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'This is my gift to them;' St. Louis woman uses step to mentor teens

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson | St. Louis Public Radio
Jazzmine Nolan is teaching the newest members of the Divine Three a stroll routine to Demi Lovato's "Sorry Not Sorry." This will be one of several stroll routines they'll have to learn for the year.

When Jazzmine Nolan was 12, her father was murdered by one of his friends. His death left her devastated and empty inside.

“I was so angry that I didn’t know what I was feeling,” she said.

Nolan became unsure of whom to trust. Her cries for help and understanding often fell on deaf ears of the people around her. But instead of going down the path of self-destruction, she turned to the dance form "step" as a way to cope.

“It gave me a means of being upset, or being flustered, or being happy, or being whatever it was and be okay,” Nolan said.

Stepping is an expressive dance form that incorporates claps, stomps, beats and acrobatic elements in a militarized fashion. The synchronized movements result in a harmonious sound through discipline, communication and teamwork.

Dating back to the 1900s, stepping has played a significant role in black sororities and fraternities known as the Divine Nine. To this day many of the step routines and chants have been passed down through the generations. 

After realizing how step changed her life for the better, Nolan decided to form her own step team, called the Divine Three, which relates to her belief in God and that her team serves elementary, middle and high school students. The program has become an outlet for youth to be creative and learn discipline, communication, life and team-building skills. But it’s about more than just stepping. The team becomes like a family.

“Support and guidance for their generation or the kids of today means being there for them when no one else is there,” Nolan said. “Most time, in the absence of their parents. If their father, their mother, whomever can’t be there for something that’s happening with them, that you play that part for them and you play that role.”

For close to a decade, Nolan more than a thousand St. Louis city, county and Metro East youth ages 8-18 have gone through her program, in part, by contracting it out to schools throughout the region. Currently, there are 12 girls in her program between the ages of 11-17. 

Nolan is a nonprofit consultant for her company, Marie Management. She's also the president and founder of the Jazzmine Marie Nolan Foundation. To keep the step team afloat, parents conduct fundraising events and Nolan uses her own money to pay for expenses. Each month team members pay $20 dues to help cover for the rented dance studio in St. Ann. The Divine Three competes eight times a year: four national competitions and four local. 

In many ways, her commitment to expand the reach of her program stems from wanting to "pay it forward" in hopes of giving someone else in the midst of personal turmoil a sense of hope.

“This is my coping skill to them,” Nolan said. “This is my gift to them. Because ... it could have been worse for me.”

Listen to Jazzmine Nolan and Suriyya Lawrence perform a basic step.

"I was one of those children"

While in high school, Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, Nolan crossed paths with Andre Hall, who was a few years behind her in school. He joined her step team during his sophomore year. When Hall told his family he was gay, things quickly went downhill.

“It got to the point where, after I came out, I felt like I couldn’t be myself even at home,” Hall said.

Andre Hall met Nolan at their high school when he joined the Divine Three his sophomore year. (January 2018)
Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson | St. Louis Public Radio
Andre Hall met Nolan at their high school when he joined the Divine Three his sophomore year.

By the start of his senior year, things had become so difficult at home that he ultimately reached out to Nolan for help. He ended up living with her off-and-on for two years. Hall said his time with Nolan gave him a new outlook on life.

"Being on the step team and as drilling as it was, the same lessons that you learned on the team and dealing with your teammates and your coach — applying those to everyday life as far as, say, how to get a job, making sure you're prepared, time management, of course,” Hall said.

Nearly a decade later, those same sentiments have been passed onto the current members of the Divine Three. Suriyya Lawrence, 15, has been a member for four years. When she first started she was guarded and struggled to express herself to others. Step changed that.

“Once I put my foot down, it’s like the louder I stomp the more of my anger comes out,” Lawrence said.

Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson | St. Louis Public Radio
Suriyya Lawrence,15, joined the Divine Three four years ago. She says stepping gave her the opportunity to express herself in ways she couldn't before.

Hall said everything Nolan taught him, inspired him to keep going, despite obstacles he might face.

“She was able to make it out,” Hall said. “So she dedicated her life and her time to make sure that other children did the same. And fortunately, I was one of those children.”

In many ways, Nolan sees herself through those same children, many of whom have gone onto college and have become successful and independent adults.

“They start to blossom, like, greatly ... in elaborate ways,” she said. “And I said that to say it's pretty much what I did.”

The next step

Now she’s taking her approach to how she’s dealt with life experiences beyond the step team. This year she plans to open up a shelter for St. Louis youth, known as the Divine Heights. The pilot program is aimed at giving young people ages of 16 to 25 the tools they need to gain their own independence.

Nolan said it will offer four phases of housing starting with the shelter program, transitional living, independent living and permanent supported housing. Each person will be provided with case management, trauma care, and resources for entrepreneurship, which is something she’s really invested in.

“It provides them STEM education and enrichment,” Nolan said. “Most of my kids, believe it or not, have excelled academically in math and science. So I want to further develop those skills and turn them into entrepreneurship opportunities for them.”

Her goal is to expand that program out to cities like Chicago and Milwaukee.

Watch a live performance of the Divine Three


Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.