McALLEN — A chorus of giggles went up from the women standing on the field here at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Thursday night.
There were over 100 of them there, gathered together to practice for a halftime performance at Friday night’s football game commemorating the 50th anniversary of the McAllen High Steppers.
The celebration was a year overdue. Originally planned for 2020, the pandemic put the commemoration on hold for a year.
The women on the field varied in age by decades. Some were still high schoolers. Others hadn’t been high schoolers since the 1970s.
Many on the field hadn’t danced for a crowd in decades. Not all the high kicks were quite as high as they’d once been, and a twirl or two wasn’t quite as quick as the rest.
The spirit, though, seemed the same as it was half a century ago: warm, friendly and determined.
Sandy Hamlin-Suter was one of those first girls to become a Stepper 51 years ago — one of the first five, in fact.
A new principal at McHi called her and a couple of other girls into his office one day to tell them he felt like the school was big enough now to have its own dance team, or drill team, and that he wanted them to start it.
Somehow, despite lacking a budget and much real dance experience, those girls did just that.
“No one gave it to us,” Hamlin-Suter said. “We made it up. And it just gave me chills, to think about it turning 50.”
Dozens of other girls signed up to join Hamlin-Super and the other founders. They were a rag-tag band at first, members of other organizations at the school looking down their noses at the upstarts eating up time at halftime performances.
They didn’t have boots in the beginning; they’d wear white shoes, and if a girl didn’t have white shoes, the team would convert them with a bit of white shoe polish.
They funded the start of the steppers through garage sales, bake sales and innovation.
“If one girl just couldn’t quite get the funds to get her boots ordered, well, then we’d just have another bake sale,” she said.
The Steppers soon began creating an identity for themselves. Hamlin-Suter’s sister, a collegiate dancer in San Marcos, came down and gave the girls advice on uniforms and routines. Another girl came up with their name and the lyrics to a signature song. They started wearing white bows in their hair, a trademark that distinguished them in classrooms and hallways.
The hard work paid off and the girls managed to squeeze their way between the band and the pep squad to become a McHi institution.
Most halftime kick lines for that initial cadre of Steppers were met with standing ovations, and the girls wowed judges at their first drill camp in Brownsville, Hamlin-Suter said.
“We worked our hearts off to compete with other schools around the area,” she said. “We were kind of winning right and left.”
Hamlin-Suter and her friends paved the way for hundreds of other Steppers, among them Lori Barrera, who was on the team in the 90s. Barrera spent her last two Sundays with a few other former Steppers at her home, chatting about high school days.
“They’re still friends of mine,” she said. “Just very nice relationships.”
Barrera and her old classmates practiced too, getting ready for Friday’s performance — in part at the insistence of her daughter, Dariana Luna, who’s a freshman Stepper this year.
“She kind of puts pressure on me,” Barrera said. “She wants me to do really good. So it’s a little nervous, you know. So I’ve been practicing, but once you’re there, you get a little jitters — you know, we’re not getting any younger.”
Barrera and Luna stepped out under the stadium lights Friday evening in front of a crowd, along with scores of other Steppers. They danced and kicked and twirled, and kept a 50-year-old tradition going strong.
“It’s a little special moment for her and I,” Barrera said. “I get to go on the field one last time and she gets to be by my side. And who knows, maybe she can keep this tradition going.”
Barrera said Friday night was just like old times.
View Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s photo gallery of the performance: