds comfort in repeating the chants about confidence, success and overcoming obstacles that she learned from Jones.

"She told me I was worthy, that I could succeed," Bush said.

Before practice began, Jones gave money to a young man from the neighborhood who volunteers to help out during rehearsals, to buy toilet paper and cleaning solution for the tower's toilet and to pick up hot food for those children who don't get enough to eat at home. Many have parents who are drug addicts or alcoholics. Others have parents in prison.

A crowd gathers in the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the drill team's performance. More photos

During the three-hour practice, a few team members slowed down as they high-kicked their way across the room. "You have to build up your wind!" Jones yelled.

For all of her sternness, Jones' soft side was clear. The children called her "Miss Wawa." She called the children "baby" and "sweetheart," even when scolding them for poor posture, bad grammar or speaking out of turn.

When a girl fell behind and broke down in tears during a squatting exercise, Jones squatted beside her, took her hands and stayed with her until she finished the drill.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one of the team's troupes put on two shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, performances that included ballet-like modern dance and hip-hop routines. At each show, Jones sat in the audience like a proud parent.

"Beautiful," she said quietly as she watched. "Awesome."

The Sophisticated Sisters have appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and marched in the Miss America parade in Atlantic City, N.J., wearing star-spangled outfits cobbled together by Jones from T-shirts and red, white and blue pants she found at a bargain. Last year on "Dancing With the Stars," some of them performed to a recording of Beyonce's "Get Me Bodied." A few days later, the pop star contributed $100,000 to the group.

Jones and the team were also featured on CNN after Bush nominated Jones to be a CNN Hero. She was a 2013 finalist, winning $50,000.

Ariana Turner, 8, has been on the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team since she was very young. More photos

Team membership costs $85 a year, and scholarships are available for those who can't pay. Everyone is expected to help raise funds. In her early years, Jones would gather a few team members and stand on street corners with an orange bucket, offering on-the-spot shows in exchange for donations.

Jones is still searching for a practice space big enough for the entire team, with mirrors to help the children learn their steps, windows to let in fresh air, and decent clean toilets.

Until then, the Sophisticated Sisters keep at it in the water tower, ending each session with what Jones calls the unity circle, when the children stand hand in hand and share news.

"I'm Pepper!" shouted a girl who had just scored the role of one of the orphans in a school performance of "Annie."

Three others announced perfect scores on school tests.

"It is possible," the team chanted with Jones as she urged them to never give up on their dreams. "It is never impossible."

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