When the number 38 flashed on the screen, Sahara Yaphet couldn’t believe it.
She looked again. And again. But she wasn’t dreaming. The computer page revealing the tryout results confirmed it: she’d been chosen to join the Highland Belles.
“I started screaming and crying,” the 16-year-old junior said about that December day in her sophomore year.
Her accomplishment ended a personal journey that began as a freshman when she decided to try out. But back then, earning a spot on the award-winning drill team at Highland Park High School seemed as distant as her Caribbean island home.
Yaphet grew up on the French territorial island of Saint Barthelemy, or St. Barts, in the French West Indies. Her parents, Albert Yaphet and Jo-Anne Quetel, own a jewelry store on the island of 8,000 known for its beautiful beaches and romantic resorts.
Sahara attended the French public school system on St. Barts. But classes are only offered through eighth grade. Sahara and her parents, who are U.S. citizens, always knew high school would have to be somewhere else. Fortunately, her parents had been friends for many years with Aaron and Lori Lloyd and their family in University Park.
With her parents, Sahara first visited the Lloyds when she was in sixth grade. She returned in eighth grade and attended her first HPHS pep rally. So when the Lloyds asked if she’d like to stay with them and go to HPHS, Sahara said yes.
With the freshman year about to start for Sahara at a new school in a new city, Lori urged Sahara to try out for the Belles.
“She was coming to the states after living on a small island,” Lori Lloyd said. “Going to a high school of over 2,000 would have been so overwhelming. I wanted her to find a group where she’d fit in.”
Sahara took jazz and contemporary dance classes in grade school, but no drill. As she started the Belles prep class she was intimidated, such as when she was asked to perform a Russian.
“I didn’t really know what it was, to be honest,” Sahara said. “I didn’t know it was a dance team that dances for football games. I love dancing, so why not?”
At Belles tryouts as a freshman, Sahara kept an open mind about her chances. But when the results came back, “it was disappointing,” she said. “But, I thought, keep at and try harder next time.”
Her renewed effort included her first formal drill training in the spring semester of her freshman year. With tryouts again approaching, her parents back on St. Barts cheered her on from afar through Skype every day.
“I was there every single morning for her. I was her alarm clock,” Quetel said. “We talked about the day before and what she needed to do that day. This helped her to know that Albert and I were there for her 100 percent.”
Highland Belles director Shannon Phillips said Sahara’s story is significant for all girls who want to become Belles.
“Sahara is a fantastic example of a dancer with a dream backed by the mental toughness to succeed,” Phillips said. “Often times, people think a Belle hopeful must begin Belles-specific training at a very young age. While that certainly doesn’t hurt, Sahara wasn’t at all distracted by that presumption. She had never danced a step in our style prior to entering my Belles prep class as a freshman, and although she didn’t make it her first try, Sahara put her blinders on and went back to work. I was thrilled to see her dream realized this year.”
Having been in the Belles for a year now, Sahara says she’s learned a lot.
“Working so hard on each dance is so worth it when you are at the pep rallies and on the football field performing,” Sahara said. “I worked so hard for this and I love it.”