Tag Archives: history

The Rangerettes

28 Mar

The Kilgore College Rangerettes rehearse on the stage of Dodson Auditorium in Kilgore, Texas (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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

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 Rangerettes cheerleaders , dance , drill team , East Texas , Football , history , Kilgore College , precision dance , Rangerettes , Texas , Texas Trip

Marfans

12 Mar

Yes, I saw the Marfa lights.

It was about 11 o’clock at night, and I was alone at the Marfa Lights View Park when I spotted two pale greenish-white balls of light, hovering over the barren fields. Yes, it was kind of cool—but kind of creepy, too. (No, I did not get any photos—it was just way too dark.)

Driving along the pitch-black west Texas highways at night is spooky enough, but to find the famed, unexplained floating lights added to the weird and dream-like vibe of these lost highways in the southwest corner of the state. That I had already clocked a thousand big Texas miles before reaching minimalist Marfa made me feel like I had landed in a map-less dimension where the dazed and crazed make up the norm.

The mysterious Marfa lights remain unexplained (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

The mysterious Marfa lights remain unexplained (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

 

I suspect the citizens/characters of Marfa like to play up the Twlight Zone atmosphere of their remote town, with its 1930’s art deco and sparsely-situated boxy white buildings, its abundant retro signage and its mystery lights. And I suspect other small towns would be jealous of Marfa’s success at evolving from an abandoned military outpost without a train station to an internationally-acclaimed mecca for art, design, literature and all-around creativity.

Such places are hard to find and even harder to maintain. So far (shhhh) Marfa’s still cool—cool enough to attract famous people trying to fly under the radar. Nearly every Marfa resident I spoke with quickly divulged their celebrity tale or two, from Lance Armstrong stepping behind the bar to shake his own martinis to Beyoncé showing up unannounced at a party held in someone’s backyard chicken coop.

Perhaps fame holds less meaning out here, a place without red velvet ropes or entourages but plenty of known and unknown artists working side by side. In one evening, I attended two gallery openings where I believe I met a considerable portion of Marfa along with the drifter hipsters that were passing through. Later, I was invited to a dinner party where I shared vegetarian lasagna with musicians, playwrights, painters, producers and other artists. After so long alone on the road, I was comforted by this generous dose of human conversation.

None of these folks were born in Marfa so I listened to each of their stories and what it was that pulled them away from jobs and lives in New York and Chicago and Austin to this ultra-remote, pint-size town in the desert. Some said art, others told me they liked it out here so far from the urban madness and they simply stayed.

I came to Marfa on the sound advice of my friend Andrew Nelson (who is the best insider friend a traveler can have—follow him), and after reading our Texas story in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler. I was surprised to see the lights for myself, but even more surprised to discover this town was named after the character in my favorite book of all times, the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the novel, Marfa is the wife of the Karamazov’s servant, Grigory, and it is believed that the wife of the Central Pacific Railroad had been reading the book when she gave her husband the name for this railway stop in the Texas desert.

That a small Texas town famous for the railway, air force, one particular minimalist artist, mysterious ghost lights, and big Hollywood films should be named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel seems so quirky as to be perfect.

That the people who live here call themselves Marfans is equally poetic. In the two days I spent exploring their town, I met several of the few and fabulous Marfans who inhabit west Texas. Some are delightfully strange, some will lead you to whichever gallery is showing that night, some will ask you to be interviewed on their public radio station, some will invite you to adopt a role in their guerilla play, some will mix you free drinks with jalapenos, some will let you sleep in their Airstream trailer, and some will gift you one of their homemade crafts with a smile.

You can find whatever you want here in Texas. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it, and if you’re looking for beauty, it’s all around. But if you’re looking for mystery, then come to Marfa—come see the lights and meet the Marfans.

El Cosmico is an artists' collective & vintage trailer hotel in Marfa, Texas (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

El Cosmico is an artists’ collective & vintage trailer hotel in Marfa, Texas (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Marfans art , history , Marfa , Marfa Light , marfans , Presidio , Texas , Texas Trip , West Texas