CAMDEN, N.J. — Ice and mud surrounded the water tower in a rough neighborhood in this roughest of cities. Graffiti on the tower and on boarded-up windows of nearby houses spoke of despair: "Stop the Violence." "Stop Hating." "Keep Camden Clean."
As darkness fell, police cars cruised the grim streets, their headlights illuminating barren residential blocks and commercial stretches pockmarked by vacant storefronts.
But inside the water tower, it was a different world. Girls and a few boys — toddlers to teens — peeled off coats and scarves and gathered in giddy groups beneath fluorescent lights, chatting, laughing and practicing dance moves and cartwheels. A man pulled drums from a storage space.
At the center of it all was a cheerful woman in orange jeans and a baseball cap, with hair extensions tumbling down her back.
"Get ready!" the woman, Tawanda Jones, bellowed in a voice that soared over the din.
The crowd, including a few parents watching from the side, fell silent.
"One line!" Jones hollered.
Three dozen pairs of feet shuffled across the concrete floor as the youngsters organized themselves from tallest to smallest, with the speed that comes from practice.
Then Jones sent them marching, adjusting their arms, shoulders and posture as they stomped the length of the room to the thunderous beat of the drum. "It should not dangle at all!" Jones shouted at a girl whose arm was less than rigid.
Jones, 40, spotted someone chewing gum and ordered her to spit it out. She swooped down to pick up a pair of eyeglasses that had flown off the face of a marcher. She yelled advice, orders and encouragement as sweat formed on foreheads.
"Pick it up! March!"
It was another night of practice for the Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team, which Jones started as a teenager in 1986. Since then, she and her husband, Robert, have guided the team from practicing under highway overpasses to performing on "Dancing With the Stars." They've also provided a haven for children in one of the nation's most troubled cities.
Jones relies on donations to send team members to performances across the country and to buy costumes, drums and meals on the road. Practices take place in the abandoned water tower, which is warm and dry but has a moldy ceiling. There isn't enough space for the entire team — about 320 members — so Jones staggers practice, holding it four nights a week for different troupes.
Each practice seems to bring a new drama.
"What happened to your face?" Jones asked a girl who arrived tonight with scratches and welts on her cheeks. The teenager said she had been fighting with classmates who bullied her.
A tall young man approached Jones to say hi; he had been pistol-whipped a few days earlier in a robbery. "How you doing, baby?" Jones said.
His friend — also a drill team member — had been shot in the same incident. Last year, an 11-year-old team member was shot and paralyzed.
"They come in here with war marks," Jones said.
But the Sophisticated Sisters keep going, with Jones doing all she can to keep the children in school. She helps with their homework. She finds tutors for struggling pupils. She meets with their parents or guardians to be sure someone is watching over them.
"I don't want to see them go extinct," she said. "This whole thing has to do with saving lives, not just marching in front of the cameras."