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After dazzling crowds for decades, founder of Kansas City’s Marching Cobras puts down his baton

The Marching Cobras drill team performing at a parade in Carthage, Missouri
The Marching Cobras
The Marching Cobras
The Marching Cobras drill team performing at a parade in Carthage, Missouri

The marching band and drill team’s founder, Willie Arthur Smith, is retiring after more than 50 years of entertaining crowds in Kansas City and beyond.

A cherished drill team and marching band in Kansas City is dissolving after 54 years.

“I felt that the time was right,” wrote KC Marching Cobras founder Willie Arthur Smith in a press release last week. “I have been thinking about retiring and dissolving for a few years, but after much prayer and consideration it’s time to move on and enjoy the best years of my life that are yet to come.”

For decades, Smith used the group as a way to lift up and mentor underserved youth In Kansas City.

“It saddens me to leave,” wrote Smith in a letter to former staff, board members, volunteers and the media. “I hope I and the Marching Cobras made a difference in the Kansas City youth and community.”

In his 2018 memoir, “Dance with a Cobra,” Smith wrote that his idea for the drill team came in 1969, when he created a 13-member, all male dance team that went on to win a talent show at the former Lincoln Junior High School, where he worked as social studies teacher.

That success and popularity inspired Smith to found the Marching Cobras as a dance and step team the same year, he wrote. It eventually expanded to include drummers and tumblers, and developed the Cobras signature “high-step” marching style.

Gregg James, 62, is a retired Kansas City Public Schools teacher who worked with the Marching Cobras for 45 years. He said the drill team's culture laid the groundwork for some of its members to go on to achieve in life.

“There are a lot of kids who are ministers, teachers … they work for the government, they’re public servants,” said James, who served as chaperone, public relations coordinator and more for the organization. “There are so many, I don't want to leave anyone out.”

James said Marching Cobras alumni include Richard “Swoop” Whitebear and Chris Barksdale, both of whom have become accomplished dancers and choreographers. Barksdale is a former member of the Kansas City Ballet, and Whitebear is a music video choreographer who worked with artists like Whitney Houston and Dr. Dre.

According to the drill team’s website, Smith is credited with engaging more than 10,000 Kansas City youth over the five decades he led the program.

The marching band also performed for four American presidents, and marched in parades in 45 states, France, and sporting events like the Cotton Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl.

Pat Clarke, a former Marching Cobras board member, said, despite the somber moment, Smith’s legacy will live on forever in Kansas City’s African American community.

“All these other drill teams that exist — he created that,” Clarke said. “So, yeah, we are losing a dynasty. But look at all the offspring of the Marching Cobras that's still out here.”

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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