BAY ST. LOUIS -- On a Thursday in December, a dozen teenage girls willingly handed over their cell phones to their dance-team instructor. The next day, the Bay High Steppers would take the stage, competing for MHSAA state titles in jazz and kick performances.
"They didn't get them back until after they performed that Friday," Bay High School Steppers squad's coach Angie Farve said. "And that just shows how strict and committed they are -- and have to be -- to win competitions like this."
On Dec. 18, the Steppers were scheduled "down to a science" before the danced for their seventh consecutive state title. Each girl had a time for hair -- it was pulled back into a bun. A bejeweled headband went around each forehead. Then it was on to makeup. The lipstick was red and the blush was heavy, stage makeup for the strong lights.
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The girls knew they had to be in the hotel lobby at a certain time. The night before, they'd rehearsed their routines in the parking lot because their hotel's meeting room wasn't big enough.
Farve, who took over in October as the Steppers' lead coach, said one of the best feelings in her life was walking into the competition that day and watching the other teams look at her girls as they filed in.
"You're known as the Bay High Steppers," she said. "People take notice of this team within the dance industry, and that's enough to give you chills right there."
The girls were quiet and nervous. They'd had an emotional, tumultuous year and considered not even going to state.
But that wasn't going to happen under Farve's guidance. She said she knew how much drive and talent these girls had.
She didn't tell them the music they had planned to use for their kick performance had inadvertently been left behind. They had no idea it would be slower until it came over the speakers and they began their routine.
"Most girls would have fallen apart and this dance probably would have been a disaster it was three times harder (to perform)."
But the Steppers didn't falter. The small hiccup didn't keep them from winning the 2015 state championship in the kick division.
"We went absolutely crazy," Farve said. "I could see the relief in their faces. A heavy weight lifted off their shoulders because that's what they were worried about."
Taking the long way
The Bay High Steppers have an impressive resumé. The squad has now won seven consecutive state titles.
But 2015 was hard. The Steppers' previous coach -- who Farve said had done a phenomenal job and was the driving force behind six state championships -- decided to leave Bay High in August. She had formed a winning team that was poised to take more titles.
For two months, though, the Steppers had a substitute coach. So they coached themselves.
Captain Madelynn Garza and co-captains Shelby Furr and Jillian Seymour took the reins of the squad of 12 dancers, one alternate and one manager.
"Seniors and two juniors were pretty much running the show -- which made it a little difficult because they are teenagers with emotions," Farve said.
When the district hired Farve in October, she said, the team was warm and inviting but a little broken.
"They were defeated, they were angry with each other and they were not working as a team whatsoever," she said. "They were just making it through the days not enjoying what they did.
"That was one of the hardest things for me as a coach to come in and see."
For Farve's first few weeks, the girls did not dance. They worked at becoming a team again.
"We did team bonding to get back to wanting to dance again, to wanting to perform for people instead of feeling like they had to," Farve said. "These girls are extremely talented. They can do amazing, phenomenal things. They needed someone to push them and bring back their confidence."
The road to state
The Steppers had a couple of months to get ready for the MHSAA state championship. The girls practiced each day during school. They often stayed after school to prepare.
Some of the girls weren't sure they were ready. Three dancers, including Garza, the captain, told Farve they didn't want to go.
"I was really stressed out," Garza said, "because I was trying to be a student, plus I'm a senior so I had all this senior stuff going on with college, and a co-coach because I had two other girls helping me, and it was really difficult."
The mom in Farve wanted them to take the year off, but the competitor in her wouldn't have that.
"You're Bay High -- you don't just not go to state," she said. "I said, 'Yeah, we're going. Either you're in or you're out.'"
Farve knew they had the drive to do it.
"We started practice on Nov. 1," Farve said.
The win was amazing, but Farve said she was proud of her dancers' resolve.
"This team has bonded so much more now that we've gone and done this," she said. "I don't think they were out to prove anything to anybody else, I think they needed to prove that they could do it for themselves regardless of the year we've had."
It's not easy being a Bay High Stepper.
"It's grueling," Farve said. "(The dancers) run a very tight ship."
They stretch for the first 15 minutes of each practice. Then they rehearse for 90 minutes.
"They're not just dancing. They're leaping, they're turning, getting more cardio in than people could imagine."
When they rehearse for competitions and pep rallies, that means more time after school and on Sundays. The girls work hard to be called athletes, Farve said.
"What they do is a sport and should be recognized as a sport," she said.
Farve applied for the Bay High job on a whim after a friend suggested it. Accepting meant she left her teaching job of 14 years.
"While waiting for things to be finalized, I attended as many practices, pep rallies and games as I could," she said. "It was extremely hard to step into this position. I was always taught to make others feel comfortable and stay as positive as possible."
During the Steppers' journey to state, Farve said, she spent a lot of time with the girls, assuring them they would be amazing.
She began recording the practices, watching the video at night and making notes to give the dancers.
"I would just sit for hours and play that video over and over again," she said. "My husband would have to tell me, 'How many times do we have to hear that song?' My younger daughters knew the dance because I would play it so much."
When the Steppers were named state champs in the kick dance division, Farve said she was floored. Her own parents were cheering from the stands.
"My dad was going crazy," she said. "They knew the pressure I felt for these girls.
"It was just indescribable to say 'Yes, we did it.'"
Farve was most excited for the girls.
"I told the girls that this was their year," she said, "that they have worked so hard to keep things together and that this year I was here to support them in any way. So this win, although exciting for me, is their win."