Dance Team History
Call it a dance team, a drill team, a pom squad, or dance squad; it's all about the field event that keeps you in your seat during the half-time show. As a sport, team dance incorporates many of the same elements as cheerleading-tumbling, spinning, leaping, and sometimes pom-poms and even cheers. And like cheer, dance teams most often perform at sporting events, such as football and basketball, and often compete for awards. There are all levels of team dance; youth, college, all-star, and professional. Different than cheer, team dance routines use specific synchronized dance styles, such as jazz, hip-hop, leaps, turns, and kicks, all of which involve precision.
All-star dance teams hold annual tryouts for opportunities to compete regionally, nationally, and internationally. About 300 high school, college, and all-star teams compete in the national championships in Orlando, Florida, each year.
But as with every great tradition, there was a beginning.
Team dance dates to the pep clubs of the Roaring 20s. Pep clubs were the predecessors to drill teams. Throughout Texas and parts of the south, there were pep squads at more than 150 high schools, each squad having anywhere from 10 to 180 members, mainly women, dressed in long pleated skirts and military-style blouses. During the great depression, schools and colleges sought ways to inspire school spirit. Precision-oriented dance drills with a flare for swing set to marching band music seemed a good fit.
Groups performed in the stands and on the fields. Borrowing moves from the marching bands and the R.O.T.C., squads choreographed formations on the field, often the first letter of their school team. To the military drills, squads added popular dance styles of the day.
Uniforms changed with the times, as did the dance. Moves became less military and more dancelike, due to a pair of women who had no knowledge of each other and were from complete opposite sides of the state. They would be Gussie Nell Davis of the Texas Woman's College in Denton, coming to the fore in 1929, and in the early 1930s, an energetic young high school woman named Kay Teer, a cheerleader at Edinburg High School, in the Rio Grand.
With an education degree, Gussie would teach P.E. in Greenville, Texas, and was asked to sponsor the school's pep club. Barely knowing what a pep club was, Gussie came up with a few snappy military-style moves, set them to music, rhythm and dance, and the "Flaming Flashes", later shortened to "Flashes", were a hit. The crowds loved them, and the marching band joined in.
Within a few years the group's costumes changed from simple sweaters bearing the school letter, to fancy red wool coats with brass buttons and caps that matched the band's, with a visor and a little feather in the front. They wore Jodhpurs, or horse-riding breeches, with cowboy boots. Eventually they added batons, and the group learned to play drum and bugles. After a few lessons they became a drum and bugle corps.
Hundreds of miles from Gussie, Kay Teer, with the blessings of the principle of Edinburg High School, formed an impressive group of 50 women who hadn't made the cheer team to perform on the football field at half-time. When she later returned to the school to teach P.E., she became the director of the Red and Blue Sergeanettes, so-named in 1936.
Clad in red and blue military-like uniforms with brass buttons and an army-style cap, the drill team added flare to the marches they performed on the field. The group grew to be a precision dance team that impressed many. Kay would now be in high demand, and in 1939, after earning her Master's and moving to California to work on her doctoral degree in Southern California, the physical education department at El Centro High School offered her a sweet salary to begin a drill team there. As part of a class project, Kay organized a national dance and drill team competition, which became California's first Miss Drill Team USA. It continued with success, and to this day includes participants from around the country and abroad.
Popular trends cannot sit still. Dance fever spread like fire.
The two women, and others, were turning pep squads into drill and dance teams at various schools throughout the state. There were more than 150 pep squads and drum and bugle corps across Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, with some groups exceeding 100 members, many of them being men. Some dance teams became in high demand, performing in parades and shows around the state.
Gussie was called to Kilgore College where she started a western style drill team called Kilgore Rangerettes, after the Rangers football team. Its first performance in September of 1940 drew participants from all over east Texas. Some say little has changed about the costume except the length of the skirt. According to its website, the drill team provided "a way to attract women to the college and keep people in their seats during football game halftimes". The group became famous around the country. It was invited to perform in a number of prestigious shows, including the 1946 Rose Bowl, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Ed Sullivan show.
Mildred Stringer, founder of a dance group called the Blue Brigade, also founded and directed Tyler Junior College's "Tyler Roses", named after the "Rose Capital of the World". The name was later changed to the Apache Belles. In her lifetime she changed the group from a pep squad to a legendary precision dance team, famous for using their skirts and capes as props.
Other parts of the country caught on, and in the late 1940s drill teams had begun to spread throughout the south, the Midwest, and into California. It was thought to be a great way to rebuild morale after the Second World War. Pep and drill teams were now on the map for spunky young school-aged women with a flare for dance.