Ryan Shanklin is an educator and dance coach who embarked on a journey to bring a unique form of artistic expression to young Black and Brown students in Houston. The result? Tha S.W.A.G.G Boiz, an award-winning step dance team that has taken the local community by storm.

Five years ago, Shanklin, fondly known as “Coach Ryan,” was working as a third and fourth-grade science teacher at school in Houston. His students, young boys filled with potential and untapped talents, were the source of his inspiration. Ryan wanted to provide them with an opportunity to explore their creativity and perform a different kind of dance artistry, known as stepping.

Stepping is an art form that involves intricate footwork, body percussion, and synchronized movements. While it might not be as familiar to the Houston community as sports like basketball or football, Ryan believed that stepping could offer his students an empowering outlet.

Tha S.W.A.G.G Boiz show off their steps in a performance during the Step Afrika welcome ceremony at Eldorado Ballroom. (Credit: Laura Onyeneho)

“The boys were basically in my class,” he shared, reflecting on the early days of Tha S.W.A.G.G Boiz. “I was just thinking of what we could do differently besides the basketball teams, football teams. So, I was like, how about we start a step team after school? I remember I took a couple of the boys out to a TSU [Texas Southern University] step show, and they liked it. So, after that, it was like, that’s how we formed.”

The journey wasn’t without its challenges, especially as the boys were new to the art of stepping. Many of them couldn’t keep a beat or lacked rhythm initially. However, Ryan was undeterred, and the determination and commitment of the young boys began to shine through. They dedicated themselves to practice, often sacrificing school games and other activities to become proficient steppers.

Ryan also drew support from LaDonte Lotts, his assistant coach, who is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, known for its stepping tradition. This partnership brought an extra layer of authenticity and expertise to the team’s journey.

The impact of Tha S.W.A.G.G Boiz has been monumental, not only within the team but also in the broader community. The boys’ hard work and dedication quickly caught the attention of social media. As their videos went viral, they became local celebrities, their talent inspiring others to pursue their passions.

Furthermore, the experience of being part of the team has been transformative for the young dancers. Many of them started as shy individuals, but through their involvement with the team, they’ve gained confidence and leadership skills. The team’s motto, “Steppers Working to Achieve Greater Greatness,” reflects their commitment to personal growth and empowerment.

“You can tell how much they want to work at this,” Lott said. “To watch them grow over time and witness how happy they are on stage, is the reason why I do this work.”

The team now consists of 12 members, but it doesn’t stop there. They have also created a junior team, ensuring that the legacy of Tha S.W.A.G.G Boiz continues to flourish as they progress from high school.

They aim to do more than just win competitions and travel the country. Ryan and Lott dream of providing resources, opportunities, and support for the talented youth they mentor. They believe in the importance of arts education, emphasizing that not all students are inclined toward STEM subjects, and that creativity and self-expression are equally vital.

Ryan shared a heartfelt moment from the team’s journey that stood out to him.

“For me, that spark was honestly when we flew to Atlanta for a competition. That was a lot of the boys’ first time ever getting on a plane. So, to hear that conversation, like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna fly? We’re getting on the plane?’ some acting like they were nervous, some excited, I was just watching and listening. I was like, ‘Dang, we are actually doing something impactful.”

The future of Tha Swagg Boiz looks bright and full of potential. Ryan and his team are constantly pushing the boundaries of their success. They strive not only to win competitions but to make an impact on the community.

Their ambition extends beyond the stage, with Lott emphasizing the need to provide opportunities for the boys to excel individually. They aspire to help the boys secure contracts and deals with various organizations and companies, allowing them to showcase their talents and travel nationwide.

Additionally, they want to highlight the diverse talents of their members. These young artists are not just steppers; they are dancers, singers, rappers, pianists, and athletes. The team’s mission is to create a platform that celebrates these multifaceted talents and values.

When asked about their future plans, Lott stated, “We always push that goal because we see that we want to win. We’ve been winning, but our success can’t happen without the help of our community and resources to keep expanding.”

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...