Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Performance art started in Texas and Gussie Nell Davis is proof positive thereof

My friends, Jeff and Heather Schrunk, have a daughter who is going off to school at Kilgore College and she's trying out to be a Kilgore Rangerette. So I'm posting this piece I wrote a couple of years ago in Allison's honor. We're proud of you, Allison!!!

I should probably save this piece for football season, but I happened to be in an area bookstore recently and saw a section on all things Texas featuring a coffee table book on the Kilgore Rangerettes…and I was inspired.

Kilgore College is in East Texas (Kilgore, to be precise), not far from Tyler where I grew up. I was raised steeped in the tradition of the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles (my mother’s best friend was one). Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler had the Southern Belles and it was a big deal to make the team.

The Kilgore Rangerettes, founded by Miss Gussie Nell Davis, were the first gals ever to form a drill team on the college level. And that, mis amigos, was the genesis of the world wide drill team movement.

But what is a drill team, y’all ask?

A drill team, as we understand it in Texas, is a dance team that creates routines based on dance movement rather than military drill. These teams usually do not usually carry anything and can perform to recorded music. They do that thing they do during halftime at football games.

The Kilgore Rangerettes were not Miss Davis’ first drill team, however. Miss Davis was a high school physical education teacher with a love for music and dance. In 1928, she gathered up the girls of Greenville High School, formed the “Flaming Flashes” and taught them do dance routines using batons, flags, drums, bugles and a variety of props…but mostly the girls just danced. While other schools had female drum and bugle corps or pep squads performing at football games, the Flaming Flashes were the first to twirl and dance.

Personal sidebar: my cousin Amy was a Greenville H.S. Flaming Flash back in the 1980s.

I’m practically kin to a legend.

Drill teams haven’t always been considered glamorous, however.

Miss Davis and her Rangerettes caught all kinds of hell in the 1970s about the drill team culture. Feminists and other critics pitched a fit at the perceived emphasis on physical attractiveness of drill team members, and the rigorous and authoritarian training involved. Critics spewed that drill teams, especially the Rangerettes, were a troupe of “sexist” and “mindless Barbie Dolls,” and their activity was inappropriate in a scholarly setting. Miss Davis fought back, saying there was nothing wrong in learning self-confidence, discipline, cooperation and the ability to perform precision dance, along with poise, etiquette, and personal grooming. Hard work, team work, and a “boss lady” were necessary ingredients to produce a dance performance judged better than that of the professional Radio City Rockettes. She said half-time and special-event performances by the Flaming Flashes or the Rangerettes gave young women the same acclaim usually reserved for male athletes and, once in awhile, the band. Miss Davis did fess up that she was “really a devil” in 1940 when she put the Rangerettes' skirts hemmed shamelessly at two inches above the knee. Other than that, the young women, according to her, were always dressed modestly and sex appeal never came up in (polite) conversation.

Those with a passing familiarity with drill teams may have heard of American Dance/Drill Team. Miss Davis and Dr. Irving Dreibrodt founded the organization in 1958 to provide a medium for professional instruction for dance and drill teams around the United States.

Miss Davis (and yes, I realize I’ve called her “Miss Davis” all the way through this; it’s a Texas thing, so y’all just deal with it) was honored by the Houston Contemporary Museum of Art in 1975 for creating a “living art form.” The Houston Contemporary Museum of Art is nothing to sniff at, even if Houston is the armpit of Texas. Getting that kind of honor is a very big thing. Houston may be Houston, but it’s also a big, ol’ city with some pretty big-name folks who know what art really is. I guess ol’ Gussie Nell was “performance art” before “performance art” was trendy…or trendy with the East and West Coast folks. Of course, I have a hard time putting Miss Davis up there with Jackson Pollock, Marina Abramovic or even the Blue Man Group…but there she sits, a pioneer in performance art alongside the big names, both famous and infamous.

Now, y’all can laugh about our crazy Texas obsession with drill teams and Miss Davis, but since they first high-kicked their way to popularity starting in 1940, the Rangerettes have appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and Paris Match, as well as having gone to more bowl games than the Dallas Cowboys.

Not bad for a troupe of gals in short skirts and cowboy hats.

Miss Davis died in 1993. I was standing in the newsroom of KLTV Channel 7 when the news came. Our producer, also raised in Tyler, ripped the copy from the Associated Press wire service and read it out loud to us. Right then and there we had a moment of silence for Miss Davis because even the non-Texans in the room knew that a legend had passed, and the world would never step-ball-change or stag leap the same way again.

The Rangerettes live on. You can find ‘em at www.rangerette.com. Their rivals, the Tyler Junior College Apache Belles have their own equally high-tech and glossy site at www.apachebelles.com. And while it won’t help you understand the phenomenon any better, at least you’ll understand yet one more thing held dear by Texans…and quite possibly learn to appreciate a well-executed high-kick.

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