She's a Lone Star Star
Rangerettes founder danced her way to fame
by Teddy Allen
The Shreveport Times March 1990
KILGORE, Texas–The Roarin'
Twenties weren't so roarin' over in tiny Farmersville, Texas. Dancing even
to so much as the Hokey Pokey would get you bounced right out of the
So no one really knows why
a history teacher at the local high school turned her house into a dance
hall for the teenagers every Friday night.One of the regulars was Gussie
Nell Davis. She would eventually start the world famous Kilgore College
Rangerettes. Davis has waltzed her way into the Texas Women's Hall of
"She was an elderly
lady–at least we thought she was then," Davis, now 83, says of the
teacher. "She'd roll up the rug in her big den and we'd dance. And dance.
And dance. I don't even know how we learned, but we did."
Davis and six other
honorees will be inducted into the Hall March 27 at the Hyatt Regency
Hotel in Austin. She'll join former presidential secretary Liz Carpenter,
astronaut Sally Ride, former first ladies Ladybird Johnson and Barbara
Bush, and politicians Barbara Jordan and Ann Armstrong.
Such an honor is hardly
new for Davis, retired in Kilgore since 1979. The town once held a Gussie
Nell Davis Day and gave her a car. Her 80th birthday party at the Cherokee
Club was, she said, "a bash like you've never seen." In a huge coffee
table picture book in her den entitled "Texas Women" and full of
everything from presidents' wives to Playmates of the Month,
there's also Gussie Nell Davis, high-kicking.
In 1939, the president of
Kilgore College asked her to form a drill team at the school so people
could have something interesting to watch during halftime at football
games. The result was what the Houston Contemporary Museum of Art has
called a "new, living art form"–the first drill team to perform on a
What followed was instant
public fascination for a dance line flavored heavily with young ladies
from Ark-La-Tex. Gussie Nell's Rangerettes, celebrating their 50th
Anniversary this year,
served as the blueprint for everything form the Airline Blue Angels to the
Dallas Cowboy's Cheerleaders. (But don't ask Davis about the Dallas
Cowboy's Cheerleaders. If they ever form so much as a straight line, she
may take back everything she's said about them. She doesn't expect she'll
halftime, Rangerette-like groups spawned new businesses. Who would have
ever thought that someone out there would make his living selling pom-pons?
That satin jackets and girlie cowboy hats would boom?
"At our last Drill Team
Directors of America convention, there were over 100 business booths set
up," Davis said. "That's why I started American Drill Team School in 1958.
We train drill teams around the country and teach them not only to dance
but how to be a lady."
Gussie Nell Davis always
did mean business. She made her own props–not counting the horses and
pistols occasionally used–for years. For 29 of her 40 years in the
business she was a one-person staff. Perhaps that made it easier for each
60 girl edition of the Rangerettes to remember who was in charge.
"They didn't talk me into
anything," she said. "I was the boss. Don't think we didn't talk about
everything, it's just that we didn't have a lot of time to argue."
That's because what
happened after the first halftime routine on that autumn night in 1940 was
one of those strange, unexplainable things that life coughs up now and
then. People thought the Rangerettes were angels on recess from heaven or
"They just couldn't
believe it," said Davis, for four decades the only coach the Rangerettes
In 1941, the Rangerettes
made their first trip, performing in New Orleans at the Lion's Club
International meeting. It was the first leg, so to speak, of a long trip.
In 50 years, the Rangerettes have traveled more than 2 million miles
worldwide, performing at athletic events, conventions, pageants, variety
shows and presidential inauguration festivities.
When Davis was a teenager
dancing in the den in Farmersville, it seemed unlikely she would one day
be close enough to a U.S. President to polka.
"Mr. Ford was nice; Lyndon
Johnson was real nice," Davis said. "Now Nixon, oh, we loved Nixon. He was
soooo nice. He might have been ugly, but we sure did like him."
Hong Kong. Romania. New
York City. All of those places are a long way from Kilgore, where Davis
said she was "doing good at first to get 48 in the line and five girls out
front." But the Rangerettes grew into the standard of precision, a mixture
of desire and talent. "If you can't kick this high," Davis said, her hand
about one foot above her head, "don't even show up for tryouts."
More than 2,000 girls made
the grade through the years. Halftime hasn't been the same since.