In April 2018, one morning around 3 a.m., I found myself barely awake yet determined to watch the live stream of Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella. Through my tired eyes, I saw something familiar: a uniformed snare drummer whistling to signal the elegant strut of nine dancers perfectly in sync, from their campy arm extensions to their touch-the-floor-with-it body drops.
All eyes were on the women as the rich culture of dance teams at historically Black colleges and universities was being presented to the world. Nearly three thousand miles away, I was bursting with HBCU pride.
Back when I was a freshman at Hampton University, my most vivid memories were of Hampton’s dance team, Ebony Fire, power-strutting during half time at big games—especially homecomings. Majorettes were the featured performers for bands, but by the late seventies and early eighties they evolved into modern dance teams, incorporating ballet, hip-hop and contemporary styles alongside traditional marching techniques. This shift birthed groups such as Ebony Fire, Alabama State’s Stingettes, Southern University’s Dancing Dolls and many more squads that continue to be the centerpiece of HBCU homecoming weekends throughout the fall.
By the time homecoming arrives, says Selena Makell, a Hampton University sophomore who’s one of four leaders of Ebony Fire, “everything is in place because it’s the biggest performance of the year for the band. Everyone’s there. We want to make things big—exciting.” The squad’s coach, Brint M. Martin, agrees. “A perfect show means each young lady going out there and doing her absolute best,” she says. “They leave it all on the field. They give 110 percent of their energy, of their effort.”
That perfection comes from weeks of disciplined training at band camp underscored by a deep commitment to upholding Black dance traditions. “We get to represent an art form that’s just amazing,” says Martin. “We perform in NFL stadiums, we travel, we represent your school, we represent your family, we represent African-American culture. We’re like no other. Whether we’re from an HBCU or from a predominantly White institution, the reaction is the same. People love it. They love what we do; they love the culture.”
For Martin, the core value of Ebony Fire is freedom of expression. “It’s our ability to use our talents to tell stories,” she explains. “To share our love for who we are and what we do, and then find new and unique ways to do that at every homecoming, every show, to take it to the next level every single time.”