The auditorium at Raymond Rec Center in Northwest Washington, D.C., is buzzing with energy as hundreds of girls in a vibrant array of colorful outfits get ready to show off a year of hard work at the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR) Cheer and Dance Showcase. A DJ puts on Beyoncé and, after a sharp cheer of recognition from almost every dancer, the room ripples with motion as most of the girls, across teams, move in sync to the choreography of the song. A couple of girls yet too young to be on a team dance along, looking up to the big girls with bright, admiring eyes. As families shuffle to find their seats in the bleachers, a proud mom stands up and yells, “Yeah, Coach Cortney! We all know who the best coach is!”
Coach Cortney is Cortney Williams, the coach of the StarrFire Dance Team. Williams started StarrFire just over a year ago while coordinating the Young Ladies on the Rise mentorship program as a recreation specialist at the Deanwood Recreation Center in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Williams, noticing that more programs were needed to serve young girls, recalled her days growing up as a Chicago Park District kid, when she looked forward to practicing and hanging out with her friends every day at her local recreation center’s dance program. She immediately began recruiting, and in just a few short weeks, the StarrFire Dance Team at Deanwood Rec was 25 girls strong.
Washington, D.C., has not been an historically easy place to grow up — just 20 years ago, the city’s macabre nickname of “Murder Capital” was a grim reality for many residents. Today, improved community services and gentrification have catalyzed astonishingly rapid change across the city, translating to sharply declining crime rates in neighborhoods with the most development. But just miles from the markedly safe National Mall, in some areas east of the Anacostia River, the violent crime rate has stood rigidly still for decades. Deanwood is perhaps the most beleaguered of these neighborhoods in recent months, including a tragic murder on the Deanwood Metro platform of a boy who frequented Deanwood Recreation Center.
That’s why the StarrFire Dance Team is so important to the young girls who come to Deanwood Rec. “Today’s world doesn’t offer much for the girls,” Williams says. “They’re often overshadowed by violence and politics. Being a part of StarrFire provides them with outside support, and it can go a long way.” With Williams’ guidance as a teacher and role model, the StarrFire girls learn to express themselves through hip-hop and ballet, all while making friends and being part of a team.
But Williams doesn’t stop with teaching the girls how to dance. The StarrFire girls held two candlelight vigils to honor Relisha Rudd, a young homeless girl who went missing from a D.C. shelter more than two years ago. By empowering the StarrFire girls to “raise awareness and promote greatness” through organizing events like the vigils, Williams is showing the girls that they matter and can make a difference.
The confidence that Williams has instilled in the StarrFire girls is easily found in their performance at the DPR Cheer and Dance Showcase. Even among the amazingly talented teams from recreation centers across the city, it would be hard to forget the StarrFire girls. Dressed in sparkly golden tops and ruby-red lamé pants, the girls are powerful and graceful as they move in synchronicity to a fast-paced dance track. At the end of the day, the StarrFire Dance Team was rewarded for their hard year of work when they were awarded a beautiful, two-tiered golden trophy for being DPR’s City-Wide Hip-Hop Champs.
Williams’ reward isn’t the trophy. It’s the equally gilded pride, joy and self-confidence that absolutely emanates from the girls as they celebrate their win, and it’s knowing the commitment and dedication that got them there.
In what seems an unsurmountable struggle to bring peace to Deanwood, it is heartening to know that there are people like Coach Cortney who are changing lives by loving and inspiring the girls of the StarrFire Dance Team.
Jayni Rasmussen is NRPA’s Advocacy and Outreach Specialist.