Sadly, I can never be a Rangerette.

Not only does being male disqualify me, but I would never make it past the first audition. Apparently, in order to join the elite dance drill team of Kilgore College, girls must be able to kick high enough to touch boot toe to the front brim of their white cowboy hats.

“You will not get on the Rangerettes if you can’t kick,” says Jan Janes, Director of the Rangerette Showcase and Museum in Kilgore, Texas—and she’s right.

Elaborate kick line routines are the mainstay choreography of this dedicated corps of precision dancers and when visiting their shrine in East Texas, I watched dozens of video clips of the girls, arms linked, kicking so high, that they (to quote my brother), “Make the Wehrmacht look like a bunch of pansies.”

The Rangerette Museum in Kilgore, Texas (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

The Rangerette Museum in Kilgore, Texas (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

I had traveled to Kilgore to see the East Texas Oil Museum—a fascinating tribute to the petrochemical wealth of East Texas and the boom that sprung serious life into this corner of the state. Alas, I had failed to call ahead and arrived to learn that the museum was closed for the day.

For me, the real joy of travel lies in the sudden change of plans—because the open road always delivers something far better than we could ever schedule. Just as I was ready to pack up and leave Kilgore behind, I caught a glimpse of the smiling blond vision down the street, a three-story cowgirl grinning and beckoning to me with all the friendship of sunny Texas.

She was not real—more of a permanent paper doll glued to the side of a beige brick building at Kilgore College—but she served her purpose in drawing me away from the oil museum and pulling me towards the Rangerette Museum.

Maybe I am too young and maybe I am too ignorant, but until driving through East Texas, I had never heard of these Rangerettes. I read the sign and wondered right away, “Oh, the Texas Rangers have a female division?” How had I missed this? “Some special unit of woman combatants who could shoot and ride and who defended the great state Texas from evildoers and lawlessness?” I imagined, entering the museum with a wide-open mind.

But no—The Kilgore College Rangerettes are a drill team. In fact, they were the very first dance drill team in America, founded in 1940 at Kilgore College to “keep fans in their seats”.

Early Kilgore College Rangerettes from the 1940's (Kilgore College Rangerettes Museum & Showcase in Kilgore, Texas)

Early Kilgore College Rangerettes from the 1940′s (Kilgore College Rangerettes Museum & Showcase in Kilgore, Texas)

 

Like barbecue and church, football is a religion in Texas, and apparently, back in the day, fans used the half-time to run beneath the bleachers for a drink (the practice may have been exacerbated by the fact that Kilgore’s biggest rival Tyler was a dry city).

Kilgore’s creation of the lively half-time show with synchronized dancing majorettes got the fans’ attention. Chatting with Jan at the museum, she said, “Tyler used to beat us in football but we sure beat ‘em in halftime.” Indeed, Kilgore College was the birthplace of the half-time show—the Rangerettes spawned a tradition that gets replayed across America every Friday night in football season and at every Superbowl.

Today, it’s fair to say that the dance team outshines their own football team in a big way. The Kilgore College Rangerettes have traveled the world, performing in dozens of different countries and representing Texas in a way that no football team ever could: 71 young women, rigid with white smiles, wearing the mini-est of mini skirts, white boots and cowboy hats, dancing in lockstep.

Besides their impressive kick lines, the Rangerette’s signature move is the jump-split, where the girls leap into the air and then land on the floor in a full split. I doubt any Texas Rangers, be they policeman or baseball players, could perform such a physical feat.

“Beauty knows no pain,” is The Rangerettes’ official motto (versus the Texas Rangers’ “Courage, Integrity, Perseverance”) and based on my brief observation of their rehearsal at Kilgore College’s Dodson Auditorium, I would say they live and breath by that motto.

“The lower, the better y’all!” yelled Dana Blair, director of the Rangerettes since 1993 and a former Rangerette herself. The girls were practicing a hip-hop number for the upcoming springtime review “Rangerette Revels” dipping low and then jumping high. Dressed in laced-up black boots, they practiced the same move over and over, stopping constantly for critique from their choreographer and director.

“Yes ma’am, Thank You Missus Blair,” The girls replied cheerfully in unison with flawless smiles plastered on their faces. I watched and listened to them repeat that exact same phrase about fifty more times during their practice, to the point of it becoming slightly alarming, or at least disconcerting. They were not saying these lines out of heartfelt gratitude or common courtesy—they were saying it because if they didn’t, something horrible would happen.

Mrs. Blair seemed nice enough, but this was a drill team and she is their drill sergeant. There was no giggling or laughing or playing up on stage—watching the Rangerettes practice was no different than watching a US Marine boot camp where if a soldier made a misstep and forgot to say, “Yes, Sir”, they might have to drop and give twenty.

And yet despite the discipline and physical rigors of the corps, being a Rangerette is a great honor and the dream of many a young Texas girl. Every year, more than 100 girls audition for just 35 spots. Most are trained studio dancers and the competition is fierce—most who make it receive a full college scholarship and a chance to live in the Rangerettes own dormitory on campus.

More importantly, they become part of the Texas tradition and a lesser-known American legend—the team that invented the half-time show and the sport of precision dancing. Though I have now seen them practice in person, and have since watched countless clips of their spectacular routines, discovering the Kilgore College Rangerettes of East Texas has granted me another, new travel dream—that someday, I might come back to Texas and watch the Rangerettes perform live—to find out for myself if they can really kick that high.

The Kilgore College Rangerettes prepare for the spring dance review "Revels". Intense training, discipline and constant practice make the Rangerettes one of the best precision dance teams in the world. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

The Kilgore College Rangerettes prepare for the spring dance review “Revels”. Intense training, discipline and constant practice make the Rangerettes one of the best precision dance teams in the world. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Laura Starzyk Rette 86-88
    The Woodlands,Texas
    March 27, 2013, 8:22 am

    Andrew, You “knocked it out of the park” with this article about the Rangerettes. What you picked up on in such a short amount of time is amazing and it was said with such brilliance and integrity! We are so thankful the oil museum was closed that day as this article is truly a gift to all current and former Rangerettes by letting us share something we love so much with the rest of the world! Thank you again!!

    • Andrew Evans
      March 27, 2013, 8:35 am

      Thank you kindly, Laura. What I love about my job is that it takes me to places I would never get to otherwise and introduces me to amazing people, like the Rangerettes! I loved learning all about your dance team and hope to see them perform live someday. My best wishes to you and all Rangerettes!

  2. Dede Cotten (77-79)
    Dallas, Texas
    March 27, 2013, 10:24 am

    I have one correction to make, the early Rangerettes did not get a scholarship, it didn’t exist back then so we paid for our schooling. We were there out of the love of dance and respect for the Rangerettes. It was the best 2 years of my life and the friends that I have for life because of being a Rangerette is my reward.

  3. Dawn Smithe Sanchex, Rette 84-86
    Kyle, Texas
    March 27, 2013, 11:17 am

    Thank you for this article – it is really nice to read your fresh new perspective on the legend and traditions of the Rangerettes! Yes Sir, Thank You, Mr. Evans! :)

  4. Rachel Dreyfus Chapman 96-98
    Friendswood, TX
    March 27, 2013, 1:06 pm

    Great article! Brings back so many wonderful memories!

  5. Charlene (Meyer) Roberts/Rangerette 1963-64
    Arlington, Texas
    March 27, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Dear Mr. Evans, Bless your heart for not having heard of the famous Kilgore College Rangerettes. Your article was so well written I would have never guessed you hadn’t heard of our organization. Thank you for describing the Rangerettes so perfectly…you are quiet the wordsmith. If your schedule allows, please come back to Texas on April 13, 2013 & watch the Rangerettes in the REVELS matinee performance…you’ll be glad you did.

  6. Kathy Warden Landreth 1969-71
    Mansfield, TX
    March 27, 2013, 2:32 pm

    Dear Mr. Evans,
    Thank you for writing about the world famous and first of its’ kind : The Famous Kilgore College Rangerettes! STRETCH and SMILE still keep our Forever
    Rangerettes living life just as we did during those days: hard
    work, fun, smiling, stretching, and showing the world our BEST! Finding GOLD takes digging and YOU FOUND US!
    What a fantastic story you took the time to write!

    Blessings Sir!
    Kathy

  7. Elaine Bennett Johnson 85-87
    Arlington, Texas
    March 27, 2013, 9:24 pm

    Awesome article! Thank you for doing such justice to the Rangerettes. I loved my time in Kilgore and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  8. Freshman Rangerette Dad
    Texas
    March 28, 2013, 9:28 am

    Great article Andrew! Texas is a very proud state so when we are invited to events such as the Presidential Inauguration and other elite events the Texas leaders invite the Rangerettes! Their combination of discipline, humility, beauty (inside and out), determination, talent, character, and respect are second to none. Whenever interacting with Rangerettes it’s ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’, it’s like going ‘Back to the Future’.

    If you see the Rangerettes in public you will notice that everyone wants to have their picture taken with them – because their fans understand the Rangerettes stand for the excellence and are considered the Ambassadors for Texas.

    The freshman also have to compete with each other in order to perform at games! Also, the freshman have no privileges they have to EARN them (old school baby!)? An example: they cannot call the sophomores by their first name UNTIL they earn it. This process builds character and helps them become a better team and leaders.

    As a dad I am thrilled to walk into their gym and hear all of them shout ‘Yes Ma’am!’ It makes me stand taller! Their dorm is so awesome and for them to have 70 others living in the same place with the same passion, drive, and love for dance is wonderful.

    Finally, just the other day I was going into a convenience store and an elderly man stopped me. He had noticed a sticker on my car and asked “is you daughter a Rangerette?”…I said ‘yes’. He grabbed my shoulder and shook my hand and said ‘congratulations, and you must have done a great job as a parent’. As he left once again I stood a little taller.

    The Rangerettes are an inspiration to young and old, and it’s not just the current Freshman and Sophomores. All the Forevers who have graduated are STILL Rangerettes and continue to do a lot for the current Freshmen and Sophomores and others.

    Although you can never be a Rangerette you can always have National Geographic (or whomever) sponsor the Rangerettes through donations or have them perform at an event. By doing that you will become part of a great organization. In your future travels (I noticed you were in Australia for example), if you have the notion to share with others the greatness of America’s youth today–bring the Rangerettes it’d be one of the best decisions you’d ever make. Thanks again!

  9. Edna Post Hodges - Rangerette 1968-70
    Georgetown, TX
    April 2, 2013, 12:51 pm

    Thank you so much for your article and for taking the time to visit our museum and learn about the wonderful Rangerettes. I am still proud to have been a Rangerette and Co-Founder of Forevers Central Texas (www.foreverscentex.com). The pride for the organization is unfailing. “Once a Rangerette, Always a Rangerette”. Edna

  10. Nan
    Austin, TX
    April 3, 2013, 2:27 pm

    Great article. One minor point, the Rangerettes might have been the first *college* dance drill team in the US, but they were not the first. over all. The Jefferson HS Lassos in San Antonio debuted several years earlier.

    Keep dancing, it makes the heart happy. :)

  11. Jackie Ray
    Gladewater, Texas
    April 14, 2013, 11:21 pm

    I am a former Rangerette and I poised for the drawing of the Rangerette you saw on the buildings at Kilgore College, in
    1966. That image is referred to as the K-Girl which has evolved into an important representation of all Rangerettes. I thought your article about your discovery of the Rangerettes was great!
    The girls who are fortunate enough to be chosen for the line have two special years that they will treasure the rest of their lives!

  12. Joy Holland Coleman-1950-1952
    Dallas,Texas
    April 15, 2013, 11:16 am

    Love Your Article!!!!! I Was A Lieutenant In The Kilgore RANGERETTES-1950-1952! We Performed On The Ed Sullivan Show-June8,1952! Miss Gussie Nell Davis Is My Idol And I’ll Love Her Forever! I Won A Contest And Named The Former RANGERETTE Organization:”RANGERETTES Forever”! “Once A RANGERETTE -Always A RANGERETTE”!

  13. Mens Suit
    May 6, 2013, 1:08 am

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  14. Best of TEXAS | FounditGood
    May 31, 2013, 6:10 am

    [...] Live Show: The Rangerettes, Kilgore, [...]

  15. Nancy Sims
    Sherman, Tx
    October 12, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Dear Andrew, As a Rangerette in the early 70′s I was delighted to read your article. The only thing that was missing was Gussie Nell Davis. She created the drill team at Greenville high school before taking the job at Kilgore. There was nothing like it, she created it. She was the most wonderful influence on young women. She taught us about overcoming challenges, self respect, determination and poise. I would travel with her to judge high school drill teams and I was lucky enough to know her on a personal level also. She was feisty, funny, and a joy to be around. Hats off to you for this article. You brought back some awesome memories.

  16. […] Viewed Post: The Rangerettes (Kilgore, Texas), followed by Why Leaves Change Color (Great Smoky Mountains National […]

  17. Kit Royal Bolte - Rangerette 1973-75
    Euless, TX
    April 16, 7:14 pm

    I’m so happy to read that you have found the Kilgore Rangerettes’ organization. In 1940, Gussie Nell Davis began what has become the Rangerette legacy. She started a phenomenon that many high school/college drill teams now try to mimic. My 2 years as a Rangerette were the hardest and most rewarding years of my life. Rangerettes is much more than dancing/high-kicking routines, but a discipline and respect of everyone around you….special qualities that stay with you long after the high-kicks become wonderful memories. Keep your eyes on the Kilgore Rangerettes as we begin our 75th Anniversary year in 2015!!