When a clip of Cardinal Divas, a majorette dance team at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, went viral last month, the group’s founder, Princess Isis Lang, said she didn’t expect her life to change drastically.
“Honestly, my life has been crazy,” said Lang, 20, who studies musical theater at USC. “I’ve had some people come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, are you a princess? Are you that girl who created that majorette team?’”
“I am truly blessed. And I can really only thank God and my friends and family,” he added.
The clip, which has got over 3 million views on Twitter, has brought Lang and his teammates praise from across the country, including responses of support by rapper Saweetie and former “Bring It!” Diana Williams star. Yet amid the celebrations and accolades for making history by launching the first majorette dance team at a predominantly white institution (PWI), the group has also encountered backlash on social media for exactly the same reason: to bring a traditionally black dance style that is associated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to a predominantly white institution. Some social media users have accused Lang of cultural appropriation while others have said it would have been better if she had created this team in an HBCU.
HBCU expert Joy Williamson-Lott, who is dean of the University of Washington Graduate School in Seattle, said she’s not surprised by the criticism. She said HBCUs are underfunded and some are under-enrolled compared to predominantly white colleges, which explains why many feel that the popular traditions of HBCUs, which are a huge draw for incoming students, are not they should be in the PWIs.
“They don’t have the same kinds of resources as the PWIs and so what they don’t want are elements of who they are, their essence is stripped away so they’re left with nothing, and so there’s no reason for people to go there,” Williamson-Lott said, adding that HBCUs are “fighting for their very existence”.
Although the dean disputed online claims of cultural appropriation as majorettes are “still black women,” she acknowledged that having a majorette dance team in a predominantly white school could raise significant issues like racial stereotyping.
“Before Instagram and Facebook, you had to be in black college to see this stuff, this all happened in a black context,” he said, adding that this dance happened, “away from all the black people that were around them in the stands could lead a white audience to see them through a stereotypical lens.”
“When these black women dance like this in an HBCU, it’s still sensual and charged, but people also know these black women as students, scientists, sisters, aunts, friends, as full human beings,” Williamson said. Lott said. “But, when you put them in a white context… it’s with whatever interpretation they bring.”
Lang, who has been dancing since she was a child, said she started the majorette dance team because she wanted black women to have a space on campus where they could freely express themselves through movement. She said she didn’t see herself reflected on other dance teams on campus.
“I didn’t see any girls with curly hair, I didn’t see any dark or brown-skinned girls,” Lang said. “I knew I would get into a space where… I wouldn’t feel comfortable dancing and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being myself.”
“This is really my way of creating a space for people who are like me because I know that if I feel this way, chances are I’m not the only girl who feels this way on this big campus,” she added. .
The History of Majorette Dance Teams
Beginning in the 1960s, majorette dance teams became popular in HBCUs for their high-energy moves infusing jazz, West African, and hip-hop dance styles. Majorette dance teams often perform alongside a marching band in bright attire while doing somersaults in the air or displaying other gymnastic moves.
“This is about free speech, freedom and brotherhood,” Williamson-Lott said. “These are athletes who love to dance, who have often been dancing all their lives and now they can continue doing it in college.”
Williamson-Lott said that majorette dance lines in the 1960s moved away from the politics of respectability and into an era where blacks could fully show themselves. Those performances, usually held at HBCU football games and homecoming events, were an opportunity for majorette dance teams to show off their skills and even battle rival schools.
“So you see bands starting to play different music, including contemporary music like jazz, even now you see them doing hip-hop songs,” Williamson-Lott said. “When a black school plays a black school in a football game, it’s about which girls will bring it.”
She said the dancers also engage in a lot of call-and-response “with the crowd and with each other.”
‘Why can’t you dance?’
Along with online reviews, Lang has received some positive feedback from HBCU’s majorette dance crews. Christine Jenkins, coach of Ooh La La! from Howard University. line dance, said she supports Lang’s efforts.
“She’s creating her own community and I’m so proud of her for doing that,” Jenkins said, before adding that she hoped the Cardinal Divas would also “recognize the ones that came before.”
Still, like many other HBCU advocates, Jenkins said he is aware of the concerns about the line dance at PWI given the history of racism on white campuses. She said some in the Howard University gang community feared the HBCU tradition would be displaced.
“They’re very upset, especially coming from HBCU because … it was their safe space, ‘so now they’re bringing our safe space into a space that they didn’t want us to have in the first place,'” he said. “Did I have to inform my friends that this is a young girl who probably doesn’t have many people who look like her? … Why can’t she dance?”
Jenkins said it is not the responsibility of HBCUs to be “gatekeepers.”
“We want to be better than those who police their institutions… So why are we doing that with ours?” she asked.
Another team coach, Princess Alintah, agreed, saying that groups like USC Cardinal Divas show that majorette dance teams are not monolithic.
“Now we’re starting to see it in different shapes and forms,” Alintah said, adding that majorette dance groups are diverse and it’s important that they are accepted and given “the space and ability to perform.”
Meanwhile, Lang said she won’t let criticism overshadow the movement she created to uplift black girls across the country.
“I can’t take ownership of what I’ve always been a part of,” Lang said. “I am not here to take away culture or take it as my own. I’m here to put majorettes on an even bigger platform and I want everyone to know what the majorette style of dance is.”
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