Hundreds of trophies. National and world championships. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the last 40 years, the Stepper-ettes have reached just about any and every pinnacle in the sport and art of baton twirling. But the glory of their times has come not in awards and accolades, but instead in the impression the organization has left on thousands of youngsters who have joined the twirling world to have fun, get active and make friends.
“It’s the kids every day coming through that door that keeps me doing it,” said Stepper-ette founder and lead instructor Sue Foehlinger, who started the group in 1973 in her parents’ Ralston driveway and later expanded it to church and school gymnasiums before opening Stepper-ette Studios near 108th and Harrison streets in La Vista.
“Day after day, night after night, I feel really blessed to have had all these neat things happen, but nothing more than seeing a girl leave here with a big smile on her face.”
May 25, the Stepper-ettes held their annual recital at the Ralston Arena and also hosted a large cross-section of the group’s alumnae base to share memories of their days twirling.
A hallmark of the group’s success can be seen in what is now happening for the Stepper-ettes with the advent of a new generation. Girls who twirled once upon a time are now registering their own daughters for classes.
Stephanie Pivovar Grams began her Stepper-ette career at 5 and continued twirling into her high school years and beyond. Her 3-year-old daughter Aurelia is in the midst of her first season with the Stepper-ettes’ preschool class and Grams herself is also an instructor at Stepper-ette Studios.
Grams said she remembers the early days of the Stepper-ettes stepping out onto the stage at the National Baton Twirling Championships at the University of Notre Dame.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t win national championships,” Grams said with a laugh. “It was just something we did in the summer, going to Notre Dame and having fun. We never dreamed there’d be a time when we’d be competing for world championships.”
Chris Krambeck Kilzer, who joined the Stepper-ettes in 1974 as a 4-year-old and twirled through 1989 and was part of one of the first national teams, now watches as her 8-year-old daughter Allison follows in her footsteps. Her niece, Sara Tefft, was also part of the 2012 world championship team.
“I loved baton,” Kilzer said. “It was probably just something my mom signed us up for and we brought a lot of friends along to have fun, but we grew to really appreciate it. Now, I’m so happy and grateful it’s something my daughter can do. It’s incredible what Sue and the teams have been able to accomplish, but it does come down to being a great opportunity for girls in our community.”
That community element has helped make the Stepper-ettes a recognizable name across the metro area, Grams said. Even before the fame of Macy’s and back-to-back World Baton Twirling Association titles, mentioning baton twirling in Omaha brought one name to mind.
“Everyone knows the Stepper-ettes,” Grams said. “You run into these connections all over Omaha. It’s such a big web you sometimes don’t even realize you’re a part of it.”
But no matter how big it gets, she said, Sue Foehlinger makes sure the Stepper-ettes remain an organization where everyone gets a shot.
“It’s just one of those places where you fit in,” Grams said. “It’s like a second family. Sue has made it that way. Now, I look at my own daughter and I feel really lucky she’s going to have the opportunity I had when i was 5, 6, 7 years old and I hope it’s something in her life that’s as wonderful as it has been in mine.”
The sentiment echoed far and wide at the May 25 recital.
Perhaps most poignantly, it came from three of the first second-generation Stepper-ettes — Sue Foehlinger’s daughters Tami Foehlinger Koel, Tina Foehlinger Hansen and Rachel Foehlinger.
“Thirty-two of these 40 years, I’ve been a part of it,” said Koel, who is also an instructor at Stepper-ette Studios. “It’s a big chunk of my life and my sisters’ lives. It’s been humbling to us to know how hard my mom has worked these 40 years and to be such an incredible leader of such a successful organization.
“The impact she’s had on her students to the extent that now those students have daughters in the program — that’s a big sign of what she’s accomplished. It doesn’t come with a trophy. It’s the influence my mom has had.”
Following the May 25 recital and three successive performances of the 40th anniversary show, Sue Foehlinger and her husband Bob, their day already bleeding into 18-hour territory, unloaded the last of the elaborate set back at Stepper-ette Studios.
The next day would bring a little more cleanup and then a refocusing of trajectory to next month’s National Championships at Notre Dame. But for the moment, the Foehlingers reveled in what they had just accomplished in spinning some 410 twirlers through a watershed moment in Stepper-ette history.
That’s when the real reward came, Sue said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the trips we do or the awards we win,” she said. “It’s the smiles and the kids. What a real celebration it was. I feel really good about that.”