Cheer the majorettes’ new dawn: Marching a path for female sports in South Africa

By Catherine Del Monte 22 December 2020

Eldoraigne Drum Majorettes perform during the Women’s Day march to the Union Buildings on August 09, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa. The march is in commemoration of the 1956 march where more than 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, protesting against the apartheid government’s pass laws. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

How the iconic sport of ‘Drummies’ has been teaching young South African women to catch life’s throws and spin them into a seamless sequenced spectacle.

Back in January 2020, Cheer, a docuseries that followed the “ups and downs of Navarro College’s competitive cheer squad as they (worked) to win a coveted national title”, launched on Netflix to great acclaim.

In each episode, the team of young cheerleaders performed, here one-leg or “liberty” stunts, there scorpions (when the flyer – the cheerleader who is carried by others to fly, jump and perform mostly in the air – “grabs their foot and bends the leg upward behind the body until the toes are close to the back of the head, in a position resembling a scorpion’s tail”), an arabesque, or a basket, flying so high that just watching the athletes perform gives some sense of vertigo.

On screen as in real life, the cheerleaders’ bodies are stretched, thrown, pulled, lifted, and sometimes (often) hurt, torn, twisted, and plastered and bandaged; and then in a second, they’re back at being thrown, pulled, lifted up until more bandages are added to cover the pain, the sweat and the tears.

It’s both exhilarating and excruciating to watch: the adrenaline that comes with pushing one’s body to its limit to reach some athletic perfection – when a stunt is successful or a whole choreography flows seamlessly – the out-of-this-world performances and sheer beauty of the show the team puts together practice after practice, the togetherness needed to do so, is inspirational (and addictive to watch) in its transcendence; but then, there’s also the unsettling feeling that the safety of the athletes comes after the need to succeed, to beat the competition, that the impacts of such hardcore practice sessions will be terrible for the athletes involved.

Volcano Drum Majorettes outside Nelson Mandela’’s Houghton home while the State Funeral is underway in Qunu on December 15, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Nelius Rademan)
Miss South Africa, Liesl Laurie, at the 39th National Majorette and Cheerleading championships on July 12, 2015 at the Tempe Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa.  (Photo by Gallo Images / Volksblad / Emile Hendricks)
Standing from left to right: Andiswa Cebekhulu, Siphithemba Mshengu, Tshegofatso Sebogodi, Siphokazi Sibiya, Tshegofatso Chele, Lwazi Mabena, Owethu Sihlahla, Keabetswe Morake / Sitting from left to right: Kamogelo Kgokane, Lolwethu Singeni, Relebogile Mashapa (Image: Supplied)

Back home, just 30 kilometres northwest of Cape Town’s city centre at Curro Brackenfell Independent School, ex-majorette, aka drummie, Yvonne Viljoen, gave birth to her third baby, the Durbanville Majorettes in 2018.

Sade Bandua (10) from Aristea Primary in Kraaifontein picks up a mace – almost her height in length – puts one hand behind her back and proceeds to manipulate the majorette prop between her little fingers into a mesmerising series of twirls.

Team leader Rochelle Bornman (13) attempts the coveted “Triple” – a move where the mace is thrown up into the air as she spins three times before catching the prop again. Bornman lands the move on her second attempt and surprise-laden triumph fills her face.

The Durbanville Majorettes – a sport club that operates as a not-for-profit organisation – is home to 34 dedicated, dazzling drummies hailing from areas in the Northern Suburbs from Delft to Kraaifontein.

The Durbanville Majorettes: From left to right back: Sibahle, Quinn, Olwakhe, Likho, Kenley, Elze, Skyeler, Athandwe, Sade, Richhelle, Ivanka, Obakhe, Blaine, Tamsyn, Isabelo, Angelique, Phoebe / From left to right front: Rachael, Zingce, Stella, Zoe, Bianca, Skye, Shaunne (Image: Supplied)
The Durbanville Majorettes: Kyla Connor, Angelique Isaacs, Skye Duminy, Zingce Valashiya, Zoë Jeffries, Blaine Doyle, Obakhe Makabeni, Isabelo Majola, Carey Connor, Olwakhe Makabeni / Bottom row: Richelle Bornman, Sadè Bandura, Rachael Jeffery, Kenley Viljoen , Stella Badenhorst, Bianca Neethling, Skyeler Julies, Shaunne Gordon (Image: Supplied)

Viljoen explains that Curro had its own majorette team so the Durbanville Majorettes were able to inherit the school’s equipment and uniforms. “Cost-effective for the Aristea girls and Fanie Theron girls because the infrastructure was already there, there wasn’t a lot we needed to acquire. So we could make the monthly fees very low. It was a low-fee no-fee club. We honestly run the club on a wish and a prayer,” says Viljoen.

Being a drummie is all about commitment and discipline, says Viljoen. “It is fundamentally a team sport. If one girl is absent, it can affect and quite often, throw out the entire formation and this allows the girls to see how important their team members are.”

Majorette Siphithemba Mshengu (Image: Supplied)

Drummies train for six major competitions in the year to qualify for the National Championships, when months of training are reduced to a few minutes on the field. Practices take place at the Durbanville Majorettes Club every Monday and Wednesday from 3pm to 5pm. So many hours on the field – every Friday and Saturday leading up to a competition, practice can run from 9am to 4pm.

Last year, the Durbanville Majorettes went to the South African Majorettes and Cheerleading Association’s (SAMCA) National Championship in East London in the Eastern Cape and placed ninth overall out of 18 teams. “These girls had never put their foot on a field and in their first year they won their provincial champs and were invited to nationals, placing ninth out 18 teams,” says Viljoen.

Dance drill, cheerleading, majorettes and women empowerment

In 1978, the first Drum Majorette organisation in South Africa, known as the West Rand Drum Majorette Association, was formed.

According to the Vice President of the Federation of Dance Drill, Cheerleading & Majorette Sport South Africa (FDDCMSA) and majorette adjudicator, Palesa Chele, the now form-fitting leotards, with flair skirts for drills and sequinned jazz pants for pom-pom uniforms were developed from military drills and traditionally structured and tailored dresses, jackets, white boots, white gloves and busbies. “Each sub-group is allocated their own colour. Many teams have kept the traditional dress sense for large drills. However, as South Africa continues to be entrenched in the international majorette style, even changing the name from drum majorettes to majorettes, the sport is evolving to include non-traditional elements such as dance and acrobatics. Teams have also adopted the non-traditional headdress, using feathers and rhinestone headbands. The glitz and glamour of the uniform has remained customary.”

For decades, women have been on the bench in the sports industry at both  a national and an international level. According to an article in The Conversation, nearly 26 years after the Brighton Declaration on Women and Sport was passed in a bid to address underrepresentation of women in all sports in South Africa, it still remains an issue.

According to SASCOC’s website, of the Olympic athletes receiving support, nine out of the 30 athletes (30%) are women. Of the 20 coaches who work with these athletes, three (15%) are women.

Providing equal opportunities for women in sport is paramount as it extends far beyond just success on the field. According to Michelle Sikes, lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University and Nana Adom-Aboagye, doctoral student at the University of Johannesburg, “supporting women in sport is also about the lessons that can be learnt through participation in sport – discipline, dedication, determination, and teamwork – lessons that the women can translate into other areas of their lives. These skills can be applied as female athletes seek success beyond the sports field. And more women are needed to be role models in sport for the next generation of sports leaders.”

Thus, the FDDCMSA was officially launched on 28 November 2020, brushing off dusty constitutions and policy stagnation, and welcoming women of colour in executive positions at a national level like Chele, making it the first and only federation in history to do so.

The busby bug bit Chele when she watched her aunt take part in a form of drummies known as “Street Parades” in the 1980s and she started Drum Majorettes in 2001 as a primary athlete in North West.

“This was the first year the sport was introduced into our school. My younger sister Lerato then joined in 2003 and my youngest sister in 2014. I continued into high school majorettes until I matriculated. Drummies empowers young girls to be focused, accountable and responsible. Through exercising the concept of time management, I achieved my senior provincial colours in grade 9, and six distinctions in matric, while competing provincially and nationally. This also holds for many other drummies who have matriculated at the top in their  schools and provinces,” Chele reflects.

“However, over the years, the need for a more inclusive Federation for all South African individuals irrespective of creed, gender identities, race or socioeconomic background became more and more apparent,” she adds.

The FDDCMSA wishes to build a legacy of creative, strong young girls who empower one another and strive to achieve success as a collective.

“Majorettes in South Africa has failed to transform across all spheres despite it being a traditionally female sport. Post the boom of drummies in the ’80s and ’90s, the number of teams participating in the sport have dwindled rapidly due to various reasons. Growing up with these challenges as a young majorette in the 2000s and continuing to see the lack of change over the past 20 years, I became more cognisant of the importance of evoking change now,” says Chele.

FDDCMSA was created not only for the existing majorette and cheerleading disciplines, but for the disciplines of dance drill, marching bands, colour guard and traditional street parades who are not now catered for or recognised under a National Federation.

Simultaneously, FDDCMSA created a new sporting occasion, forming a never-before coalition of dance drill, cheerleading and majorette sport.

“The realities of our socioeconomic climate increase the challenges facing underprivileged communities and further hinder access to dance drill, cheerleading and majorettes, therefore making the sport available only to a minority of children.

“For this important reason, FDDCMSA prioritised the mission to eradicate the exclusionary elitism from our sport and make it financially viable for any girl or boy child to partake in our various categories. We have shifted the emphasis from being prescriptive to encouraging creativity and skills development.

“We recognise the importance of building all children of all gender identities. FDDCMSA advocates for all children, transgender, nonbinary, male and female athletes to receive an equal opportunity to compete provincially, nationally and internationally. FDDCMSA is a fully recognised member of the International Association of Majorette-Sport. Together we aim to restructure majorettes and place the athletes at the forefront,” says Chele.

The Durbanville Majorettes Club have moved over from SAMCA to the new federation. President of the federation, Christine Pretorius explains that Women Empowering Women has been adopted as FDDCMSA’s slogan because: “The current Executive body of Majorettes and Cheerleading in South Africa mainly consists of men. As a sport that is done by predominantly girls, we found changes that needed to be made in the sport would take too long to take effect and we decided to create a new federation with the focus on female empowered leadership. Our biggest mission is to grow the sport throughout the country, from grassroots level to where any child is able to compete internationally.”

On leotards, maces and busbies

To level the playing field with male counterparts, sportswomen are going to need more funding, media coverage and opportunities.

Funding is one of the biggest challenges majorettes is facing as a sport. “Unfortunately funding and sponsorship is fundamental to having a competitive majorette team and as majorettes is a smaller sport, the opportunities for funding are not as prevalent. This places a tremendous amount of pressure on teams and schools, which at times, perpetuates the elitism under the original majorette structure,” says Chele.

Although the uniform is an iconic part of the sport, in many ways it has made majorettes financially unattainable and exclusive. Viljoen crunches the numbers: “A busby goes for R1,500, the uniform can cost you anywhere between R3,000 and R5,000, the boots are about R350 a pair and just one mace is about R700.”

“When it first started as Street Parade in South Africa, it was all about how you performed and not how you looked. You had to perform in such a way that your movements overcame your uniform. Then, it evolved into an expensive, westernised version of the real thing to where presentation preceded performance. If you want to start a team straight off with brand new uniforms, coaches, equipment and club, you are looking at R150,000 at least. Although the uniforms are a historical, iconic part of the sport, there are a lot of teams that just can’t afford them anymore and as a result, they fall by the wayside or just don’t join the sport at all, which is not what majorettes is about,” adds Viljoen.

“The display and showmanship that you portray on the field, and when you see the crowd enjoy the display your team has put together is such an awesome feeling inside. Most of the time it did not even matter what our results are as long as we were happy, coaches were happy and the crowd enjoyed the show,” says Coach Connor, reflecting on her time competing in school.

Chele describes majorettes as “the pinnacle sport”. “The sport is a true embodiment of my first introduction to female empowerment. It is centred on providing safe spaces for young girls, to be mentored and practise positive self-image. It provided me an opportunity to lead and to showcase my talents and passions. It also challenged me to thrive outside of my comfort zones and to persevere through any circumstance. As a coach, I know that for many children, it is also an escape from realities and challenges they face at home or school. Drummies provides them a space to be happy and surrounded by positivity.

“I love seeing these girls so happy. I love watching them learn new things day in and day out, and get excited when they have achieved their respective, personal goals. I love seeing a display come together at the end and look so beautiful. I usually take a video of the girls upfront doing the display, and their faces light up with how awesome it looks and to know they are the ones forming it. I love keeping these girls focused and mentoring them in the right directions in life, encouraging them to be strong, independent, hard-working young women” says Coach Connor.

The Durbanville Majorettes Club will begin preseason prep in January with the start of the new school year to get ready for the majorette season which starts in March.

Viljoen is also in conversation with the Western Cape Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport, Anroux Marais, hoping to make majorettes and cheerleading an official after-school sport. “Our hope is that, in achieving this, we can encourage majorettes coming from informal settlements like Khayelitsha, Imizamo Yethu, Masiphumelele… to coach on a stipend so that when school closes for the day, instead of girls walking around the streets and being vulnerable or unsafe, there is a safe place they can go and uplift themselves and one another,” says Viljoen.

On Tuesday 8 December 2020, Viljoen and her team will cut the ribbon to their new training home at Aristea Primary School in Kraaifontein. The Durbanville Majorettes team will be performing mock drills on the day to demonstrate the sport and ultimately encourage more learners to join their family. DM/ML

For more information, visit Durbanville Majorettes website.
Follow Durbanville Drum Majorettes on Instagram.
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