As the University of Southern Mississippi prepares for Homecoming 2017, a special group will return to campus, as in years’ past, to renew old acquaintances with friends they haven’t seen in 50 or more years and make new friends.
The Dixie Darlings Reunion, held each year at Homecoming, has been incredibly well attended throughout the years. But, never moreso than in 2004 when they celebrated their 50th anniversary and marched more than 254 on the field at halftime and set a new record for the number of alums returning in a single year. That year the youngest DD performing was 17 and the oldest was 71.
In addition to performing during halftime, the group will also march alongside their counterparts in the Homecoming parade on Saturday, as well as attend other functions throughout the weekend.
These days the original members range from 80-82 years of age, but are still kickin’. Because as their motto states, "Once a DD... Always a DD. Still kicking after all these years!”
You’ve come a long way, baby!
The University of Southern Mississippi’s premier dance team, the Dixie Darlings, has come a long way from the antebellum dresses with hoop skirts and parasols worn by their predecessors in the early ’50s.
The university’s first dance team, the Southern Belles, fell under the direction of the PE and recreation department.
In an October 2010 Signature article, Dupie Floyd Bishop, whose husband, Lee Floyd, was hired as basketball coach in 1949, told the story of being a coach’s wife and living in the athletic dorm. She was paid $100 a month to be a “house mom” to this crew of 150 football and basketball athletes in an apartment beneath “The Rock.”
But it was around 1952 that Bishop became involved in what she described as “one of her most memorable incidents – the Southern Belles.”
“They had antebellum dresses with hoop skirts and parasols,” Bishop remembered.
“I was a student at the time, majoring in PE and recreation and minoring in health. One day while talking to the head of the dance team about possible ideas for the show, I said, ‘Why don’t you have them come out, drop their skirts and go into a Rockettes routine?’ It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“When the day came and the hoop skirts dropped, it was absolutely silent in the stadium,” Bishop said. “It was very risque back then. I think I got in trouble.”
Julia Ann Sullivan, originally of Poplar-ville, was an original Southern Belle with a hooped skirt.
“Dr. Cook was the president then and he said he didn’t like the way we dropped the hoop skirts and had shorts,” she said during an oral history session with other former DD members at the 50th anniversary celebration.
Ann Bond Beasley, also at that roundtable meeting, said upon dropping their skirts, “Mannoni and Dr. Cook wanted them out of there.”
Enter: A New Team
It is perhaps not a coincidence that a new dance team was formed not long after that.
In 1952, USM’s fourth president, Dr. R. C. Cook recruited Raymond Mannoni from the University of Topeka as band director and instructed him to build a good band with lots of majorettes. Members were chosen by Mannoni partly from their performances in high school as dancers or cheerleaders. As a result, the band increased in size, and the precision dance twirl team, the Dixie Darlings, was organized in 1953 and consisted of 16 regular dancers and an alternate.
Beasley was already in school and participated in the band and as a majorette.
“I finished high school in 1952, so I came in at the same time Dr. Mannoni did,” Beasley said. “He came in with wonderful, innovative ideas and a lot of enthusiasm and brought the whole band unit to fruition again. It had gone down and he just enlivened the whole situation.”
In January 1954, Mannoni observed a young woman named Joyce Scimeca (McHenry) performing at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. She was a member of the Rangerettes, a famous precision dance team at Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas. In June of that year, Mannoni contacted Scimeca and asked if she would like to come to then Mississippi Southern College and help begin a dance team similar to the Rangerettes.
After auditioning for Mannoni, she was offered a full scholarship and got the ball rolling. The squad went from 16 to 26 before doubling in size by year’s end.
McHenry recalls there being 50 girls in the line when she was a Rangerette.
“After we practiced and I saw just 16 was so small on that large field, I asked him (Mannoni) if we could recruit some more girls,” she said. “We had about 38 at the end of the year, so we had doubled in size.”
Barbara Rhodes Dearman said during her DD days she was always the middle of the line because it was based on height.
These days the direction of the Dixie Darlings is led by Tracy Smith, who has been director since 2003 and is a former DD. She had not previously worked for the university.
Smith and the DD captains do all the field choreography. “Rarely, we will bring in a choreographer for special events, but it is usually a former Dixie Darling who knows our style and strengths,” Smith said.
During a recent Monday practice on Court 4 at the Payne Center, Smith’s DD captains put the girls through warm-up exercises before the arduous task of perfecting their precision for Saturday’s pregame and halftime shows. The two-and-a-half-hour practice, the first of five that week, went smoothly, but not without a lot of repetition.
Smith counted the movement steps and had her DDs, all dressed in black shorts and white DD or USM T-shirts, repeat moves she felt needed work. She worked with different groups, while sending another group off to work on the pregame show.
The group was oblivious to the sounds of basketballs dribbling on one of the other courts or the people who walked on the oval track overhead.
Smith’s role as DD director is varied.
“There are so many things that fall under my title, but my two favorite roles are upholding the legacy of the USM Dixie Darlings and being a surrogate mother to so many amazing young ladies at this time in their lives,” she said. “Sometimes that means praising them and sometimes that means tough love, but hopefully they know that I care about them and appreciate their dedication to our organization.”
These days the number of team members varies.
“From year to year the number of team members will change,” said Smith. “We are always a large team considering most dance team standards. I like to keep the number between 40 and 45, never more than 50. There have been years, like this year, when the number drops below 40. Numbers are a goal, but not mandatory. The integrity of the team will never be compromised just to reach a specific number.”
According to original DD Lydia Besse Temple, she was accustomed to being in front of an audience, so performing as a DD didn’t bother her in the least.
“I had no baton experience, so that was a learning experience,” she said. “And back when we were in the Dixie Darlings, we had to use a baton.
“Today it’s just a dance group, but we had to know how to twirl that baton. And I can remember many bruises in the hallway of Hattiesburg Hall when they would come flying down the hall when somebody would miss one.”
Fredde Mincher Taylor, always a regular at Homecoming, was a bit worried when she heard she was going to be a part of a dance-twirl majorette team.
“I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’” she remembers. “But I went and got that baton. I said, ‘Hello, baton.’”
And then she took her own two-week, fast mini-course to learn to twirl.
“I was not going to let that defeat me and some of the girls in Mississippi Hall could attest to this. After the lights were out everyone went in their room at 10 p.m. for lights out. I crept down to the end of the hall where there was a tall mirror and a dim light. And I twirled from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m., sometimes 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. I’d take a break, get a little water. They’d stick their head out the door and say, ‘There she is, still going.’”
Another original, Ann Lynch Bryant, who was from Hattiesburg, thought Southern was wonderful and decided that’s where she wanted to go, staying on the campus most of the time. “I had never even been a majorette, had never held a baton in my hand, but when my future husband got interested in some of the Dixie Darlings, I decided I had to be one.”
The ultimate love story was Dixie Darling marries football player.
What’s in a name?
So, about that name...
One story says back in the beginning, shortly after practice sessions for the group began, Mannoni called the girls together and asked them to suggest a name for the new group. Dixie Dancers was suggested by one member, with Scimeca suggesting Dixie Darlings.
One account says following the first week of practice and having been called the Dixie Maids, Mannoni decided he didn’t like that particular title. After several suggestions, he narrowed it down to two names – the Dixie Dancers or the Dixie Darlings. Dixie Darlings, referred to as DDs, was chosen.
Another account says Mannoni gave credit for naming the group to a sports reporter from the Montgomery Advertiser Journal, who had remarked, "Look at those delightful darlings of Dixie" after seeing the group perform.The sports writers had been there for the game as then-MSC defeated Alabama in 1953. They would do it again the next year.
That’s one of the favorite memories of several of the originals.
“The one that stands out to me was when we played the University of Alabama in 1954,” remembered Patricia Stegall Richardson. “And marching. And we won! Oh, Lord, did we win,” added Dearman. “We knocked the windows out of the bus. I tell you what else we did after that game, the band came on the field and we marched on that field for probably 30 minutes and the band played Stars Fell On Alabama.
“The goal posts didn’t come down in ’53, but they did in ’54,” another added.
But when they became the Dixie Darlings, they weren’t just the Dixie Darlings. They immediately became the “World-Famous Dixie Darlings.”
And at times they were also referred to as The Rockettes of the Gridiron.
During the oral history with the original DD members, Sue Smylie Thompson said they all have a totally different memory of how Dixie Darlings became their name.
One friend remembers some of the original girls sitting on the steps of Hattiesburg Hall, where they lived as freshmen.
“Anyway, that name came from that little conversation on the steps,” said Richardson.
Then some went back to the memory that Mannoni thought of the Darling thing.
Sue Smylie Thompson added that she couldn’t see him coming up with that, but, “you know. Darling? I don’t know.”
Dearman’s best guess is it “really and truly probably came out of some newspaper article.”
But Kay Crenshaw McCrary offered an expla-
“We did not have a name,” she said. “We went to Montgomery, we were playing Alabama, whom we beat for the second time in two years. At that first game we went to we didn’t have a name [before the game]. Well, they wrote some fantastic writeups about us in the Alabama papers. And sports writers called us the Dixie Maids, the Dixie Dolls, the Darlings from Dixie and the Rockettes of the South. So, we got together and were talking and we put up different names. We didn’t want to be [called] Dixie Maids, because that sounded like paper cups.
“So anyway, we finally decided, OK, Dixie Darlings.”
No matter how they came by their name, Dixie Darling is an endearment they still enjoy.
All Dressed Up
The group debuted at the Mississippi Southern vs. Alabama game in Montgomery on Sept. 17, 1954.
The DD's original uniform was a black velvet top and shorts. The top featured gold braid over a scooped neck, and a gold tassel adorned each side of the shorts. The girls wore white gloves and white boots with black fringe.
An interesting article written by James O’Neill Jr. appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1958, issue of The Washington Daily News following the Sunday appearance by the Pride of Mississippi and the DDs.
“Then the Mississippi Southern Band marched out and started tootling away on some rare old Dixie selections. This is a very elegant musical organization. But the best was yet to come. It was 23 degrees and the crowd warmed up precipitously when the Dixie Darlings strutted onto the field. My! My! It was a sight to see! I thought their legs would turn blue before the show was over, but all they did was turn a delicate pink, a color which enhanced the female extremities to no end. Having watched some 9 million half-time shows, I am a mite jaded, but Sunday’s was a world beater.”
During the DD’s early days, S.E. Moore, a well-known Hub City designer made all of the costumes. And whenever an adjustment was needed for different events, such as the Senior Bowl or the Blue-Gray Bowl at Christ-
mas, Moore had the girls outfitted.
When it turned cold, Lady Dell Mechatto Martin remembers Moore coming to the rescue with black wool capes lined with gold satin.
Thompson remembers “our uniforms were made on us.”
“They were sewed to our skin, almost,” added Richardson. “And S.E. Moore fitted every one of us. He was just a marvelous seamstress. But he became our friend too.”
One of the original uniforms in black velvet was two-piece, fitted, very fitted. “We had shorts, black velvet shorts outfitted with tassels.”
“And we learned to flip them,” said Taylor of the tassels.
“He (Mannoni) didn’t want too much motion on them, on the tassels,” remembered one DD.
“Oh no,” said Dearman. “He didn’t like that, no. He did not like that.”
“But we did have the tassels and they could swing,” Richardson said, many times behind Mannoni’s back.
“That’s probably why he had the tassels put on there, because if they moved he knew you were moving,” Thompson said.
“They took our tassels away in ’55,” said Taylor. “We had too much fun messing with those tassels when we marched, we’d flash. We had white boots. We had white boots with black fringe.”
Some of the uniforms also included gold braid like a military uniform. “So, the uniforms were very flashy and very pretty. And flattering.”
These days the ladies sport two to three uniforms during a season.
“Each team member is given two to three performance outfits, depending on if the outfits have been retired or if we have enough for each team member,” Smith said, noting that some uniforms are as much as 10 years old.
DDs are also provided with earrings, warm-up set, raingear, poms and special event wear.
The girls are responsible for purchasing gloves, tights, shoes, boots and two required practice clothes items.
“We have a very traditional look, and always have specially-made outfits, because we do not want another team to show up dressed the same way we are,” Smith said. The outfits for each game are chosen based on the weather and style of show.
Melissa Lyman, who currently serves as Dixie Darling Alumnae Association president and was a DD from 2002-2005, remembers as a freshman having a uniform that consisted of pants and a half top. She said the DDs stopped wearing those her sophomore year.
“The current team now has halter tops and shorts that they alternate with their dresses,” she said. “When I was a DD, The Rock and Pride Field had regular grass, so when it rained we always ended up kicking mud and water into our faces. And doing a jump split into mud while wearing a dress was never fun either. The girls now will never know what that feels like and they are lucky!”
Practice Makes Perfect
The demanding practice schedule for the Dixie Darlings was due to Mannoni's desire to have a top-notch halftime performance. Mannoni was a real perfectionist, and just because a Dixie Darling had performed at one game or event was no guarantee she would be in the starting lineup the next time, which was evidence of Mannoni's desire for quality performances. Tryouts were held before each game, a tradition that continues to the present day.
And is there a “tryout” each week for who will perform?
“Always!” said Director Smith. “The audition process has been in place since Dr. Mannoni formed the team.”
As the girls recently practiced their “Under the Sea” performance, Smith reminded them of the precision needed to make the cut.
She explained that squad members have a short amount of time to learn each show and then will audition for placement. “There have been times in the history of the Dixie Darlings where shows are written with fewer dancers, so there will always be alternates,” she said. Since she has been director, Smith writes show placement for every team member, then once auditions are completed for the week, adjusts the formations based on who passed the audition.
“Each member is responsible for learning and perfecting the dances,” Smith added. “They are not in competition with each other for placement on the field. They are accountable for staying on track as far as skill, stamina, and performance in order to get on the field each week.”
Back then the original DDs remembered practicing from 4-6 p.m. every day and then on Friday afternoon practicing a little longer, perhaps going through their routine with the band.
One of the DDs remembered telling a football player the Dixie Darlings spent more time on the practice field than the team did. “We had more hours on the practice field than the football team did, but it was worth it, it really was, all the wonderful times we had.”
And how do they keep that stamina?
These days the DDs practice 12 hours a week on a normal basis, according to Smith. “But you can add about four more hours to that during a game week. And then there’s the Monday One Mile run, which draws groans from those who have not finished the week’s run.
DDs practice from 3:30-6 p.m. Monday, Wed-nesday, Friday and from 4-6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.
“There will be extra rehearsals before and after, but those are not always set and the whole team is never there,” said Smith, who on this particular day is trying to track down a DD who was a no-show at practice, having heard nothing from her.
The squad usually learns four field shows a season, including the famous Homecoming show at which time they are joined by DD alums.
“In a normal season, they will learn as many as 12 dances, plus the pregame show,” Smith said.
Back in the day, some favorite routines included a military routine that a man, Jackie Weldy, with the ROTC, put together. The DDs used lightweight white wooden rifles.
Martin, an original, remembers a show where they did the cancan. And then there were routines such as “Ballin’ the Jack,” described as a fun, fun thing, Sweet Georgia Brown, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend and Yellow Rose of Texas.
She also remembers Robert Hayes wrote the fight song for Hey Day. “And all the Dixie Darlings had to be in it,” she said. “I can remember we danced on a table, we danced on Coca-Cola cases. It was like Broadway – honest to goodness, it was like a Broadway show.”
Another routine featured hula hoops.
Beasley remembers when a Ms. Hooker came in to assist with the group. That’s when the Dixie Strut originated.
“We took a picture with the batons,” said McHenry.
“Oh yeah, we carried them,” said Beasley. “But all of our routines were dance.”
“We were good,” said Webb, “We were very good.”
These days, the DDs only have class during the fall semester. “Some people assume we work all summer, but that is not the case unless we are performing at a special event or attending a camp,” Smith said. “Even for that, there is only a day or two of rehearsal.”
The DDs attend every game the band attends, as well as any other event the band attends. “Sometimes we do our own events and performances, but when the band is there, we are there. We are always happy to represent Southern Miss!”
Smith said August to December is really busy for them, but the rest of the year they have a more open schedule.
That open schedule also includes pep rallies, exhibitions and community service events. “Sometimes we are promoting a healthy lifestyle, while at other events we are just there to lend a helping hand or visit,” Smith said.
Attending all games wasn’t always the case.
“They took us to a lot of games,” remembers Anne Miller Jordan. “We were at a lot. And then, after football season, there was a group of us they took us all over the state. We did routines and we raised the money – for Danforth Chapel, to do the matching money there and other things. And we did Christmas shows. I mean he (Mannoni) got Southern its money’s worth out of us.
“As well as raising money for alumni,” added Sullivan. “Since most of us got a little scholarship that meant we worked at Southern all year long.”
During the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s the DDs performed at many nationally-televised events, including the Sugar Bowl, Blue-Gray Bowl, Senior Bowl, the All-Star Football Game in Chicago and the Washington Redskins NFL game in Washington, D.C.
In recent years, the DDs have marched in the New Year's Day Parade in London and the Ireland St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and performed at the Green Bay Packers game to honor former USM standout Brett Favre on his birthday.
Work! Work! Work!
Being a DD isn’t a given. You can’t just walk up and join the squad. Auditions are held each spring, usually in March and again in April, depending on the USM academic calendar.
Candidates are required to learn a dance, approximately one-minute long, and then perform it. “They have one hour to learn it and then perform it for the judges,” said Smith. “Next, we ask to see their technique on specific elements such as turns, jumps, leaps, kicks and splits. And last, we will teach them the fight song and strut then have them perform it for the judges.”
Smith said most candidates do have an advanced dance background.
“However, sometimes a candidate comes through without a lot of dance background but does real well in auditions due to natural ability or participation in dance-related activities such as show choir, color guard, cheer, gymnastics and other performance arts.”
Smith said not every school is fortunate enough to have a dance team.
“Many who come from studio-specific dance training have to learn how to do things the ‘dance team’ way, but they usually pick it up quickly,” Smith said.
Those chosen for the team receive a scholarship from the School of Music and from the Dixie Darlings Alumnae Association. The amount varies depending on the number of years of service on the team and other stipulations as noted in endowed scholarships.
Scholarships were also available in the early years.
“Yeah, most of us got a little scholarship and that meant we worked at Southern all year long,” said one original DD.
“When I got my scholarship, I think it amounted to $60 a quarter, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you stop and think all they charged us back then was $151 a quarter,” Temple said. “So, $60 paid by the school was a hunk.”
And the rules and regulations have become a little less stringent in some ways.
There used to be dorm mothers who would do room check and there were regulations about where and when you could do things. DDs had to be in their rooms with door shut and locked by 9 p.m. with lights out at 10 p.m.
Others remember the curfew being 7 p.m. with lights out at 10 p.m. followed by a room check.And as Dixie Darlings, they weren’t allowed in shorts on campus.
“We wore our raincoats to practice, and then put them on to stop and eat and get back to the dorm,” remembers another.
“Yeah, I was told the raincoats were black so, you know, a black raincoat in the summer in Mississippi,” another laughed.
McCrary also remembered not being allowed to wear shorts to go to gym or to Dixie Darling practice. “You better have on a raincoat or a skirt,” she said. “Shorts were a no-no. And then I come down here in years’ past, I see people in bathing suits going to class.”
“No matter how hot it was, anywhere we went,” Jean Freeman Webb said. “We could not even go into the lobby of our dorms with shorts on. No short pants. No pants.”
“The only time, I guess, you wore shorts was when we marched,” added Martin.
“We always had to wear a dress. I don’t even think we wore pants or shorts,” added another.
According to Smith, they “really don’t have that now, but the team members are expected to maintain the standard of excellence and the legacy of USM, The Pride and the Dixie Darlings.
“I tell them that someone is always watching and they are role models to younger generations, not just when they are on the field performing, but in everyday life. They are not only representing the university, but also their families, high schools, hometowns and former dance studios. Being on a team that has so much visibility means you are held to a high standard.”
Lyman concurred, remembering back to another favorite DD memory.
During Homecoming her freshman year as she walked around campus, a little girl walked up to Lyman and asked if she could take a picture with her and then asked for her autograph.
“I happily agreed and stood there for a few minutes talking to the little girl who couldn't have been more than 6,” Lyman said. “After we were done, her mother thanked me and told me that I had just made her daughter’s day. She said her daughter had been asking all week to get a picture with a DD and her daughter had singled me out from the parade as being the DD she wanted a picture with. Why that little girl chose me I will never know, but that little girl made the biggest impact on my life that day. It truly was a humbling moment for me. Coming in as a freshman, you sometimes underestimate the impact you can have on people and the campus as a whole. That moment was a gentle reminder that there is always someone watching you. The DDs have always been seen as role models for so many young fans that come to our games and they still are. I am always proud to say that I was a Dixie Darling!”
As they were back in the original days.
“Well, classes came first,” said Temple. “He made us realize that. If your grades weren’t right, you didn’t stay in the Dixie Darlings.”
The original group remembers being highly sought after, “because we were all talented. Dr. Mannoni kept instilling into our little brains that we were good, we were great, we were role models, we were duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. And so we did, we had a feeling of, not superiority, but we had self-confidence. And I think that has really helped us all through the years. It gave us self-esteem, self- confidence, and a lot of things that have faced us in our lives since our Dixie Darling days that maybe we could not have handled if we had not had that. A “Golly, I’m going to pick myself up by my bootstraps and I’m going to keep going,” said one.
In an article published in the The Outlook (Alexander City, Ala.) on Nov. 10, 2014, managing editor Mitch Sneed wrote about local women Elizabeth Lyon Byrns and Barbara Johnson Blythe, who were returning to South Mississippi for the 60th anniversary reunion of the iconic DD dance team.
“It doesn’t matter how long it has been, when we get back together it’s just like it was all those years ago,” said Burns. “For that short period in time, we were part of the ‘World Famous Dixie Darlings.’ We may have graduated, gotten married, raised families, but once we are back there we all get right back in it like it was yesterday.”
“We were these girls from a little mill town – we had made it to the big time and didn’t even know it,” said the then-74-year-old Burns. “The first time I went back for an event after the Dixie Darlings Alumni Association was started in 2004, I was about to go out to the field, and I had to ask if they had enough ambulances to cart all of us off if they had to. They laughed, but it was amazing how we all were right in step. Some things don’t change and some things you never forget. When we go out there, we are all 19 again.”
Since their inception 63 years ago, the Dixie Darlings have represented the spirit and tradition of Southern Miss athletics – one strut, white-gloved hand and kick at a time.