They had been waiting for more than two hours, and now it was showtime.
As the first strains of R. Kelly's "Happy People" blared from the loudspeakers, the crowd at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium roared to life. Howard University's marching band high-stepped onto the field, 160 strong, an army in blue, white and red, moving in synchronicity, gyrating here, dipping there, chanting and dancing, all the while playing perfect notes on instruments they had shined to gleaming.
Drum majors Eric Black, 21, of Baltimore and Sean Lewis, 19, of Largo strutted out front, backs ramrod straight, pumping their batons, their red caps flaring behind them as they blared into whistles to lead the band onto the field. At the back of the group, band president and percussionist Christopher Anukwuem pranced and weaved before dashing off to change for the finale. In the trombone section, freshman band member Lawrence Perkins, 18, grinned as he pushed and pulled the slide, awestruck to be on the field for the first time with the renowned college band.
The routine culminated an intense week for Howard's Showtime Marching Band, as Director John E. Newson and his assistants taught and then honed the 15-minute music and dance program for yesterday's Halftime College Marching Band Championship.
Nicknamed "The Battle of the Bands," the contest pitted some of the most respected bands from historically black colleges and universities on the East Coast against each other and marked Howard's first performance of the school year.
Howard's band, also known as the Marching Bison, performs at each football game, traveling on four buses. The contingent includes the band, the Flashy Flags and the Ooh La La! Dancers.
The competition was top priority last week as the Showtime band prepared to send its rivals -- Hampton, Morgan State, Bowie State, Virginia State, Delaware State and North Carolina Central universities -- home humbled. Each band had 15 minutes to perform on the field and then were judged by the audience.
At stake wasn't money or trophies. It was all about bragging rights.
"You can meet people who are 60 or 70 years old who will be talking about something that a band did many years ago," said event organizer Eugene Gilbert of Atlanta. "There might be two old men talking, and one will say, 'Back in 1925, Howard had 25 bass drums and they went out there one day and played so-and-so off the field.' The other old man will say, 'That ain't nothing. Morgan State did that back in 1910.' It's all about people being able to brag about their favorite band."
For the Howard band members, it was also about defending home turf.
RFK was their house, and they planned to represent.
"We don't really have any competition, because we're the band to beat for everyone else," said Nuru West, 19, of Lanham, a sophomore member of the piccolo section.
As the band marched out yesterday, it was evident that the crowd expected a good show. Before the members were in formation, the crowd was on its feet. And it was rocking when the band started moving to R. Kelly. The opening drill was followed by a number featuring the Ooh La La! Dancers, who performed on the slippery surface stadium officials had placed over the grass. At one point, dancer LaToya James, 21, of Trenton, N.J., slipped during a turn but smiled and turned the accident into a perfect split that drew a standing ovation and hoots of praise.
As the crowd shouted its approval, Newson smiled. It had been a long week.
On Monday, six days out, he introduced the show to the band. Methodically, the performers drilled on the dance steps and their placement on the field. Newson and his assistants layered on the formations for the dancers and flags and added the transitions that would bring the show together.
Five days out, they had put it to music, practicing the sequences on the field, chanting much of the music to allow the band members to focus on the intricate footwork.
"Left, right, step. Right, left, step. Y'all got that?" Anukwuem asked, noting the confusion as he demonstrated the moves for the instrumentalists. "The whole time you are doing this, your arms are doing this. And remember to pick your feet up."
"Is that left over right or right over left?" someone in the back shouted.
"It's left over right," Anukwuem said. "My bad. It's right over left. Ready, five-six-seven-eight!" he yelled, as the group began to move.
Four days out, they'd begun blocking the whole show. The drums and sousaphones, the rhythm section, were having a little trouble. The musicians were working hard at mixing the moves and music, but the routine still hadn't jelled, Newson noted.
The lines were off. The formations looked sloppy. The energy wasn't there.
"Remember, you got to push that tempo," he said Wednesday. "Otherwise it sounds like a funeral march."
Perkins, a freshman from Fairmont Heights, had begun to perfect the art of simultaneously breathing, playing, dancing, chanting and marching.
Perkins said he had wanted to play with Howard's marching band since he was a trumpet player at Fairmont Heights High School with a band director from Howard.
But the Howard band needed him on trombone instead of trumpet. So he picked up the new instrument in band camp this month.
"I was intimidated when I started playing with people here because of how good everybody is," Perkins admitted. "Some of these guys have been playing their instruments for six or seven years, and I'm just starting."
By Thursday, three days out, the show was looking up. The rhythm section was hitting, and all the musicians had mastered the fancy footwork, including the challenging routine to "Game Over" by Lil' Flip.
But a new problem had emerged: the costumes.
"We've been told that the new uniforms that we ordered won't be here by Sunday," Newson said. "The old ones are 10 years old, and they are back there packed up because we hadn't expected to use them. We're going to have to go to Plan 2."
Plan 2 entailed digging out the old wool costumes. Many were beyond repair, and there weren't nearly enough in good condition to dress the 128 musicians slated to perform yesterday or this Saturday, when the band will travel to Detroit for Howard's game against Alabama State in the Detroit Football Classic.
While Anukwuem and other student assistants began passing out the good costumes, Newson went hunting for substitutes. A police supply store on Rhode Island Avenue provided the alternative he was looking for -- navy blue paramilitary-style suits worn by police tactical teams.
"The sousaphones and the percussion are going to wear the SWAT suits," Newson said. "And for the rest, we're going to pull out our safety pins and needles and thread and fix the old ones until we get enough to get everybody a costume."
Two days out, the band members had learned their paces and the evening rehearsal went smoothly. But the musicians weren't satisfied. The piccolos, the trumpets and the sousaphones broke off to separate practice rooms to work on their performance, staying late into the night.
Saturday morning, they were back at it, rehearsing on the field at Howard in shorts and their band hats. Newson added a few finishing touches with his band and then headed to his office to make final arrangements.
Then he went shopping for four dozen hats to match the makeshift costumes. Dance leader Krystal Oliver, 19, of Detroit sewed sequins and fringe on dance costumes until 4 a.m. yesterday.
"We're ready, so we're going to take it out there and let them have fun," Newson said.
They had fun.
And they turned it out. During the 15-minute routine, Howard drew a dozen standing ovations from the audience of about 25,000, including thunderous applause when 5-year-old Jason Chappell of Bowie joined Anukwuem for a break dancing routine.
From his spot at the front of the band, Newson allowed himself a smile.
As he walked away, he was stopped repeatedly by admirers.
"If they want to come here, they better come with something better than that next time," one man in a Howard T-shirt yelled.
"Man, I need some ice water. That was hotter than the sun!" gushed another.
Newson shook hands and accepted the praise on behalf of his kids.
"I know what I have taught them to do, and I know what I expect them to do," he said. "The rest of it is up to them. I just sit back and watch. This is what they did."
Trombonist Brian Doyle, a sophomore at Howard, gets in tune during rehearsal. A last-minute glitch concerning new uniforms sent band organizers scrambling to find last year's gear.Eric Black, one of two drum majors, dances with the band during the performance. It was the group's first performance of the school year. It will travel to Detroit this coming weekend.