The big dreams of Coronationville's little drum majorettes
Beneath the sequins and shiny white boots, these pre-teen drum majorettes are dedicated athletes who aspire to greatness, but most have to overcome financial hurdles first
The field at Bernard Isaacs Primary School in Coronationville is divided into two sections. On one side is slightly shabby, permanently green astroturf, and on the other bedraggled highveld grass, about to give in to autumn's yellow. The field abuts the parking lot. Everything is eerily quiet. A stray dog wanders past. A dustbin lies overturned. A group of 21 pre-teen girls are getting dressed for this afternoon's training session.
They are drum majorettes and they have a higher calling.
They also have a language particular to this realm of batons and flags, shiny buttons, sequins, epaulettes, short twirly skirts and white boots. They do the large drill and the small drill, they do pom non/prop and mace group. They drill for two hours every evening. Today they are here early to meet us. The headmaster tells me he has the groundsman turn the floodlight on, illuminating the parking lot so that they can practise from 5:30 to well after seven most nights. They're also there every Saturday when they're not competing.
They have dreams. Big dreams - to become the large drill leader, or the small drill leader, to toss a triple, to get to the nationals - in the Eastern Cape in 50 days.
They also want to go to high school and continue to be drum majorettes - marching in perfect formation on bigger fields wearing blazers of multiple colours, signifying provincial and national team membership. They dream about competing and winning.
I ask them what words describe the kind of girl who is a drummie. There is no hesitation, everyone knows the answer - she is committed, dedicated, hard-working, a team member, polite, well spoken, disciplined. They tell me most girls don't have the stamina or the temperament to do this sport. They would rather be sitting at home, or on the street.
The numbers bear this assessment out. There are only 21 drummies. Apparently many girls join, but few stick it out.
The streets come up again with the school principal. He says the drummies' activity is great because it keeps kids off the streets, out of trouble and off drugs. A tall, dignified man shepherding 1,400 children, in classrooms of over 40 pupils per teacher, he has been at the school for 40 years, principal for 23 of those. His community is poor and the future is uncertain.
I ask him what he would do if he had a lamp and a genie? He seems bemused by such frivolity, but humours me. He would ask for better facilities and maintenance for the school. He casts his eyes around and adds - teachers who stay.
I pop into the loo, the school staff are hosting a baby shower. A complicated game of present divination is under way.
Back in the parking lot the girls are about to demonstrate the small drill.
Drum majorettes is a strange sport with a peculiar history. It evolved as a kind of side show on the battlefields of Bavaria in the 19th century when the women and girls who followed the great bellicose German armies across the battlefields of Europe washed, fed and loved the soldiers and entertained them with spoofs of their military parades.
It was an uneasy cabaret of military proportions, part entertainment part complicit inducement to battle. They were cheerleaders in sexy military regalia that evolved into something else - what it became is difficult to say precisely. But it makes sense that this militaristic cheerleading took hold of the popular imagination in certain communities in SA.
Imported in the 1930s, it grew in popularity in the heavily militarised world of '70s apartheid. These marching trom poppies were a foil for the schoolboy cadets marching steadily into conscription and war. A formal sporting federation with international competitions and national teams has now inherited this fascinating mantle.
A few mothers are watching the practice session. They all agree, this is an expensive sport. Most of the girls are from single-parent households. Most mothers are unemployed. Travelling to the meets on Saturdays, renting the uniform, showing up - it's a big deal in a hard life. Yet here they are, the "dressing-room moms", counting out their evenings in drills, keeping time along with their high-stepping girls.
They watch intently as the formation unfolds like a bedazzled metronome. The flags whirl and the batons fly, the girls spool and unspool with the internal logic of a whirring clock - setting its levers into perpetual ticking motion. They clearly delight in being a synchronous cog in a greater machinery. This here is the small formation, measured out in one, two, three, four. Two, two, three, four. Three, two, three, four.
Do the boys admire them, I wonder? "Oh no!", is the uniform cry. It seems that teasing is much more likely. The boys, I am told, prefer the girls who sit at home. Besides, these drummies have their eye on the prize. There is no time for nonsense.
Does all this discipline help them with their school work? "But of course," they say. But what they're really focused on is raising the money so that the team can get to the nationals. Fifty days to go.
The coach in attendance, Tarran Damonds, a woman in her 20s, studying law through Unisa with aspirations to the national team, seems worried. She is part of a threesome of dedicated coaches including Lindlee Johnson. The head coach Damean Tibbetts started this squad 13 years ago. R3,000 per girl is a significant fiscal hurdle. They didn't make it to nationals last year.
But this year optimism is running high. The girls are selling popcorn and cake, fundraising door to door. They're also trying to get the shoppers driving into Cresta to see that these little girls in spangly uniforms are not begging, they are dedicated athletes with a deep-seated need to get to the competition. Someone flipped a finger at them, they tell me wide-eyed. But somebody gave them a cake. It all evens out on the path to greatness.