The first lady of drill team

Gussie Nell Davis (center) with the Kilgore College Rangerettes, circa 1948.

Pioneers do not often lead conventional lives. Take the case of Gussie Nell Davis (1906–1993), founder of the precision drill team dancing still seen during football halftime shows today. Never a wife or mother, Davis instead devoted her life’s work to a group of 30 to 55 young women, known as the Kilgore College Rangerettes. For four decades she directed the heralded team, which gushed out of oil-rich Kilgore, Texas, and onto the national scene in 1940. Davis’ groundbreaking style of patriotically clad girls high-kicking in military-like formations sparked a movement throughout high schools and colleges around the globe, and it eventually led to a multibillion dollar industry that now encompasses uniform and prop companies, worldwide drill camps, specialist choreographers and travel agencies dedicated to the drill-team-dance style she developed.

Born in Farmersville, TX, Davis always loved to move to music, but dancing was not widely accepted in the Bible Belt; her mother groomed her to be a concert pianist. “She hated being physically inactive,” says former Rangerette Mazie Jamison. “Her mother used to tell her, ‘I’ll give you a nickel if you sit still for five minutes.’” Davis defied her parents’ wishes and chose to study physical education, at what is now Texas Woman’s University, as an outlet to take social and folk dance classes. At age 20, Davis, who was an excellent student and a quick learner, earned a master’s in science from the University of Southern California, and in 1929 she took a job in Greenville, TX, directing the pep squad at Greenville High School. The team marched complex drills, using small wooden batons, flags, drums and bugles as props, during every football game halftime. Davis slowly integrated dance moves into the routines, molding her Flaming Flashes into the first twirl-and-dance group.

In 1939, Dean B. E. Masters of Kilgore College hired Davis to design a form of entertainment that would stop football attendees from drinking alcohol during halftime, and to help boost the college’s female population. Her suggestion: an all-girl student team that combined dance and precision military drill. Outfitted in Western-style hats, boots and red, white and blue skirted uniforms, the Rangerettes’ debut performance was a huge success. Fireworks exploded into the air as the girls emerged out of total darkness, performing with a military might. “There was a gasping hush across the audience,” one onlooker recalled to Shelley Wayne, the team’s current assistant director and choreographer, decades after the event.

But the Rangerettes didn’t rise to the top without facing controversy. Feminist groups criticized the team’s emphasis on physical appearance, authoritative training and short skirts, which fell two inches above the knee. Davis countered by marketing her girls as paradigms of old-fashioned female virtue. “Sex is a word I have never used with my girls, and I never will,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1974. “Sure, I tell them that when they’re out on that field I want them to forget they’re mama’s little girls and project! After the game they’re mama’s little girls again.”

Through discipline, Davis transformed her group into a poised and self-confident elite squad. “She was drill instructor, but she could also be charming,” says Jamison. When the going got tough (scalding heat, freezing rains, hours of waiting at attention), Davis knew how to rally her team. She told them, “Beauty knows no pain.” The motto electrified. The Rangerettes worked to be as precise as “Miss Davis,” who at five feet tall and impeccably dressed was nothing less than a fireball, says Wayne.

As other drill teams began to bloom throughout the region, the competitive-natured Davis stayed ahead by directing routines that were increasingly athletic and acrobatic. The kicks got higher; the spatial patterns became more complex (circle formations turned into stars); props included lassos and scrubbing boards; and the vocabulary expanded to incorporate steps from jazz, ballet and acrobatics. The Rangerettes’ presence was requested everywhere: 50 Cotton Bowls, rodeos, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, presidential inaugural events (they performed on the same bill as New York City Ballet for Eisenhower’s inauguration) and abroad. Initially, Davis served as the sole choreographer, but in 1948 she hired Denard Haden, an admired East Texas choreographer, to help create material. She needed more time to teach her team about etiquette, posture, fashion and ethics to shape them into highly marriageable young women.

Davis retired in 1979, taking on a new title as the team’s godmother. She died on December 20, 1993. During her career, she was given numerous commendations, including an honor from the Houston Contemporary Museum of Art for creating a “living artform” and an induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. To this day, Rangerettes past and present still salute their beloved role model. The alumni group, Rangerettes Forever, is one of the largest contributors to Kilgore, and in 2006, a former team member gave the college $3.5 million to build the Gussie Nell Davis Residence Hall—a testament to the legacy of young women whose lives Davis touched and helped prepare for life beyond college. DT

 

Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds graduate degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo: courtesy of Kilgore College

 

 

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