O'Neil '91 knew that he needed to bring something unique to Junior
High School 231 in Queens, New York, nine years ago. Many of the
students there lacked self-awareness, confidence, and any respect
Combining his dance experience with "sound moral
principals that teach young men how to be men," he formed the
Nubian Gents, an extracurricular male step group that combines movement
with contemporary gospel music. Stepping is a tradition forged on
college campuses in black fraternities and sororities out of the
African heritage of speech, song, and dance.
"I did a presentation one day, and the students
came out in droves," says O'Neil, a
former dean at the school and current part-time teacher, who is
now working to carry the program to other institutions. The Gents
are affiliated with New Life of New York City, Inc., a nonprofit
that uses the foundations of Christian faith to help at-risk urban
teens. The team of 50 "Gents," who range in age from 9-17,
has ministered in churches, youth camps, and fairs across the U.S.
and in the Czech Republic, Spain, Holland, and South Africa. Its
popularity sparked interest for an all-female group; Feminine Fire
was launched last year by an eager volunteer.
Far more than just a stepping group, the Gents benefit
from a mentoring relationship with O'Neil, who encourages members
to talk freely about their real-life problems during rehearsals.
"This is a labor of love, but something I feel called to do,"
he says. "I wanted to change these students at the core. The
step component came about because I was looking for something that
would attract them."
Oberlin economics major Dimy Jeannot, a member of
the Gents while in high school, stuck with the program because of
the comfortable, positive environment it offered. Today, he is a
chaperone and mentor with the group. "I'm here at Oberlin because
of Mr. O," he says.
Yvonne Gay Fowler