On a Monday night at the Lee A. Tolbert gymnasium in Kansas City, 80 dancers ages 6-25 gather for one of two weekly practices of The Marching Cobras.
In gym shorts and sneakers, the dancers break a sweat running through their routines. They move to the beats of a group of young drummers banging out a rhythm loud enough to make your ears pound.
The Marching Cobras are a drill team — a type of orchestrated dance group where performers march in unison, like in military drills, but the movement has been infused with hip-hop, jazz, African dance and other types of choreography.
Drill teams are found not just in Kansas City, but all over the country and look different depending on where you go. More-traditional teams twirl batons, rifles and flags, while others look more contemporary, like something out of the popular TV show So You Think You Can Dance.
In Kansas City, there are several well-known drill teams: The Marching Pythons, The Gateway Highsteppers, The Marching Falcons, The Sizzlers. And dozens of smaller teams are still establishing themselves and their reputations.
While each team has their own particular style of movement and music, they share a common history and tradition that all started with one man and one team — The Marching Cobras.
The start of drill teams in Kansas City
In their 46-year history, The Marching Cobras have performed for four U.S. presidents (twice at the the White House). As the city's best-known team, the Cobras, routinely tour throughout the U.S. to perform in parades, college football half-time shows, or for Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They’ve even performed internationally, traveling to Nice, France, more than once.
The group founder, Willie Arthur Smith, is now in his 60s. Smith carries a cane and does less dancing and stepping than he used to, but he's at the Cobra’s practice each week. He sits in the corner, watching over Don Daughtry, the newly appointed drill master and a student of Smith’s for more than 30 years. Smith nods his head in time with the drums, and keeps an eye out for promising dancers.
“If Don follows the routines we’ve been going by, he should be a success,” says Smith. “And that’s because we’ve already set a pace in Kansas City where everybody already knows about us.”
The Marching Cobras got their start in 1969 when Smith moved to Kansas City from his hometown in Prescott, Arkansas, to teach social studies at Lincoln Junior High. In his first year he taught a group of male students a dance routine called The Madison Line for an all-school talent show. Their performance became such a success that Smith formed the school’s first all-male dance group, which soon became a drill team.
“In five years there were 58 boys in that drill team,” says Smith. “The church loved 'em, the school loved 'em, and the community loved 'em. So that’s how the drill team became a part of Kansas City history.”
As a young boy, Smith was forbidden to dance by his conservative grandparents who raised him. That, he says, is why he snuck out to the juke clubs to dance. He was also the first-ever drum major for his church marching band and did stepping at fraternities during his college years. All three shaped Smith’s particular style and rhythm.
“In college I was a fraternity man, so what I did was take one step from every fraternity and speed that step up five times faster,” says Smith. “We got the 'attention' and 'at-ease' from the Army, but everything that I could think of I would try and take something from it to make up a new routine.”
And that is what shaped Kansas City's first drill team.
A dance with deep roots in history
It’s generally assumed that drill teams evolved from military drills and drum lines after World War II, but drill teams in the African American tradition may have a more complex history. Raquel Monroe, a dance professor at Columbia College in Chicago, thinks that in one manifestation or another, the drill team has been in the African American culture for at least a century.
“That stepping reflects the moves and the chanting black men working on chain gangs would perform so here we’re talking about 1800s, early 1900s”, says Monroe.
According to Monroe, the synchronized movement, mixed with rhythm and chanting, can be found in many examples within 20th century African American culture — like stepping from all black fraternities or the second line tradition in New Orleans. Of the many elements that have helped to shape the art, community has become the central driving force that’s keeps drill teams around today.
“In working-class communities and working-class African American communities in particular, it’s designed, you’ll see, as an outreach program to provide activities for youth after school and sort of keep youth out of trouble," says Monroe. “I would imagine that that function in its inception is what caused its transition from strictly military to becoming a type of performance genere.”
Sparking the next generation
As with most drill teams, including The Marching Cobras and similarly named The Marching Pythons, being a member doesn’t cost anything other than price of uniforms. There are also no tryouts. Anyone who wants to dance, regardless of age or ability is welcome to join.
Besides showing up for practice, says Wanda Winters, coach of The Marching Pythons, all she requires is maintaining a 'C' average in school.
“Every time I have practice or every time there’s a performance scheduled, there’s a youth doing something positive,” says Winters. “So it’s like every time those doors are open for drill team practice. Whether it be Pythons, Cobras whatever drill team, that door is open for them to come in."
Open for kids like 15-year-old Jessica Lockhart, who says before she became a Python, she didn’t really make good use of her time.
“Before I got on the drill team I would just go home after school and watch T.V. and eat chips. That was pretty much it,” she says. "Now every Tuesday and Thursday I have something to look forward to.”