Sweethearts of Gridiron

 

Editor's Note: This story also is in IN Magazine. To read the magazine on line, go to inmagtexas.com.

 

Emily Diehl, captain of the Kilgore College Rangerettes, and Emily Wendt, a lieutenant, are waiting to be interviewed in the Rangerette Showcase and Museum, a shrine to the world famous, high-kicking precision dance team.

They are wearing the traditional all-white officer's uniform. Their hair is styled into long flowing curls. Their lips are painted ruby red. Sitting on a couch, their backs are straight, shoulders up and chins slightly tilted to the ceiling. And somehow they are able to effortlessly smile and talk at the very same time.

The epitome of health, beauty and confidence, the young women are mirror images of each other – in sync down to the tiniest detail.

Gussie Nell Davis would indeed be very pleased.

 

THE BEGINNING

 

Today high school football (and increasingly college) fans take it for granted that halftime shows will include a line of high-stepping dancing girls in flashy uniforms. But that didn't happen until Gussie Nell came along.

Standing just over 5-foot tall, Gussie Nell was a spitfire with a booming voice and an unwavering demand for perfection that could give any Marine drill sergeant a run for his money. In the late 1930s, she was hired to guide Greenville High School's pom squad, which didn't do much more than cheer in the stands.

She renamed the squad the Flaming Flashes, put them in matching pleated skirts and proudly marched them, heads held high, out to the middle of the football field with drums and bugles to perform.

In 1939, Kilgore College President B.E. Masters faced a few problems. Not enough young women were enrolled, not enough activities were available for those who were enrolled and, most distressing of all, people had a tendency to slip out of football games at halftime to take a gulp, or many gulps, of whiskey in the parking lot.

His solution was to hire Gussie Nell to form some kind of dance team. The newly formed Rangerettes (the football team is the Rangers), debuted on Sept. 20, 1940, wearing their soon-to-be trademark all-American red, white and blue outfits.

"By the time the Rangerettes went through their eye-catching routine, scattering into well-formed groups all over the field, Kilgore knew it had hit the entertainment equivalent of an oilfield gusher," writes Martha Hale Deen of the fateful night in her book, "Remembering Gussie Nell."

Some surely thought it was scandalous; others an act of genius. No one could deny that it all was very entertaining. The drill team was born and halftimes would never be the same.

The Rangerettes became masters of synchronized moves and a rapid-fire high kick – an amazing physical feat in which the members simultaneously kick high enough for the tips of their boots to extend above the tops of their heads.

In 1941, the exciting new Rangerettes performed at the Lions International Convention in New Orleans; in 1949 they entertained 100,000 as part of the Cotton Bowl halftime show (a tradition that continues today); and in 1952 they danced on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the popular TV variety program that featured the biggest show business stars in the world.

Since then, the Sweethearts of the Gridiron have been featured in dozens of nationally televised college bowl halftime shows and parades; on goodwill tours around the world; and in Washington D.C. as guests of presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush.

In 1977, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston honored the squad as a "living art form."

 

GUSSIE NELL DAVIS

 

Many in Kilgore, Texas – a town of 13,000 that first gained fame in the early 1930s as the site of the largest oilfield in the United States – still speak in reverent tones of Gussie Nell Davis, who died in 1993.

"She was a very, very unique individual and way ahead of her time," says Dana Blair, the director of the Rangerettes and a squad member from 1981 to 1983. "She was a perfectionist. She believed that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing right."

"She really made an impression," says Martha Hale Deen, a Rangerette from 1970 to 1972. "She was a total lady. She always wore high heels, even when she was walking up and down the bleachers. … We were taught so much more than dancing and kicking. We were taught to be our best … to be perfect and to be beautiful."

In her book, Martha recounts a time when Gussie Nell was with the Rangerettes in a cafeteria. "She told us that she always tries to make the person behind the counter smile. … I realized she was that way with everyone with whom she came in contact. I understood then that, to her, individual interactions were related to performing in front of thousands. … She wanted the Rangerettes to look as if they were having the time of their lives so that some of their contagion could spill over into the audience and they, in turn, could have the time of their lives."

 

BIG BUSINESS

 

The drill team industry is big business. Flanked by Rangerettes, economist Ray Perryman announced with much fanfare last spring that precision dance – ranging from schools that enroll little girls to high-profile professional football cheerleading squads – is an $8 billion industry that provides more than 50,000 jobs.

Perhaps nowhere is that economic impact felt more than in Kilgore, which plasters images of its famous dancing coeds on everything from billboards along Interstate 20 to the chamber of commerce website.

"Any time we (city representatives) want to impress guests, we call for the Rangerettes," says Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin, a former Rangerette manager. "They have been out to hundreds of our events. … They give the city an identity."

The Perryman report suggests the Rangerettes do much more than just give the city an identity.

"For the Kilgore area, they have enhanced the visibility and positively contributed to national and international perceptions of the city. Of far more lasting significance, they have been the incubator for the development of a major industry that has positively influenced countless lives and careers and brought economic benefits to communities throughout the world."

 

LEGACY CONTINUES

 

The reputation of the Rangerettes is now in the hands of Dana Blair and her assistant and choreographer, Shelley Wayne. They know all too well what is at stake.

"It was a huge, huge deal," says Dana of being asked to become the assistant director in 1986 by Deana Bolton Covin, Gussie Nell's successor. "Everything about the Rangerettes is a big deal."

When Deana retired in 1993, Dana took over the responsibility of preserving the legacy. "When I leave, I hope people will say that I made a difference and that I left the line in a safe place and by that I mean at the top of their game."

Dana says their goal is to create fine young women. "We expect the girls to adopt our expectations. … We want to teach them a lot of life lessons, that there is a reward for working hard. … They come here for the dancing but we want them to leave with much more than that."

Shelley agrees. "We want them to reflect principles and values. … They are dressed in a uniform with the colors of our school, state and our nation. They represent what America should be."

As she continues, Shelley dabs away tears. "They are a positive influence that little girls can look up to. … They are part of a team and something much bigger than any individual.

"There is no other drill team position in the world that compares to here. No amount of money could get me to leave. There is no place that is this unique and magical or has this much history."

Captain Emily Diehl first saw the Rangerettes perform when her high school drill team coach took the squad to a Kilgore College football game. "I was speechless. They were dancing with such grace and strength. They were perfect. I remember thinking. ‘I want to look like that.'"

She says it is an honor to be part of the Rangerette tradition during this diamond anniversary season.

"I want to give back to this organization. It's impacted my life in such a way that I can't leave it behind."

Emily Wendt says that once a young woman becomes a Rangerette, she's never the same again.

"One of the biggest lessons you learn is that you have to overcome obstacles and take advantage of opportunities and that you always have to push yourself. … You're learning to become the best you are capable of being. This (being a Rangerette) really defines who I am."

 

ON WITH THE SHOW

 

It is a beautiful October afternoon at a Rangers football game and the Rangerettes are ready to take the field for the much-anticipated halftime show. The bleachers are packed. In fact, the crowd is still arriving (many come specifically for the halftime and then leave when it is over) as the enthusiastic public address announcer begins the introduction: "Laaadies and gentlemen, presenting the world famous Kilgore College Raaaaangerettes!"

The Ranger band launches into the school's spirited fight songs and the dance line, with the officers in front doing the Rangerette Strut, move forward. "It's tradition. It's their trademark. It's the hiiiigh kick!" continues the announcer.

Over the next two and half minutes the Rangerettes execute leaps, dozens of head-high kicks and the always crowd-pleasing flying splits. Many in the stands are recording the show with camcorders and smartphones to preserve the latest moment in the dance team's long and celebrated history.

When the Rangerettes strike a final pose, adoring fans leap to their feet and erupt into a loud and sustained cheer.

The performance is flawless.

Gussie Nell Davis would indeed be very pleased.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

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