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The kick is the trademark. Performed from Hong Kong to the local Brookshire Brothers grocery store, the girls' kick looks effortless, as if some unseen puppeteer were tugging their smooth, perfectly straight legs into the air with marionette strings. But the kick is not effortless. Girls have bloodied their own noses with the kick.
O. Rufus introduced me to Rangerette culture in 2004. Having been dispatched by Texas Monthly to write about the summer tryouts, I went behind what one local called "the pine curtain" of East Texas to this town of roughly 12,000, where girls dream big just as the oil wildcatters before them did. Here, stunningly fresh-faced beauties can have a pure drill team existence, like a dance tour of duty. One Kilgore College staffer attempted to prepare me for the spectacle. Watching the Rangerettes perform to the school's fight song, she said, was an experience so powerful "it will make your hair stand on end."
But my imagination didn't do the team justice. When Rufus called me after my first day with the girls on campus, he wasn't surprised to find me speechless. They looked like a handful of candies. During the weeks I visited, they color-coordinated their daily wardrobe in a way that allowed for individual interpretation—stripes, polka dots, solids—while maintaining unity across the squad. They are determined to show enthusiasm for everything. Primarily, they show enthusiasm for the Rangerettes themselves. They sing to each other, dance with each other, laugh loudly, and stomp on the ground to show how much fun they're having. The group lives together in a $3.75-million-dollar dorm, leaving each other only on weekends, when they drive back to their hometowns since there is little entertainment in Kilgore. There is no mall, as anyone in town will quickly point out; shopping at the Super Wal-Mart is considered the sole leisure activity, besides seeing a movie at the four-screen theater.
The group's devotion has sprouted legends. While they love their current director, Dana Blair, like a mother, and respect her predecessor, Deana Bolton Covin, they reserve their worship for Gussie Nell Davis, who formed the Rangerettes—the world's very first drill team—in 1940, and is therefore idolized around campus in the form of T-shirts, photos, even a bronze bust. Stories abound about the demands of this petite drill sergeant in four-inch heels. Once, when a Rangerette fainted on the field, Ms. Davis stomped up to her and yelled, "I have no time for this! Get up!" She expected the girls to be polished and flawless, by God, and not just in performances. They would learn manners. They would say, "Yes ma'am, thank you, ma'am," and they would open doors for others. Beyond mere drill team perfection, ideal womanhood was the goal. "By the time I was through with [my girls], they were scared to death to act like heathens," Ms. Davis once said.
Some might find the institution antiquated—an ambitious, aggressively anachronistic fixture in a town not recently known for audacity. And yet nearly one hundred "hopefuls" flock to Kilgore each year to attempt to become one of the thirty-some girls selected for the freshman squad. Since the team is all about positivity, they call these tryouts "pre-training." Those who are chosen will be an extension to the elite line of ambassadors who uphold the group's values. Grace, beauty, charm, discipline, optimism, endurance, and precision under pressure have guided many Rangerettes through hard times, said one former member, "even if it was difficult to understand that not everybody strives for perfection." So if their dedication seems a little fanatical, it must be remembered that the Rangerettes are not just about the kick. Not hardly.
One need not look very hard to find their principles at work. After a week with the Rangerettes, you wouldn't be fazed to hear one of them say, "I had the opportunity to jump-split onto the thirty-degree pavement in the parade!" I watched girls strut through dance performances with such confidence you could hardly tell that one had mono, or that another had just thrown up in the middle of the routine. If their code "beauty knows no pain" leaves you scratching your head, they'll give you another saying: "You can't understand it from the outside, and you can't explain it from the inside." No doubt this mysterious slogan has lured many a young girl. One hopeful told me, "They've got all kinds of secrets, like I don't think freshmen are allowed to wear colored hair clips. See that one? She's wearing a colored hair clip, but she's a sophomore. There's other stuff—I don't know what. That's why you want to get in."
Having existed for almost seventy years, the Rangerettes inevitably have experienced a little change. The modern All-American girl is no fuddy-duddy—anyway, many young women couldn't pick the wholesome icon Sandra Dee out of a lineup, let alone former Rangerette Alice Lon, the Champagne Lady whom Lawrence Welk fired for showing her knees. Who is considered All-American these days? Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock fit the bill, the girls told me, debating a little about Britney Spears before knocking her off the list. Each new generation's interpretation of the girl next door leaves some traditionalists puzzled. One former Rangerette from way back told me, "I think Gussie Nell was more of a drill team instructor and Mrs. Bolton remained in that spirit. Now they've modernized it to where they're shaking—well, I don't care for modern dance."
Now, about the skirts. They know. Despite the cheesecake appeal, however, men aren't the ideal audience for the Rangerettes. The most appreciative audience is that tough group of critics: those who have worn the boots, the hat, the skirt. They may have become accountants, physicians' assistants, schoolteachers, attorneys. They may have become Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders or drill team instructors, spreading the word about the Rangerettes like missionaries so that girls can grow up not able to remember a time when they didn't know about the organization. Most former members say that being part of the Rangerettes was the best experience of their lives. And, really, after looking at these photos, would you doubt them?
The path that led to my fascination with photographing the Rangerettes began decades ago, in the 1960s. It was in Alabama, as a boy, that I first saw a dance drill team, the Marching Ballerinas. My dad was the photographer at Jacksonville State University, and as he filmed the football games atop the press box, I had the best seat in the stadium for viewing the halftime performances. It wasn't until about a decade later, when I arrived in Texas to go to school, that I first heard of the Rangerettes. A friend's sister told me she was a "Wranglerette [a member of a drill team at a Houston high school], not to be confused with the famous Rangerettes."
A few years later, as a photography student, I was investigating Elliott Erwitt's photographic style and wit. In my research I saw a picture of him in Kilgore, Texas, with a group of Rangerettes. This was perhaps a sign (unrealized at the time), since I have now been a teacher at Kilgore College for thirty years. It was not long after joining Kilgore College that I found myself atop another press box at football games, filming for the coaching staff and watching the halftime performances of the Rangerettes. During this period, each semester I would share with my photography students "Beauty Knows No Pain" by Elliott Erwitt, a compelling black-and-white documentary that portrayed the Rangerettes. I remember, on more than one occasion in my past, hearing graduate students who were studying sociology and psychology refer to this film about the Rangerettes, since it was used as a study in human behavior.
I spent about a decade filming these weekend small-town football extravaganzas, viewing Rangerette performances, and reviewing the Erwitt film, more times than I can remember. As a consequence I felt bound to project my photographic interest concerning the 'Rettes. I retired from making the game films to allow myself time on the field to take pictures. It was not by design, but by chance, that I began this project on the Rangerettes' fiftieth anniversary in 1989.
Precision, discipline, beauty, prestige, tradition—all are attributes that I have heard used to describe the Kilgore College Rangerettes, the nation's first dance drill team. A classic cultural icon, the Rangerettes, in all their beauty, pageantry, and patriotic red, white, and blue uniforms, have met with several United States presidents, have been featured in hundreds of publications including Life, Newsweek, Esquire, and Texas Monthly, and have performed coast to coast in the United States and in eight foreign countries. Yet none of these achievements is what drew me to photograph their public performances and rehearsals.
I am intrigued by the glamour of the Rangerettes' performances juxtaposed with the small-town atmosphere, football turf, metal bleachers, chain-link fences, and asphalt and concrete environment. Also interesting is the sense that my human subjects are not transformed into portraits of personalities, but rather into still-life images of place. Because the Rangerettes appear as an ensemble, a loss of personal identity often occurs; the individuals become depictions of shapes, patterns, and designs.
And finally, there is a certain timeless quality possessed by the Rangerettes—one that recalls the wonderment of my boyhood, and those many Saturday evenings with my dad atop the football stadium press box.