As a boy back in Arkansas, we called them dancing girls. These all-women dance troupes combined the energy of the high-step marching style of black college bands with lyrical, West African, jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop choreography. The result was almost too sexual to be looked at straight on. Back then, I could only steal glances at the Golden Girls, the majorettes for the band at my father’s alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I wasn’t old enough to be leering at grown women like that, and why else would a boy be so transfixed by the dancers, unless of course he was “that way.”
You no longer have to be an initiate of Southern black college culture — the kin of some insufferably proud Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) alumni; annual attendee to a black college classic or homecoming game; bystander at a local Juneteenth parade; nostalgist for TLC’s “Baby-Baby-Baby” video, or NBC’s A Different World or Spike Lee’s School Daze— to recognize the style of dance performed by hip-hop majorettes. But even that term, “hip-hop majorette,” is a recent invention, a hastily applied umbrella description for a tradition of movement defined by dance lines that have fronted the marching bands of historically black colleges since the late ’60s. Hip-hop is an anachronistic but necessary distinction meant to distinguish this auxiliary group from more customary majorettes, women who march before traditional bands twirling batons.
Beyoncé’s recent Netflix concert film Homecoming highlights her admiration for the hip-hop majorette style. Her iconic Coachella performance, which opens with a phalanx of majorette-inspired dancers clearing the way for Bey costumed as Nefertiti, arrives at an auspicious moment for majoretting. Advocates of this uniquely Southern performance style — a community that includes both Southern straight black women and femme gay black men — have been using digital media platforms over the past decade to formalize and institutionalize the genre as a dance discipline. The 2018 Beychella performance is a culmination of many cultural phenomena that have helped amplify the visibility of majorette dance, including the emergence of commercial dance through televised dance competitions, the continued popularity of dance reality programming like Lifetime’s Bring It! (which just aired its fifth season and has spawned a road tour that travels the South), and the work of amateur videographers who upload weekly game performance footage to YouTube, creating a digital archive of the dance form and making performances available for future study.
Hip-hop majoretting began formally in the late ’60s. Marching bands had long featured carnivalesque acts pulling acrobatic stunts or tossing and catching flaming batons as a part of their halftime entertainment, but dance lines enabled bands to dramatize the popular songs they were beginning to mine from the radio.
There is some dispute over which school’s dance line debuted first, an issue that still regularly rouses debate from fans online. As the ability to watch black college bands was often limited to spectators at sports games, Alcorn State University’s claimthat its Golden Girls made their national debut at a televised 1968 Orange Blossom Classic offers a tenuous origin date for hip-hop majorettes, or “a featured squad with choreographed movements to an HBCU’s marching band’s live tunes,” as the GGs define it.
The Dancing Dolls of Southern University officially date back to 1969, founded by team adviser/coach Gracie Perkins and then–band director Isaac Greggs. The Dolls have enjoyed national acclaim due to the annual Bayou Classic in New Orleans, which is one of the few nationally televised HBCU football games. Jackson State’s J-Settes were founded in 1971, when Shirley Middleton, a former majorette and the squad’s initial sponsor, petitioned for the majorettes to “put their batons down.” Middleton, along with JSU twirler and choreographer Hollis Pippins, and eventual sponsor Narah Oatis, pioneered j-setting, a style so unique its movement is still recognizable in much of hip-hop majoretting today.