When a clip of the Cardinal Divas, a majorette dance team at the University of Southern California — Los Angeles, went viral last month, the group’s founder, Princess Isis Lang, said she didn’t expect her life to dramatically change.
“Honestly, my life has been so crazy,” said Lang, 20, who is studying musical theater at USC. “Some people have come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you Princess? Are you that girl that created that majorette team?’”
“I’m really blessed. And I can only really thank God and my friends and family,” she added.
The clip, which has garnered over 3 million views on Twitter, has brought Lang and her teammates praise from across the country, including supportive responses from rapper Saweetie and former “Bring It!” star Dianna Williams. However, amid the celebrations and acclaim for making history by launching the first ever majorette dance team on a predominately white institution (PWI), the group has also encountered backlash on social media for exactly the same reason: bringing a traditionally Black style of dance 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 at an HBCU.
HBCU expert Joy Williamson-Lott, who is the dean of the University of Washington’s Graduate School in Seattle, said she’s not surprised by the criticism. She said that HBCUs are underfunded and some underenrolled compared to predominantly white colleges, which explains why many feel that popular HBCU traditions — which are a big appeal for incoming students — shouldn’t be at PWIs.
“They don’t have the same kinds of resources as PWIs and so what they don’t want is elements of who they are, their essence being carved off, so that they’re left with nothing — and then there’s no reason for people to go there,” Williamson-Lott said, adding that HBCUs are “fighting for their own existence.”
Although the dean questioned the online claims of cultural appropriation since the majorettes are “still Black women,” she did acknowledge that having a majorette dance team at a predominantly white school could bring about major issues like racial stereotypes.
“Before Instagram and Facebook, you had to be at the Black college to see these things, all of this happened in a Black context,” she said, adding that having this dance happen, “away from all the Black people around them in the stands could lead a white audience to view them through a stereotypical lens.”
“When these Black women are dancing in these ways at an HBCU, it’s still sensual and charged, but people also know these Black women as students, as scientists, as sisters, as aunties, as friends, as full human people,” Williamson-Lott said. “But, when you put them in a white context … it’s with whatever interpretations they bring.”
Lang, who has been dancing since she was a child, said she started the majorettes dance team because she wanted Black women to have a space on campus where they could express themselves freely through movement. She said that she did not 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 that I would be going into a space that … I wouldn’t feel comfortable dancing in and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being my full self.”
“This is really my way to create a space for people that are like me because I know that if I’m feeling like this, I’m most likely not the only girl that feels like this on this really large campus,” she added.
The history of majorette-style dance teams
Starting in the 1960s, majorette dance teams became popular at HBCUs for their high energy movements that infuse jazz, West African and hip-hop dance styles. The majorette dance teams often perform alongside a marching band in glittery outfits while doing flips in the air or showcasing other gymnast moves.
“It’s about freedom of expression, kind of letting loose and sisterhood,” Williamson-Lott said. “They’re athletes who love dance, who have often been dancing all of their lives and now they can continue to do that in college.”
Williamson-Lott said the majorette dance lines in the 1960s shifted away from respectability politics and into an era in which Black people were able to show their whole selves. Those performances, usually held at HBCU football games and homecoming events, were an opportunity for majorette dance teams to show off their skill and even battle with 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 at a football game, it’s all about whose girls are bringing it.”
She said the dancers also participate in a lot of call-and-response “with the crowd and with each other.”
‘Why can’t she dance?’
Along with the criticism online, Lang has received some positive feedback from HBCU majorette dance teams. Christine Jenkins, a coach for Howard University’s Ooh La La! dance line, said she supports Lang’s efforts.
“She is creating her own community and I am so proud of her for doing so,” Jenkins said, before adding that she hoped the Cardinal Divas were also “acknowledging the ones that came before.”
Still, like many other HBCU advocates, Jenkins said she is aware of the concerns about the dance line at PWIs given the history of racism on white campuses. She said some members of Howard University’s band community feared the HBCU tradition was being displaced.
“They are very upset, especially coming from HBCUs because … it was their safe space, ‘so now you’re bringing our safe space to a space that didn’t want us to begin with,’” she said. “I had to inform my friends that this is a young girl who probably doesn’t have a lot of people who look like her? … why can’t she dance?”
Jenkins said it’s not the responsibility for HBCUs to be “gatekeepers.”
“We want to be better than those who gatekeep their institutions … So why are we doing that to our own?” she asked.
Another coach for the team, Princess Alintah, agreed, saying groups like the USC Cardinal Divas show that majorette dance teams are not monolithic.
“We’re now starting to see it in different forms and shapes,” Alintah said, adding that majorette dance groups are diverse and it’s important for them to be accepted and given “the space and capacity to perform.”
Meanwhile, Lang said she’s not allowing the criticism to overshadow the movement she created to uplift Black girls across the country.
“I can’t appropriate what I’ve always been a part of,” Lang said. “I’m not here to take away from culture or take it as my own. I’m here to put majorettes on an even larger platform and I want everybody to know what majorette style dancing is.”