It was on the last morning of a trip that my childhood friends made from Houston to visit me in Washington, D.C., that I was introduced to the competitive-dance reality series Bring It! on Lifetime. The four of us skipped brunch and camped out in my living room, eating guacamole and binge-watching the first season. I’d considered myself a bystander to the drama unfolding on the screen, mindlessly tuning in and just biding my time until my hangover subsided. But by the end of the first episode, I was pulling the hair from my scalp and yelling alongside the over-the-top stage moms, who were always being shady in their confessionals. I found myself moving my couch so I could have enough space to better mimic the girls’ dance moves. I found myself praying for Crystianna to buck her heart out.
The show gives a glimpse into the epic wins and rare losses of the Dancing Dolls of Jackson, Mississippi, a young, all-black girl’s dance team named after the Dancing Dolls of Southern University, and follows their intense practices every week and competitive-dance performances each weekend. The Dolls, and all the other teams they’re up against from across the Black American South, are unapologetically styled in the image of the legendary Historically Black Colleges and Universities majorette lines, and the middle and high schoolers who make up the teams seem to know that with each buck or death drop, there’s more than just a trophy but an important legacy on the line.
From the first dance battle I saw — when Crystianna, one of the younger girls, pulled her heel up into a standing leg stretch and had the unmitigated gall to look down at her nails, as if to say, How long you got? Because I could do this all day — I was hooked. It was such a joy to be reminded of the pride, self-confidence, and personal empowerment that the mere image of black majorettes had given to young girls like me growing up in the Black South. The Dancing Dolls’ high-energy, tradition-twisting battles had me excited for the future yet stuck on how rich the culture was behind their every eight-count.
The Third Ward area of Houston, Texas, where my family moved when I was in the sixth grade, serves as an intersection of black life in the city. It has its own rap, its own landmarks, hallowed grounds, and legends, its own projects, its own mansions, its own golf courses, and a heavy influence of the alumni bases from schools like Prairie View, Grambling, Southern, Tennessee State, and Florida A&M, with Texas Southern University sitting right in the middle.
In southern-HBCU circles like the one I grew up in, there is a prolific use of the phrase “Half time is game time.” It affirms what everyone has known about HBCU sporting events since integration: the marching band is inarguably the best and most important part of the experience. My friends and I came up hearing TSU’s drumline practice for games from our back porches, and we moved through adolescence at the football classics, where we would go from sitting and watching the games with our parents to roaming around the stadium with our friends. HBCU band culture and fan clubs were pervasive, but for me and many others raised in that environment, the music was merely a palette for the featured artists — the dancers whose eight-counts and sequined outfits gave the whole endeavor life.
I can still remember being in elementary school and clamoring up to the guardrail to see PV’s Black Foxes and TSU’s Motion of the Ocean strut down the street at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. I copied their dance moves from the sidewalk and swung the long, imaginary ponytail that I wasn’t old enough to wear yet.