Two things put Kilgore, Texas on the map: oil and high kicks. More specifically, the hat-touching high kicks of the Kilgore College Rangerettes.
The Rangerettes practically invented the modern halftime show with their impressive dance routines.
The team was started to keep patrons in their seats when the football teams left the field for the locker rooms. Miss Gussie Nell Davis founded the Rangerettes in 1939 and led them for 40 years.
“Oh my goodness. She was the most petite ball of fire you could ever, ever know,” Barbara “Pill” Malm says.
Malm (nee Harmon) was a Rangerette in the 1960s. In the 70s, she helped Miss Davis coach the line. It’s lovingly referred to as a sort of “boot camp” experience.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into it. It looks beautiful… but what it takes to get that perfection is endless hours of work,” Jackie Johnson Ray says.
Ray also helped lead the Rangerettes in the 1960s.
“I don’t think there’s a girl that ever became a Rangerette that wanted to be one more than I did,” Ray says.
Ray become the face of the line – she’s immortalized in the logo of the Rangerettes. It’s known as the “K girl” because of Ray’s K-like pose and, of course, Kilgore College.
“She said I am going to have a logo drawn for the Rangerettes and I want you to be the model for it,” Ray says. “And so off and on all day I stood in that pose.”
The “K girl” and the Rangerettes are now recognized far outside of Kilgore, Texas. They’ve performed internationally, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and at every Cotton Bowl halftime game since 1951.
“They have, over the years, been able to be not only dancers but they’ve been able to be representatives of the State of Texas and for the United States and then, when you see them all dressed so beautifully in their uniforms and they’ve got the wonderful smiles on their faces, it’s a great ambassadorship I believe,” Malm says.
Jennifer Ransom Rice is Executive Director of the Texas Cultural Trust – the organization that hands out the Texas Medal of Arts.
“I think that the whole impact that they’ve had on the whole drill team and precision dance culture throughout not just Texas but across the country – I mean they were sort of the first high stepper and high kickers to bring that style of performance into the mainstream. And now you see it played out with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and other professional sports teams that I’m sure could trace their roots back to Rangerette days,” Rice says.
It’s not the first time that an organization like this has been awarded the medal. The Houston Ballet and Austin City Limits have also earned the honor. But Rice says the Rangerettes are unique.
“The idea of the Kilgore Rangerettes is iconic Texas,” Rice says. “So I think it’s a nod to that image and that institution that is the Kilgore Rangerettes moreso than the actual 72 girls that are in it now.”
It’s been about 50 years since former Rangerette Jackie Johnson Ray wore the red, white and blue uniform… but she says it’s still part of who she is to this day.
“It’s something that’s hard to explain to people because, even today, after all these years, I’m still involved,” Ray says. “It’s a bonding experience. And I explain it as a sisterhood. It’s just a unique organization that, if you were a part of it, it’s just part of you.”
Both Ray and Malm agree that the Kilgore Rangerettes are a Texas tradition that just keeps getting better.
“They are just so far above what we did and it’s because our times demand that,” Malm says. “I’m so glad they haven’t become stagnant and that they continue to grow in the dance world.”
The Kilgore Rangerettes are celebrating 75 years of high kick perfection. They’re the subject of a new documentary “Sweethearts of the Gridiron” – screening at film festivals across Texas now.