Photo by Gary Rothstein © - Members of the Brooks' Bunch had some dance steps of their own to impress the tribal dancers
(contributed by Charlie Nobles)
JOHANNESBURG, S. Africa - Michael Sails popped to his feet Thursday when the narrator at Lesedi - an attraction near here billed as a cultural experience for African tribal customs - asked for a volunteer to face one of the natives in mock combat. Sails, a 15-year-old at Tampa Blake High, was then given a shield and stick and introduced to his opponent.
Sails quickly began to have second thoughts about his decision. He motioned for his opponent to come near him and whispered, as the rest of Brooks' Bunch looked on in glee, "Are you really going to hit me up side the head?" The response: "Yes."
As unnerving as that was, Sails had a plan. He thought he would sprint around his opponent and tap him on the head, declaring the contest over. But that plan went out the window when the native made a fake rush at him. Sails dropped his shield and stick and sprinted out of the ring, to the delight of his Brooks' Bunch traveling mates.
"This is why," the narrator said later, "when we begin the transformation of our boys to men, we isolate them from the girls. When there are girls around, the boys are afraid of being embarrassed."
Brooks' Bunch, a group of 39 travelers sponsored by Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, including 20 deserving teenagers, most from the Tampa Bay area, got another glimpse at South African history on Thursday. This one was filled with tribal dances, information about customs and a varied lunch menu, which included ostrich, crocodile and buffalo.
Most of the tribal dances featured persistent leg kicks high above the dancers' heads. The one with the highest kick who can slam his foot to the ground the fastest is considered the best dancer, the group's tour guide said.
"They are amazingly limber," said Bucs Coach Tony Dungy, here with his wife Lauren. He seemed almost wistful that his athletes could be as limber so they might avoid the usual run of hamstring injuries.
After a series of rapid-fire leg kicks punctuated by pounding drums and chanting, each dancer would then fall backward on the hard floor. The tour guide explained that they weren't losing their balance at all, just showing that the mind can rule the body in dismissing pain.
When the group first arrived, some wearing the facial decorations of their African ancestry, the tribal dancers posed for photos. Soon the dancers were demonstrating their skills. A little later, two step dancers in the Brooks' Bunch almost upstaged them.
Natasha Spencer, 15, of Tampa Bay Tech High, and Tiffany Watts, 13, of Tampa Middleton Middle School, put on a performance that drew an enthusiastic applause.
"One of the lady dancers liked it so much she was trying to find out how we did it," Spencer said with a smile.
As the group moves through South Africa - a flight to Hoedspruit and safari-time is on Friday's radar screen -- two scholars in Brooks' Bunch are serving as the eyes and ears of brothers who were candidates to be here, too, but aren't.
Brandon Riverview High's Arnold Hopson said his brother Fabian, at 14 a year younger, didn't come because of a fear of flying.
"We're real close," Arnold said. "I'm sorry he couldn't be here. I've sent him a post card and I'm going to bring him back a souvenir."
LaBrawn Saffold, 13, of Tampa Burns Middle School, said his 15-year-old brother Javaurian was just a tenth of a point away from the required 2.5 grade point average to make the trip. "After he didn't make it, he said, 'I didn't want to go anyway.' But I know he did want to go. I'll tell him about it."
Saffold's roommate here, Silas Taylor, a 16-year-old at Tampa Hillsborough High, is one of three nationally regarded chess players on the trip. The others are the Williams sisters - 16-year-old Calleen, of Hillsborough High, and 13-year-old Felteena, who attends Middleton Middle School.
The free-time game of choice for Brooks' Bunch is clearly Spades. But the talk often turns to chess around Taylor and the Williamses.
Calleen, in fact, once was 12th-ranked nationally, even though she didn't begin playing until three years ago. A game she saw at the Ponce De Leon Boys & Girls Club piqued her interest and soon she was winning an inter-city tournament. She then wanted to join the prestigious 22nd Street and Martin Luther King Chess Academy, which happened to be composed of all boys.
After some consternation, she was allowed in. "I got all the attention and the boys got mad," she said.
Now, Calleen plays chess "mostly to ease my mind. It calms me down," she said between shopping at a flea market the group visited in the morning. "It's good as a way to help me think things through and make the best decision."
Taylor, who recently required just five moves to defeat his roommate, also said playing chess has had a good carryover effect.
"My grades have gone up since I've been playing," he said.
Calleen's sister Felteena, who began playing as a fourth grader, has been trying to get a game with Taylor on this trip. She has focused more on chess lately than the other two players and believes she would stand a better chance of being Taylor than Calleen.
"So far," she said with a smile, "he won't play me."