The Rich, Black, Southern Heritage Of Hip-Hop Majorettes
The choreography of these college dance troupes makes me feel proud knowing that this artistry is so deeply embedded in black American life, there is little danger of it ever being appropriated.
As a boy back in Arkansas, we called them dancing girls. These all-women dance troupes combined the energy of the high-step marching style of black college bands with lyrical, West African, jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop choreography. The result was almost too sexual to be looked at straight on. Back then, I could only steal glances at the Golden Girls, the majorettes for the band at my father’s alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I wasn’t old enough to be leering at grown women like that, and why else would a boy be so transfixed by the dancers, unless of course he was “that way.”
You no longer have to be an initiate of Southern black college culture — the kin of some insufferably proud Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) alumni; annual attendee to a black college classic or homecoming game; bystander at a local Juneteenth parade; nostalgist for TLC’s “Baby-Baby-Baby” video, or NBC’s A Different World or Spike Lee’s School Daze — to recognize the style of dance performed by hip-hop majorettes. But even that term, “hip-hop majorette,” is a recent invention, a hastily applied umbrella description for a tradition of movement defined by dance lines that have fronted the marching bands of historically black colleges since the late ’60s. Hip-hop is an anachronistic but necessary distinction meant to distinguish this auxiliary group from more customary majorettes, women who march before traditional bands twirling batons.
Beyoncé’s recent Netflix concert film Homecoming highlights her admiration for the hip-hop majorette style. Her iconic Coachella performance, which opens with a phalanx of majorette-inspired dancers clearing the way for Bey costumed as Nefertiti, arrives at an auspicious moment for majoretting. Advocates of this uniquely Southern performance style — a community that includes both Southern straight black women and femme gay black men — have been using digital media platforms over the past decade to formalize and institutionalize the genre as a dance discipline. The 2018 Beychella performance is a culmination of many cultural phenomena that have helped amplify the visibility of majorette dance, including the emergence of commercial dance through televised dance competitions, the continued popularity of dance reality programming like Lifetime’s Bring It! (which just aired its fifth season and has spawned a road tour that travels the South), and the work of amateur videographers who upload weekly game performance footage to YouTube, creating a digital archive of the dance form and making performances available for future study.
Hip-hop majoretting began formally in the late ’60s. Marching bands had long featured carnivalesque acts pulling acrobatic stunts or tossing and catching flaming batons as a part of their halftime entertainment, but dance lines enabled bands to dramatize the popular songs they were beginning to mine from the radio.
There is some dispute over which school’s dance line debuted first, an issue that still regularly rouses debate from fans online. As the ability to watch black college bands was often limited to spectators at sports games, Alcorn State University’s claim that its Golden Girls made their national debut at a televised 1968 Orange Blossom Classic offers a tenuous origin date for hip-hop majorettes, or “a featured squad with choreographed movements to an HBCU’s marching band’s live tunes,” as the GGs define it.
The Dancing Dolls of Southern University officially date back to 1969, founded by team adviser/coach Gracie Perkins and then–band director Isaac Greggs. The Dolls have enjoyed national acclaim due to the annual Bayou Classic in New Orleans, which is one of the few nationally televised HBCU football games. Jackson State’s J-Settes were founded in 1971, when Shirley Middleton, a former majorette and the squad’s initial sponsor, petitioned for the majorettes to “put their batons down.” Middleton, along with JSU twirler and choreographer Hollis Pippins, and eventual sponsor Narah Oatis, pioneered j-setting, a style so unique its movement is still recognizable in much of hip-hop majoretting today.
These all-women dance troupes combined the energy of the high-step marching style of black college bands with lyrical, West African, jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop choreography.
Traditionally, majorette fans choose between the more balletic style of the Southern University Dancing Dolls or the more bawdy bucking of the J-Settes. The Dolls’ style privileges fluidity in movement, a quality they describe as being poured “like milk.” They are famous for their port de bras, or arcs made through the air with graceful, supported arms; slow body rolls; and struts and stand counts (eight counts of choreography performed and repeated in the stands of a stadium) which make them look like they are prancing and can be read as prissy.
If the Dolls pantomime seduction, then the J-Settes employ a style that is more explicit. J-Settes prefer grounded, flat-footed movement; they squat or bend or buck. To buck is to aggressively thrust the pelvis forward, a movement that is obviously sexually suggestive — and in the rubric of American sexuality, deviant when cast on a feminine body. It’s almost an inversion of twerking — another dance phenomenon white Americans took some time to fully metabolize. Bucking is done to the bawdy, pulsating fortissimo of a raucous brass section, the crack of a snare, or the explosive boom of a bass drum. Doing so becomes an affirmation that a receptive sexual partner can also claim pleasure by thrusting ecstatically, a rebuff against an American sexual politics that historically resigns the passive partner to demuring sex. Straight black women and gay black bottoms reclaim power through the movement by refuting a white, puritanical dictum that bodies should not desire or enjoy the passive position...though, of course, it’s classier than that.
Hip-hop majoretting has experienced sporadic widespread exposure since the early ’70s, mostly due to its proximity to the spectacle of the marching band. In the 1990 televised Motown retrospective Motown 30, Jackson State University’s band, the “Sonic Boom of the South,” and its J-Settes marched and performed at the Pantages Theatre. Since 1991, NBC Sports has broadcast the Bayou Classic, offering a national audience glimpses of the sequined majorettes of Southern and Grambling State. In 2003, JSU again took the stage for a televised event, this time the NAACP Image Awards. But due to the rising popularity of commercial dance, majoretting has begun to attract admirers singularly interested in its artistry.
Bucking is done to the bawdy, pulsating fortissimo of a raucous brass section, the crack of a snare, or the explosive boom of a bass drum.
The rise of a different squad of Dancing Dolls, the youth competitive dance team formed by veteran dancer Dianna Williams in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2010, has ignited interest in the discipline in young girls nationally, especially throughout the Southeastern states. (This group has no affiliation with Southern University’s Dancing Dolls.) Though not a former J-Sette or SU Dancing Doll herself, Williams began training as a dancer as a child and started the Grove Park Majorettes in 2002, also serving as a recreational aide and dance instructor in north Jackson. Since 2014, she’s been the star of Lifetime’s Bring It!, which records the lives of the Dancing Dolls and the sometimes-volatile relationship between Williams and the girls’ stage moms. The team has enjoyed enough success that it has been franchised in both Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta. In June, Bring It! Live, a road show featuring dancers from the series will embark on its fourth touring season, generating widespread interest in the form.
With Bring It!, Lifetime combined the elements of a traditional reality show with captivating performance footage. Despite the shouting matches outside the dance studio or emotional breakdowns from dancers backstage, the results of Williams’ tough love methods were something to marvel at as girls as young as 4 executed the routines. Alums of the show have gone on to audition and perform as members of traditional black college dance lines once they’ve enrolled as students, proof that dance instructors are successfully constructing a pipeline into the collegiate ranks. This past season, Janae Harrington, formerly of Lifetime’s Step It Up reality program, danced with Alabama State University, now an official Stingette; and former Dancing Dolls of Jackson and Bring It! stars Camryn Harris and Makalah Whisenton performed weekly as members of the Southern University Dancing Dolls and Jackson State University J-Settes, respectively.
Amateur videographers who formerly recorded the entire band now focus on the dance lines. These videos now serve as an impressive library documenting the dance genre. “Stand counts” — choreography performed in the stands, first by the team captain before rippling back through each successive line of dancers — were once passed down solely through collective memory; they’re now being preserved on film. Amateur filmmakers like Trinion Winbush, Marvin Price, and Demaridge have all meticulously compiled footage of collegiate dance lines as far back as 2011 on YouTube channels of the form, making the dances available to watch more broadly.
Price and Winbush have even broadened their catalogs to include lifestyle and performance videos of the McKinley Pantherettes, an accomplished high school majorette line in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who regularly supplies dancers to the SU Dancing Doll ranks.
These YouTube channels also increase the visibility of gay male and gender-nonconforming majorettes in the South. Traditionally a clandestine alliance has existed between the all-women teams and their ardent gay admirers. Southern piety dictated that queer performers be relegated to serving as coaches, choreographers, or spectators in the conservatively gendered spaces where college dance lines performed. But largely through collaborations between choreographer Kentrell Collins and dance lines throughout the SWAC, HBCU dance lines now offer instruction and affirmation to aspiring male and female majorette dancers. Collins and the Prancing Elites, a gay and gender-nonconforming dance team from Mobile, Alabama, even appeared on Oxygen’s The Prancing Elite Project for two seasons. He’s since begun organizing the biannual HBCU Dance Affair, a rare opportunity for Southern black gay men and straight black women to come together as allies in celebrating femininity. The Affairs create a radical space for femme gay male and gender-nonconforming dancers to visibly participate in the artistry of hip-hop majoretting alongside their female peers.
I’ve been watching majorette videos on YouTube since at least 2012, back when Charlene and Charlotte Johnson, identical twins, served as captain and tail of the J-Settes at Jackson State. I remember them because twins always caused a special frisson on majorette dance lines, even before Raeven and RaeAna Hall danced with the Dancing Dolls back in 2007. The doubling only eerily heightened the effect of the line’s call and response, when a captain throws an eight-count and the team, all of whom are already dressed identically, meticulously parrot her movements.
Watching these videos in adulthood made me feel proud (as someone throwing a hip to the beat of a bass drum is wont to do), knowing that this artistry is so deeply embedded in black American life, there was little danger of it ever being appropriated. It was mine, something of home to unwrap, even if I was so far away in Brooklyn. The brassy sound of the band from my computer speakers was not unlike how it felt to walk beneath the stands at a stadium for a black college classic as a child, holding the hand of my father, my cousin LaTeisha, my cousin Rita. Even as a grown man, that choreography and sound gave me access to parts of myself both private and dear — Southern, black, sissy, somebody’s child.
The showmanship and glamour of the majorettes had always been the export of my community, carnivals that traveled to sites across the landscape of the Great Migration, carrying the football teams of Southern black schools who once, out of necessity, produced most black college graduates in America. The classics became essential marketing once athletic programs from formerly segregated, all-white state universities — the same schools that had necessitated the founding of historically black colleges in the first place — became integrated and began gutting the football programs of those HBCUs as they looked for recruits. In a way, the band produced proto–music videos, pairing choreography with popular black music from the radio. Black entertainment was again being deployed to ensure the survival of black institutions.
Over the years, I’ve been transfixed by majorette dancers: first Kayla Pittman at Southern, then Asia Martin and Ajhayda (Jada) McClain from the Stingettes at Alabama State. Then Danielle Stamper, a former SU Dancing Doll, now co-coaching the McKinley High Pantherettes with Lashalln LaGarde down in Baton Rouge. Now, my affection flits back and forth between the Dolls and Stingettes, watching for glimpses of Camryn from Lifetime’s Bring It! and the current Stingettes captain, Yasmine Whitehurst. The art form is still mine, intimately so, in the way much black art remains. It’s just that now the world knows about it. Hopefully, future generations will too. ●
Frederick McKindra, a fiction writer and essayist, lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. He received an MFA in fiction at the New School in New York City. His essay “Becoming Integrated” from the fall 2017 issue of the Oxford American magazine was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als. A 2017 BuzzFeed Emerging Writer fellow, Frederick has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as a 2017 work-study scholarship recipient for fiction and the Lambda Literary Foundation as a 2017 writer in residence. Find him on Twitter at @boxfade.