Steppers, dance teams, drill teams, all have deep historic roots in African –American culture. While they’re all unique, they have some unifying characteristics, among them is a strong beat, uninformative in steps and movements, the deep sense of camaraderie that comes from working hard and long to perfect their crafts, and the deep sense of joy that comes from a job well done.
It’s the kind of feeling that youth participants of Kansas City’s Marching Cobras Drill Team have been feeling for 50 years. Yes, the Marching Cobras, Kansas City’s premiere drill team turns 50 this year.
The organization was started in 1969 by Willie Arthur Smith who moved to Kansas City from his hometown in Prescott, AR to teach social studies at Lincoln Junior High. In his first year he taught of group of males students a dance routine called The Madison Line, for an all-school talent show.
The performance was 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,” Smith said in an interview for radio station KCUR. “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.”
Smith, who was raised by his conservative grandparents, said he would sneak out to juke clubs to dance. In college he joined a fraternity and learned the art of step. Much of what the drill has done over the years, was pulled from his Greek step experiences, from his love and dance, and anything else he could think of.
The “attention” and “at-ease” he took from the military.
If you’ve never seen the Cobras, or any other African-American drill team, stiff drum and bugle core they aren’t. They’re fast paced, high stepping and rhythmic. Most teams consist of drummers – a drum line – and dancers, who are constantly in motion with at least their basic high energy marching step or some basic repetitive motion, until the drum major – the third essential part of the group -- or lead dancer signals that it’s time to “turn-it-up.”
Then it’s on, as the dancers in high speed and unison typically perform a complex seat of movements, that include high steps, turning, hand moves, and quite often some pelvic moves. Definitely expect some hips swerving and butt popping. But what’s really amazing is the frantic pace of these actions, all driven by the beating of the drums.
These aren’t easy steps to perform or memorize, and the precision with which they do this requires hours and hours of practice. And with competitions, parades and other performances often looming, there’s little time for a break, especially for a drill team like the Marching Cobras who have an international reputation and are often in demand.
During their 50-year history, the Cobras have performed for at least 4 U.S. presidents, twice at the White House. They routinely tour throughout the U.S. to perform in parades, college football half-tie shows, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. or drill team competitions.
The group typically practices a minimum of twice per week, but for many of the youth that join drill teams, their participation is a needed and welcome distraction. It keeps them busy, safe and of the street and they also get an opportunity to travel to locations they most likely wouldn’t otherwise see.
Several yeas ago, Smith a permanent fixture with the Cobras, suffered a stroke. He stepped down from the role as drill master but still remains involved with the team. Don Daughty, a student of Smith’s for 30 years, now serves as drill master.