Thanksgiving Day. The parade drifts down the avenue. As the band strikes up “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” 53 rosy-cheeked, nubile women converge suddenly into a double circle, snap their flags to the beat, and burst into a kaleidoscope of dance. They move flirtatiously, with great precision and gymnastic rigor, their tiny cowgirl skirts flaring, tassels fluttering, smiles flashing. Dance drill teams are a highlight at parades, ribbon cuttings, and football halftimes, and all over Texas the girls folks love best are the Kilgore Rangerettes.
The Kilgore College team was the first group of its kind in the world and is still considered by most aficionados to be the best. The prancing coeds, in red-white-and-blue Western outfits, introduced Broadway-caliber show business to the gridiron in 1940 and were the prototypes for all the high school, college, and professional groups that followed.
In 1939 Kilgore College dean (and staunch Baptist) B. E. Masters asked Gussie Nell Davis to devise a halftime distraction entertaining enough to keep spectators from using the break to have a few drinks under the bleachers. Masters also wanted to attract more women to the college—the male-to-female ratio back then was six to one—and he was adamant in his dislike of drum andbugle corps, which he considered too military and unfeminine.
It was a challenge for Davis. She had started the Greenville High School Flaming Flashes drum and bugle corps in 1928, only a year after the debut of the world’s first all-girl drum and bugle corps—the Sam Houston High School Black Battalion, in Houston. Davis, who went on to direct the Rangerettes for 39 years, had always wanted to be a dancer, but in the early twenties the mores of her hometown of Farmersville had forbidden it; no self-respecting young woman would have thought of doing a high kick in public. It seemed more acceptable in a group, though. “So I put those girls out there, and they were me!” she says. That first dance team on the field was an instant success.
The fans stayed in the stands and watched the second half in unaccustomed sobriety.
The Rangerettes reigned unchallenged for nearly a decade, until 1947, when the late Mildred Stringer formed the 20-member Apache Belles at nearby Tyler Junior College. In 1960 former Rangerette Barbara Tidwell created the Strutters at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos. Today the 130 Strutters make up one of the largest groups in the nation; the Rangerettes and the Apache Belles—now with 48 members—are average-sized teams. Across the U.S. about 75,000 high school girls participate in dance drill. Texas, California, and Utah lead the nation, but Texas outdistances the rest with 15,000 high school and 1,000 college high-kickers.
They’re in the business of promoting their schools. Many groups hire professional makeup artists, choreographers, and costume designers to go on the road with them. The Rangerettes, the Apache Belles, and the Strutters have been on the covers of national magazines, have appeared in presidential inaugural parades and at bowl games, have taken international tours, and have hit television and the big screen.
But don’t be deceived by the slick image. The girls may expose their thighs to millions of people on television, but woe to those who call it sex. In the industry, all that energy bundled in cute, wholesome wrappers is called projection. As one instructor used to tell her girls, “Look like you would, but don’t.”
Making the team is a rite of passage for small-town girls from sheltered backgrounds—like a first date or a first lipstick. Those chosen by a top-ranked dance team are still headline news in many Texas towns. Not long ago, in fact, my mother sent me a front-page clipping from the September issue of a community tabloid. A local girl had made the Rangerette line, and another was an alternate. Mom’s handwritten note at the top read, “This will help them ‘get a leg up’ in this world.”