Julia Marsalek Dawson


photographs are copyrighted by Julia Marsalek Dawson & the text by Holly Brear

Stepping out and parading about in Texas

Reflections based on Julia Dawson's photographs


Holly Brear

Several months ago I saw David Sapir walking across the University of Virginia campus and hailed him down to talk. During the conversation, he mentioned having in his office some photographs taken by Julia Dawson of parades in Texas, and he suggested that I take a look at them because maybe I could tell him "what was going on in them." David had two of Julia's photographs mounted on his wall, both of which were immediately personal to me -- drill team shots [numbers 01n and 06n]. "Sure, David, that's drill team. See the older woman in the trench coat? She's the director." I then looked at the collection of mannequin-faced young women marching in short skirts and gloves; "Yeah that's drill team."

My total acceptance shocked David, who said, "That looks normal to you?" Yes. It looked entirely familiar -A the trench coated woman could have been Francenia Hicks, director of the Paris High School Blazettes, and I could have been the young woman performing beside her (with a few inches in height added -- the Blazettes did not have a height requirement, as so many more "professional" Texas drill teams do). "That's what they do in Texas, David. I was a captain of one of those things. "

David looked stunned but amused. His former graduate student, new colleague in anthropology, and analyst of American culture felt at home with the photograph on his wall. Well, not entirely. The shots had been taken out of their context, as photographs always are. How could anyone understand the "normalcy" of these images without the rest of Texas life (especially as lived in Paris, Texas) missing from David's office? It did feel strange suddenly, a piece of my-until then- irrelevant past hanging on his wall.

David showed me more of Julia's photographs, all of which I understood on a personal level. But as I looked as them, the images began to break through the familiarity buffer and I felt some of their shock value. Julia had on film stopped the movements meant to display only briefly the smooth crotch panties worn by the baton twirlers, drill team dancers, and cheerleaders. Caught and permanently held was the spread-leg imagery I had performed but had never seen -- not from this perspective.

The picture containing the older woman seemed more benign at first. She reflected the matron who cared for (and trained) the young women with her; she was the deadly experienced woman passing on her knowledge to the next generation and sanctioning their performance of the female image. This knowledge is also passed on within the generations in the big sister/little sister exchange. My older sister taught me the drill team dance routines even before I was old enough to try out for the group. Once I was old enough and did make the team, I was assigned a "big sister" within the group to work with me throughout my first year. I received my "little sister" the following year.

Since that day in David's office, I have begun thinking about the images. Julia Dawson and I have talked briefly about them; they were as foreign to her as they were to David. She asked me how mothers could allow their daughters to appear in such a manner. I found the question confusing at first; no one had ever so bluntly questioned drill team and our exposed bodies before. It was perfectly normal to march through downtown Paris, Texas before home football games --women sexualized with bared legs (often rubbed with baby oil to cut the cold) and smooth -- genital matching panties, preceding the football players in full battle array with bulging genital protection for all the town to admire.

We, as high-kicking and cartwheeling women, were our home town's most important natural resource. When out-of-town parade committees called for performers, the football players were left out of the invitation; it was the women and the band they wanted. The women, frilly breasted and bare legged, were the advertising export. (The band appeared as an asexual counterpart, with members marching in flat breasted, straight-legged, bell boy uniforms.) The women had idealized faces, eyes blue with bright shadow and framed in thick mascara, cheeks rouged, and lips wet cherry red, spread apart in the no question "smile." We were enticing produce, much as the west Texas "rosy-checked maidens" who greeted the railroad dignitaries in 19th century San Antonio, Texas; they were offered verbally by the governor of Texas as potential marriage partners for the business men of eastern Texas, who had also come to look at cotton and cattle. The message spans the century: Show us what you got, boys!

In Texas they are still showing what the town has to offer in such resources. At in-town and out-of-town football games, drill teams and twirling majorettes are the entertainment between the halves, dancing on the field as the band plays off to the side. The drill team has several routines, but the director saves the high-kick number for the homecoming game and the most prestigious out-of-town game. This is the ultimate dance, legs high over the head, smooth panties exposed-- can can girls who know how to perform. At this half-time time out from the game, dancing women give another definition to scoring.

Am I simply creating this image in retrospect? I began to wonder and asked a fellow Blazette what she remembered from this time of our lives. Did she remember the mentor Kilgore Rangerettes, the next step up in drill team? One Rangerette came to us for a week each summer, hired from the Kilgore Community College to teach us new routines for the football fall season. "Oh yeah. The Kilgore Whore Corps," she sneered. She and I, in her mind, had only done drill team in high school, whereas the Rangerette had a made a college career of it. Maybe she even went on to be a Radio City Rockette, continuing her ette-hood, a junior bit and by-product of a male world.

I tested the drill team image with another born-and-reared Texan, this time a man who teaches history at one of the smaller state college. He laughed and kicked back, reminiscing about the drill team at his undergraduate Texas university; he too used, and not prompted by me, the phrase "whore corps" to define these women. But coming from him, the words were sickening. I felt like kicking his tipped-back chair out from under him there in the Texas Chili Parlor. Another good old boy passing on "knowledge" not his own but common.

To myself I have tried to excuse my part in perpetuating such an image of women by pulling out my high school yearbook and looking for clues of why I had never questioned it until now. The sports section answered. Men competed. Women simply decorated their world at intermission, the time of no score. The coaches were all male; the teams save the tennis team, were all male. There was no such thing as women's basketball for us, no field hockey, no soccer, no baseball. All scoring competitors were male.

Not much has changed in Paris, Texas during the twenty-five years since my senior year. Five years ago I went back for the twenty-year reunion. The planning committee made sure we saw that ultimate event--the homecoming football game--as part of the festivities. A friend sat near me in the stadium and watched proudly at half-time as her daughter locked arms with other Blazettes and performed the high- kick. It's a family affair still. We inherited the image back then from older women, and we hand it proudly on to our daughters.

And it's not just Texas, although Texas does offer the archetype of the sexual dichotomy. I live in Virginia now, and I recently became aware of the not-so-subtle push for decorative women here. My 14 year-old son's school's basketball teams, both the boys and the girls, teams, were playing those of another small private school two counties away. The games were held at the other school. Sitting in their stands, I watched in dismay as about fifteen elementary-aged girls from that school, dressed in cheerleading outfits, ran onto the court during time out to enliven the visiting and home parents with their routines. I muttered to those around me how awful I felt seeing the girls still being trained to be cheerleaders. The other parents, finding the display "adorable" scoffed at my concerns; some even expressed the wish that our school had such a squad for young girls. I was told to relax, that such activity did not mind warp young women and would not discourage them from being athletes.

When it came time for the girls' teams to play one another, our cheerleader-less school came out on the court with five starters and ten subs, all anxiously awaiting their chance to take the court and score. The home team, although similar in student population, came out to play with only one sub one sub. That silenced us all.

Here at a Christian school in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills girls are more often trained to show "what they got" in the genital region than in skills. They are more commonly dressed in skirts and matching panties than in gym suits. We wonder at societies where clitorectomies are revered. Take a look at the image desired; girls clipped of projection, smoothed over and in to fit the internalized ideal of extreme femininity. Here we accept surgery to augment the breasts, slit them and slide silicon packets in them. Young women starve themselves literally to flatten their stomachs and thin their thighs. Our clothing girdles our bottoms and bulges our breasts. In our dance in the street we frill the breasts and split legs. I am beginning through Julia's photographs to feel the foreigner within me, too.

Julia Marsalek Dawson is a photographer living in Dallas, Texas. She received her B.F.A and M.F.A degrees from The University of Texas at Austin, where she studied with Russell Lee and Garry Winogrand. She has been photographing society's celebrations, fairs, and parades, for twenty one years.

Holly Brear received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Virginia in 1993. She is the author of Inherit the Alamo : Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine, University of Texas Press, 1995. Holly lives in Culpeper, Viriginia.

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