It feels like this: Hunger pains at 3 a.m. the morning before weigh-ins, willing myself not to get out of bed to eat just one grape
to tide me over until later, when I will step on the scale in front of my director and choreographer. If I am one pound over my target weight there’s a chance I’ll be stripped of my uniform. I spend what little energy I have hiding my crushes on other girls, then burying the shame I feel for having them, at the expense of showing up as my authentic self. I am triggered by my imperfections, my seemingly innate inability to be feminine. To fit their standard of beauty and poise. To be...a lady.
Sixteen years ago, when I was nineteen
years old, I tried out for the World-Famous
Kilgore College Rangerettes, the first andmost prestigious drill team in the world.
I was one of many hundreds of women auditioning for 32 coveted spots, one of many hundreds of women vying for a chance to be a perfect, all-American girl. (The Rangerettes’ definition of the “perfect, All-American Girl” has traditionally gone something like this: white, thin, polite, heterosexual, traditionally beautiful, submissive, feminine, committed, chaste, pliable, seen but not heard—the same qualities that have been weaponized against women by men in power for decades, if not centuries.) The Rangerettes’ all-American girl dressed in a tiny red, white, and blue uniform, whose design hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1940. Their ideals emphasize good manners; proper etiquette with regard to walking, speaking, sitting in a chair, and personal appearance; conservative Christian beliefs; and ultimately embodying an unattainable yet ever-striven-for ideal of “perfection.”
All of my life I had trained to become the first third-generation Rangerette—to keep the legacy going. My mother, grandmother, great aunts, and aunt passed down their gift of dance to me and expected me to follow their footsteps by becoming part of the most famous drill team in the world. I wanted it more than anything else. I dedicated myself to almost two decades of dance training, many competitions, and participating as an officer of my own high school drill team, fifteen miles away from Kilgore, in Longview, Texas, where I was born. When word got around that I made the collegiate team, I was featured in Texas Monthly magazine, and on the front page of the Longview News Journal. By the time I arrived at college, I couldn’t conceive of a world beyond its limits. I was so closely married to the idea of what I wanted the experience to be that I couldn’t see it for what it truly was.
I was five-feet-four, 120 pounds, and just shy of twenty years old when I signed a weight contract with the Rangerettes’ directors. My contract stipulated that I would not gain more than five pounds, a matter of protocol for all incoming dancers. A year into “living my dream,” I was told by the director that if I didn’t lose the ten pounds I had gained over summer break, I would be barred from performing in my size-two uniform. A girl from the team had had her uniform snatched away the week before because she was “too big,” so I knew the threat was serious. That same director forced me to keep a personal food journal and share its contents with her for a year. I can still recall her expressing disappointment for the way I looked in my practice leotard, asking me, “Don’t you want to look good for the upcoming Carnival Cruise performances?” At that moment, she came crashing down from the pedestal I had put her on. I fumbled through a defense. “Yes ma’am, thank you,” I said. (Rangerette rules dictated that if you were talking to a superior, you had to preface any sentence with “Yes ma’am, thank you.) “But I have lost five pounds since keeping my food journal and I think it could just be muscle.” She stared me up and down. “No, I don’t think so,” she countered. “Yes ma’am, thank you,” I answered once again, and retreated back to my dormitory in a full spiral of guilt, shame, and self-loathing.
But it wasn’t just my weight that I had to be hyper-vigilant about. Being a gay woman in the drill team world was--and is--verboten. This was unspoken but widely understood. If there were any other gay Rangerettes, they knew that the safest place for them was in the closet. Still, to this day, there have been no known LGBTQ Rangerettes. (Though many have come out after graduating.)
It took me a decade to de-condition myself and gain enough perspective to see myself as valid in my queerness, my body, and my unique presentation of womanhood. Though it has required hard, conscious, and consistent work for me to undo the trauma and oppression I endured and bore witness to in the East Texas drill team world, I am also grateful for the important lessons and lifelong friendships. I have emerged more self-aware, disciplined, strong- willed, and resilient than I had been before. Organizations like the Rangerettes have the power to do a great deal of harm, and a great deal of good—sometimes simultaneously—but it’s more important now, more than ever, that the Rangerettes, and the institution of southern drill teams at large, can move forward with more awareness, openness, and inclusivity. No matter who we are, what we look like, or how we identify, it is up to us as a community to continue to strive for, push for, and demand radical reform in these spaces; to hold ourselves, our peers, and those in power accountable; and to demand that the dance world more accurately represent the people of the much bigger world in which it exists. My advice to young, southern drill team dancers, and all dancers, is this: If you are held back from being your authentic self, then you are in the wrong room-- no matter how big that room may seem.