Hillhouse Finds Its Back-To-School Rhythm

Lucy Gellman | August 2nd, 2023

Hillhouse Finds Its Back-To-School Rhythm

Dance  |  Education & Youth  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  Whalley/Edgewood/Beaver Hills  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  James Hillhouse High School

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Lucy Gellman Photos.

The sousaphones set the tone, students Jaquan Reyes and Abel Hernandez swinging at the hips. As they led into the hook—Fee-fi-fo-fum/Look out, baby, 'cause here I come—five members of the Radiant Rubies extended their arms and high-kicked it into action. Sax and clarinet wailed with every footfall; the trombones bellowed from the back. More Rubies marched onto the field. Hands on their hips, they jumped into motion, limbs flying in time with the music. 

As dusk fell Monday night, the James Hillhouse High School Marching Band, Majorette & Dance Factory and Elite Drill Squad all took Bowen Field by storm, performing as two new, educator-envisioned summer camps came to a celebratory close. Led by Hillhouse Band Director Joshua Smith and dancer Johnny Johnson, they include a month-long band camp for Hillhouse High School students and a three-day intensive for middle school students interested in majorette and dance. 

Elite, helmed by Ryshon Menafee with a small army of supportive parents, also performed before the end of the night. For the team, it marks a triumphant chance to dance at home in the midst of a summer defined by travel and competition.

"This has been the year!" said Smith, a lifelong New Havener, musician and Hillhouse grad who has been working to rebuild the marching band since he arrived at the school in fall 2021. "We're still rebuilding. We're still small. But we're making a big sound." 

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Joshua Smith, who has taught band at Hillhouse since fall 2021 and is working to rebuild the marching band. 

Together and apart, both summer programs tell a story of arts educators who have stepped up to fill a need, working on shoestring budgets and out of their own pockets. Long before he was Hillhouse's band teacher, Smith was just a kid in New Haven who loved music, and knew that he wanted to play whenever he could. During his high school years, he was a student in Hillhouse's marching band, then went on to study music education after graduating in 2006 (read more about his upbringing here).  

He can see a younger version of himself in the students, he said: that's what keeps him coming back to the classroom. As the summer months crept in earlier this year, he put together a band camp to keep student musicians involved. For a month, close to 20 students have met Monday through Friday, honing their skills as they prepare to play in the new school year. Their first performance is a back-to-school pep rally on August 17, followed by convocation at the end of the month. 

None of it is funded by the district (although Smith said that the school, paired with New Haven's free summer meals program, makes lunch available).  On long days, Smith provides extra food for band members, knowing that some of them have a long commute home. 

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"Dance gave me an outlet to express myself," Johnson said.

That's also true for Johnson, a graduate of Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School who now balances the Majorette & Dance Factory with his studies at Quinnipiac University. For the first time last month, he held a three-day summer camp for new and longtime members of the Radiant Rubies, dancers who are in middle school. During the year, he leads the Radiant Rubies, Prestigious Pearls and Diamond Dolls with a small fleet of dedicated teachers. 

Like Smith, he keeps coming back for the kids, he said. For three days at the end of July, two dozen middle schoolers worked on conditioning, choreography, and majorette routines with him, learning several performances in 72 hours. While some have long been members of the Radiant Rubies, some of them were dancing for the first time. That's part of the hope, he said: that he can expose young people to an art form that will become part of how they live. 

"Dance gave me an outlet to express myself," Johnson said, explaining that he wants to give back, and movement is his way to do it. "It was an escape."

Besides, he added, he knows what it's like to be young and bored in the summertime. "It's giving them something to do."  

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Monday night, that dual vision came to life well before young artists fanned out across Bowen Field. As dancers pinned up their hair and fastened high ponytails in place, checked their coordinated outfits and applied hydrant-red lipstick, the band room bustled with energy, strains of Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme drifting out into the school's empty hallway. The sound floated into the nearby gymnasium, where a handful of moms fussed over their daughters' hair and makeup. 

Inside the band room, Smith moved from the Pink Panther to the Temptations, his hand gliding through the air. A music stand rested in front of him; a fan whirred on one side of the room. He tilted his head to one side, eyes soft as he listened for a certain something. A smile teased at the edges of his mouth, interrupted by a flicker of recognition. He stopped the band and backed up a few measures.   

"Let me hear the flutes," he said. In the front row, students Brandon Fullerton, Abby Heredia, and Jeffrey Gonzalez-Zareta picked up their instruments, and rewound the musical clock. 

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Flutists Brandon Fullerton, Abby Heredia, and Jeffrey Gonzalez-Zareta. Bottom: Sax players Zariyah Whitehurst and  Andy Herrera.

For many of the band's 17 summer members, the camp has become an unexpected and welcome creative outlet. A rising sophomore at the school, Gonzalez-Zareta said that playing helps him unwind and communicate more effectively with his peers, a skill that he takes far beyond the band classroom. After starting the flute as a sixth grader at Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School, he fell in love with marching band for its energy and verve.  

"Every time I play, I just feel happy and alive, he said. "Band has really helped me communicate with people, it helped me open up. In here, we're like a family."  

That spirit of collaboration is contagious. As the band flowed from one work to the next, rising sophomore Zariyah Whitehurst eased into her part on saxophone, finding her place as the newest member of the group. While Whitehurst first picked up the instrument two years ago when she was living in New York, it was the opportunity to play in the band that convinced her to get back into it. 

"It's just a comfortable space," she said as fellow saxophonist Andy Herrera wetted his reed, and tried out a measure for what may have been the tenth time. "It takes a lot to learn from scratch, and I feel pretty talented." 

In the classroom, Smith took a deep breath and looked at the clock. it was go time. 

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The Radiant Rubies rock it. 

As musicians stepped out into the still-warm summer evening, Fullerton slipped to the front of the line, his eyes fixed on the sprawl of sidewalk and grass ahead of him. Just feet away, Johnson arranged dancers into pairs of two, shouting out names as he buzzed from the bike lane back to the pavement, and then onto a grassy shoulder. 

On the side of the street, two dozen parents waited with their phones out, ready to walk in time with the music. Near the front, 12-year-old Kylie Lagardere placed her hands gingerly on her hips, ready to move. A student at Shelton Intermediate School, she's been dancing for years at home, she said—but was inspired to join the Radiant Rubies after seeing a professional dance routine on t.v. She was excited to participate in the summer camp.  

"When I dance, I feel like I'm able to embrace myself," she said. "I'm able to show how I feel. I think that [during the camp] I really built up my motivation. I got to push myself in ways that I didn't expect." 

For instance, she pushed herself every time the group had a conditioning session, and she wanted to stop, she said. She also found that Johnson helped her break out of her shell. Now, she wants to both stay in the Radiant Rubies and join a majorette team at a Historically Black College (HBCU) when she's older. Alabama State University is currently among her favorites.   

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Top: "When I dance, I feel like I'm able to embrace myself." Bottom: Members of Elite. 

The drums rumbled to life, the Radiant Rubies stepping off in time with their growling, clean Boom! Before long, students were making their way down Crescent Street, a coordinated blur of red and black and navy blue. At the front, Johnson led them in silence, each movement pronounced as the horns echoed over the street. By the time they reached a crosswalk to the field, they were in their element, knees at an almost perfect right angle.

Woo! band members cried in unison between measures, drummers spinning their sticks as they moved. It came out as a near-falsetto that rose into the sky. 

At the field, a whole audience waited, cheering young people on. Kids turned the track's low fence into a jungle gym, savoring the cool evening. A few pint-sized spectators, unable to stay still, toddled eagerly around the bleachers.

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Elite's Eboni Pollard and Ryshon Menafee. Bottom: The cheering section.  

No sooner had the band fanned out across the 50-yard line than Missy Elliot's "Gossip Folks" was blasting over the field from a speaker, and the Radiant Rubies were deep in their first routine. Music crackled and blared, and they burst into movement, arms flying as their knees bent to the beat. They pretzeled and unpretzeled themselves as Elliott rapped over the track, the crowd cheering in return.  

That ease and excitement flowed through several of the marching band's performances, coasting over the bleachers by the time musicians got to Bill Withers' "Lovely Day."  Even the occasional recalculation felt like part of the lineup: At one point during a final majorette routine, the music cut out and dancers kept going, the steps already cemented in their minds. 

At another, the band started on "Get Ready" before the Radiant Rubies were in place, and Smith paused, spun around, smiled, then started again with a knowing nod. By the time the band was ready to march back to the school in formation, musicians seemed completely comfortable on the field, as if it was where they had always belonged.  

Before the night concluded, pint-sized members of the Elite Drill Squad also took the field (watch that performance here), fresh off a first place win in Ohio last month. To heartbeat-like drums, they snapped into action, bodies a synchronized stream of blue and orange. As one member dropped into a split, the crowd went wild. "That's it!" yelled a fan from the third row in.    

Director Ryshon Menafee, who has been doing drill since he was eight, said he's incredibly proud of the group—and was excited to come out and support two fellow artists in their work with young people. When he thinks about why drill is still a part of his life, he said, his mind always goes to the young people Elite welcomes into its ranks. He knows that that's also true for Smith and Johnson. 

"The kids keep me coming back," he said. "They learn discipline, dedication, integrity, life lessons." 

For more from Monday's performance, watch the videos above.