The Ebony Flyers know how to please a crowd. They crank up the rap music, march out on stage in their maroon leotards and sequined silver belts and leap into action.
At times moving with the lyric grace of a school of dolphins rising from the sea, the 15 Compton youngsters jump, spin and somersault their way across a row of tumbling mats to the driving beats of soul, pop and rap songs.
"When they go places and nobody has ever seen them before, the reaction is something to watch," Roosevelt Porter, the group's founder and coach, said with a touch of pride.
In its 12 years of existence, the acrobatic gymnastics troupe has competed in 20 amateur performing arts contests, never taking less than first place. "They're very skillful and extremely entertaining," observed Victor Dru, a Hollywood dance teacher who has organized several regional contests in which the Flyers have appeared.
An athletic trainer and gymnastics coach at Compton Community College, Porter is a calm, self-assured, 44-year-old who started the troupe under the umbrella of the college's community outreach program for children, College for Kids.
'Keeps Them Off Streets'
In a city of gang shootings and entrenched poverty, Porter gives his charges patience, discipline and attention. "It helps the kids," said Deborah Ford, whose 8-year-old daughter Shavonda Maxwell has trained with Porter since she was 4. "It keeps them off the streets."
Competing against--and beating--groups from much more affluent backgrounds allows the Flyers to "see the other side of what life is all about," said Porter, who graduated from the college in 1976 with an associate of arts degree, intending to become an art teacher.
"People say, 'Oh, your kids are from Compton,' and then they roll their eyes," he added, smiling because his Compton youths walk away with the prizes. "I have something to offer them that they like to do."
Plans on Olympics
Shavonda, who recently won a first place in Las Vegas for a solo routine, started with Porter after watching a film about a gymnastics star. "She started flipping all over my house. I decided to put her in class before she broke something," Ford said. "She loves it, says she's going to the Olympics."
Altogether, Porter works with about 30 youngsters in the program. He runs a baby tumbling group of 4- to 6-year-olds and a beginning group of slightly older children preparing for the Flyers, boys and girls ranging in age from 7 to 26.
Twice a week the Flyers gather in the college gymnasium for two hours of practice. They don't use parallel bars or beams in their act, concentrating instead on mat routines involving tumbling feats.
They execute their moves serially or in unison, often creating a dance-like effect. "Everybody who works with this group has to understand they're part of a machine," said Porter, who competed in gymnastics as a Los Angeles high school student and who choreographs the troupe's routines.
Although an arts major, Porter worked in the college training room to earn money while attending Compton, "and it just sort of took hold." He became certified as an athletic trainer and has held that position at the college since 1978.
He also worked with the College for Kids program while a student. When the directors wanted a new course one summer, Porter fell back on his gymnast training to start a tumbling class. He used music to help the beginners master their timing, incorporating it into the end-of-course performance.
'Parents Went Wild'
"The parents went wild, so I just kept it up, year after year."
Originally all girls, the group was first called the Ebony Jewels.
Several alumnae of the Flyers have gone on to study dance in college, while four former members of the troupe who organized their own singing group--The Boys--recently climbed to the top of the soul charts with their song, "Dial My Heart." The four boys sang at the same performing arts competitions in which they appeared with the Flyers.
Ultimately Porter says he would like to help Compton youngsters compete at the national or even international level. To that end, he is hoping to persuade the college and the city to find the facilities to house a full-fledged, community gymnastics program.
In the meantime, he dreams up new routines. "I don't want the kids to ever think we're doing the same thing. That's boredom."