Towards the end of the roaring twenties and beginning of the thirties
around the time of the Great Depression, two women in completely opposite
parts of the state, would change the face of precision performance and
impact our world called drill team. Each carved their own identity in the
groups they directed without ever having crossed paths until several
In 1929, a petite lady named Gussie Nell Davis, returning
from an education at Texas Woman's College (Texas Woman's University in
Denton, Texas) and a masters degree at U.C.L.A., was asked to come to
Greenville High School in Greenville, Texas, to teach physical education
and sponsor the pep squad. "I turned to my sister (in California) and
said, what in the world is a pep squad?" Miss Davis queried.
The first year, they did stunts and held up letters and did a little
marching. The second year, they expanded on their marching drills and even
did a pigeon release on the field at a half-time. "The third year we
got these real cute little costumes that had sweaters with a 'G' on
them," Miss Davis said. "They thought we were real cute. We all
did! We started marching and doing all sorts of drills and added some
rhythm and dance steps to music. Then the band started doing it with
us!" she added.
"Then after a year or so we changed costumes again and got these cute
little red wool coats with brass buttons and we got caps like the band
with a visor and a little feather on the top front," she said.
"They didn't have such a thing as drum boots or that type. So, we got
jodhpurs that weren't too tall, but had a little bit of heel on them to
make those long skirts look a little bit more graceful," Miss Davis
"One day the girls were paying no attention to me. I looked over to
see what it was and there was a boy at the gates to the football filed
where we were rehearsing. I left them and went down to see what the young
man had in his hand," she continued. "What is that thing you
have in your hand?" she asked. "It's a baton," he
responded. "And what do you do with it?" she asked again.
"You twirl it," he said. "Show me," she inquired.
The group in Greenville was called the Flaming Flashes. Henry Franka, the
coach of the Greenville High School football team at the time said about
his team, "We are just like lightening, our football team is. And if
we are lightening, then you are the flash that is right there with
us." And so became the Flaming Flashes. They added a white satin
ascot to their uniform that had a FF on it. Now it has been shortened to
"One of those years Port Arthur High School came up to play
Greenville in the quarter finals of football. They had a drum and bugle
corps. We were sitting in the auditorium when along came something that
sounded like an earthquake...all the thunder in the world. All those drums
and bugles were beating coming up the front steps and around the
auditorium," she explained. "Little did I dream that I would
soon be traveling to Orange, Texas, to see Letcher Stark to buy bugles and
drums and to learn sort of what to do," Miss Davis said. "So, I
had to learn to blow a bugle and beat a drum and after our bandmaster gave
me a few lessons, he said, 'Now they're yours, you take them.' And so, I
had a drum and bugle corps."
In the early thirties, over 700 miles away in the Rio Grande Valley, was a
spunky young student named Kay Teer. She was a born leader and was easily
elected as cheerleader in 1930 from a field of over sixty candidates at
Edinburg High School. As many of the candidates were her friends, she was
sad for the girls that didn't make it as she knew they were just as eager
to support the team as she was. She went to Mr. C.A. Davis, the principal
of the school, and asked if there was any way that the other 50 plus girls
could form a group to go out on the field at half-time and be a part of
school spirit. "As convincing and as determined as Kay was that day
in my office, I knew I had to agree with her idea for I figured she could
easily go to the 'higher ups' and I really liked being principal!"
said Mr. Davis at the team's Golden Anniversary celebration in 1986. After
graduation from the University of Mary Hardin Baylor, Kay returned to Edinburg H. S. to teach physical education and
to direct the Red and Blue Sergeanettes, as they would be named in 1936.
They had beautiful red and blue military style uniforms that had shiny
brass buttons and an army style cap. They marched on the field with a
'military swing' style. The Sergeanettes eventually evolved into a precision dance
group that brought acclaims from around the state. They continue their
rich traditions, still following the original constitution and guidelines
that were set in 1936 under Kay Teer's (Crawford) direction.
In 1939, after earning her master's degree, Kay moved to California to
work on her doctoral degree at University of Southern California. The
physical education department was quite impressed with her work and
background. In the early forties the principal at El Centro High School
was so impressed that he offered her triple her Texas teaching salary to
start a precision dance/drill team at his school. It was an offer she
could not refuse.
As Mrs. Crawford continued her doctoral studies, she organized a project
in her methods class that involved a national dance/drill team
competition. Because it was a methods class, they had to follow through
with their project, so thus became the first Miss Drill Team USA in
California. It was such a success, they continued the following year, and
over thirty years later, the oldest and most successful continuing
competition in dance/drill team history continues today and includes teams
not only from across the U.S. but several foreign countries as well.
There were over 150 schools in Texas during the 1930's and 1940's that had
pep squads or drum and bugle corps. The Ball High School Tornettes had
over 100 members and had evolved from a pep squad to a drum and bugle
corps, then a military marching group and eventually a precision drill
team. One of their directors was Barbara Tidwell, a former Kilgore College
Rangerette, in the late fifties before she was recruited to come to
Southwest Texas State University to start the first team at a four year
college called the Strutters (1960). Other schools with group membership
that exceeded 100 members at the time were Abilene High School, Austin
High School (Red Jackets), Beaumont High School, Brownwood High School,
Woodrow Wilson High School (Dallas), El Campo High School, Gatesville High
School, Reagan High School (Houston), Sam Houston High School (Houston),
Orange High School, Palestine High School, San Angelo High School,
Brackenridge High School (San Antonio), Thomas Jefferson High School
(Lassos, San Antonio), Sweetwater High School, Temple High School (Pepperettes ), Texarkana High School, and Waco High School to name a few.
Several of the teams even had boys as part of the pep squad. Some of these
teams were Brenham High School, Cameron High School, Commerce High School,
Ennis High School, Kaufman High School, Kressi High School, Mt. Pleasant
High School and Mineola High School, who led the state with the most male
participation with 25 boys in addition to 50 girls.
John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas formed a pep squad of 34 women in
1929. The group flourished and grew to 80 members in 1936 and was named
the Blue Brigade under the direction of Mildred Springer. "It was the
most exciting thing to happen. The organizing of the Blue Brigade along
with the Drum and Bugle Corps, " said Katherine Saleh Peters, one of
the charter members of the Blue Brigade from 1936. "Being a part of
parades including the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show parade were a first.
Remembering the John Tyler H.S. quarter finals against Temple High
School....we lost but the train ride was a great adventure!" she
continues. "The way I got in the Drum and Bugle Corps was I borrowed
my cousin's Boy Scout bugle since all of the instruments had already been
assigned. Lucky me!" she exclaimed.
Opal Morgan Matthews was a member of the Blue Brigade in 1942. She had
fond memories..."How we loved Mildred Stringer and how we wanted to
be just like her! One year the Blue Brigade had a big write up in Life
Magazine back when the magazine was big and everyone read it. " She
continues, "We always wore white gloves with our uniforms....white
cotton gloves. They were furnished to us by Burks-Walker Funeral
In 1939, Dean Masters, the vice president of Kilgore College, contacted
Gussie Nell Davis in Greenville, Texas, about coming to Kilgore to start a
group that would 'be interesting and keep the folks in their seats at
half-time.' They also needed to recruit women to the school since the
enrollment was primarily made up of men who were seeking to learn more
about the oil business. Miss Davis responded, "Well, what do you
want, a drum and bugle corps?" Dean Masters just laughed. He sat back
in his chair and said, "Over my dead body." Miss Davis queried,
"Well, what do you want?" He said, "Hmmm. That's why I
Well, after Miss Davis conceived the idea of having a precision dance
group perform on the field with the band, there had to be a costume. So
she secured Earl Ford, an art student at the college to come up with a
drawing. She decided on the name Rangerettes because the football team was
the Rangers. The boots were not western but the gauntlets, belt and hat
were. 'We were little devils wearing the skirts two inches above the
knee!" Miss Davis laughed. She took the design to Oak Cliff Uniform
Company in Dallas to make the first uniform. The man there knew exactly
what to do. He made uniforms for the drive-in restaurant waitresses and
had Miss Davis take a look at all the designs. The boots were made in Fort
Worth and the hats came from Chicago. The skirts were made in Dallas and
the blouses in Fort Worth.
And so September 12, 1940, marked the first performance of the Kilgore
College Rangerette line on the gridiron. They came from all around East Texas to
be a part of this first group. There were 48 members on the line with 5
officers in front. There were no reserves at the time so if someone was
ill or couldn't perform, Miss Davis donned a uniform and jumped right in
the line to perform in her place! Has the uniform changed much over the
years? "Just the skirt," Miss Davis would explain. "It has
come up, and up, and up....why it is only about 12" long now!"
Word spread quickly around the country about the Kilgore Rangerettes. They
became very much in demand for special performances including conventions
and grand openings including the Shamrock Hotel in Houston. They were even
invited to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Ice Capades, Macy's
Thanksgiving Day Parade, the 1946 Rose Bowl, the 1949 Cotton Bowl, The
Houston Metropolitan Museum even declared them a new 'art form.'
In less than a decade, there was another precision dance group that
premiered from East Texas. In 1947, Tyler Junior College established the
"Tyler Roses," named for the town being known as the Rose
Capitol of the World. In December of that year, the name would be changed
to Apache Belles by director Mildred Stringer, who had also founded the
John Tyler High School Blue Brigade in 1936. President of the college,
Harry E. Jenkins, wanted to have a drill team or pep squad program for
women. Stringer, who continued to direct the Apache Belles until her death
in 1963, transformed the group from the idea of a pep squad to a world
famous dance/drill team with her charisma and attention to detail. They
were the first to incorporate the uniform as a prop through their skirt
and cape routines.
In 1948, former Tyler High School cheerleader, Alfred Gilliam, was hired
to be the full time dance instructor and choreographer for the Belles. It
was Gilliam who created the trademark style and unique dance routines that
made the Apache Belles famous practically overnight. Gilliam combined
style and grace to create glamorous half-time shows that kept people in
their seats at half-time.
Precision dance didn't stay exclusive to Texas long. Towards the end of
the forties, there were groups cropping up throughout Louisiana, Oklahoma,
Kansas, California and Iowa. The new group of the future for young women
continued to spread in popularity throughout the Midwest including
Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana and further west in Washington State.
Show business seemed to have an impact on the teams in California by
presenting pageantry type halftimes. This was only the beginning.
Following World War II in the late forties, the nation looked to
reunification of the people and half-time shows were an added bonus when
the men cam back from the war. Drill team was not only here to stay...it
would create a new venue and identity for young women around the nation.
Drill Team Marches On in the 50's and 60's......
Joyce Pennington is in the process of compiling the history of dance/drill
team for every region of the country and around the world for Dance/Drill
Team Directors of America. You will see spotlights on several states and
regions of the country in future issues along with how drill team evolved
and spread during the 1950's to present. If you have information that
would be helpful in completing an accurate account of the history of drill
team in your state, please contact Joyce at 800/462-5719 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.