Drum major Alex Thomas jabbed his baton in the air, kicked up his gold boots and rocked back and forth to get the band cranking. The horn players and drummers launched into a series of stomps and slides, hardly a Texas two-step. And the dancers and flag girls, all aglitter, shook and strutted down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yesterday's performance by the Ballou Senior High School Marching Knights brought their hip-hop flavor to President Bush's second inauguration. Apparently moved by the rhythm section, Bush was seen clapping along as the band passed the reviewing stand.
For the 80-plus band members from the Southeast Washington school, performing for the president was no small accomplishment. It was a dramatic fulfillment of band director Darrell Watson's call nearly a year ago to look beyond last year's fatal shooting at the school and a student-led mercury spill in 2003 that contaminated the building. Better days were ahead, he told the Marching Knights.
"I'm feeling adrenaline, I'm feeling pure energy," Thomas, 18, a lanky senior, said as they were lining up before yesterday's parade.
"To have Ballou in this parade will give us a good name," he added. "Hopefully, when we get back [to school], people will say, 'Y'all represented us well.' "
Nikko Randolph-Hardman, 17, a junior who leads the trumpet section, put the experience this way: "When you first step out to perform, it's kind of nervous. You step out and a rush goes through your body. You're hyped.
"We're performing for the president. This will be talked about for weeks."
For years, the school has been linked to the worst in urban education. But band members said Watson, who is a father figure to many, has inspired them with you-can-overcome-anything pep talks.
He first demonstrated his unwavering faith in them in late September when he announced that the band was going to compete in a national high school marching band contest 2,300 miles away in Carson, Calif. -- nevermind that it would need some $70,000 to go.
He launched a fundraising drive, and more than $100,000 came pouring in from parents, residents and corporations. The extra money was used to buy new instruments and uniform accessories.
The band placed second in the competition in November and performed at Disneyland as part of their prize.
About a month later, band members learned they would be participating in the inaugural parade, an invitation arranged by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Despite all the positive attention, violence in the community is never far from their thoughts. One of the songs band members performed at the inauguration, "Sunshine," was dedicated to Teddy Garvin, a former band trumpet player who was killed on a Metrobus in 1999.
"We use the song to showcase how last year, we were so much in darkness," said Watson, 34, himself a former member of the Ballou marching band. "Now the sun is shining on the school, shining on the band. It's a wonderful thing."