Two weeks before football season begins, Southern University’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls are putting the finishing touches on their routines. In her practice room on the Southern campus, a giant floor-to-ceiling mirror stretches to the right, reflecting the dolls as they stretch and gently apply makeup.
Beyoncé’s “Party” blares from the speakers. After 20 minutes of stretching, Captain Kyré Walker jumps in and gets things started.
“How are you all today?” She asks.
They smile. They pray. Then they are gone.
Since 1969, the Dancing Dolls have been accompanists of Southern University’s powerful Human Jukebox marching band. Over the course of their existence, they have performed everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the presidential inauguration.
In recent years, they have appeared in the music video for Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” and in Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” film. Earlier this year, a video of the group adopting Barbie-inspired characters garnered more than 2,000 likes on Facebook and 218,000 views on Instagram.
But despite their success, the Dancing Dolls are remarkably down-to-earth. Her approach is emblematic of Walker, who is quiet, modest and always polite.
Walker is a Dallas native and four-year veteran of the Dancing Dolls. Not surprisingly, her experience as an artist dates back to her childhood, when she grew up in a church environment where she felt comfortable in front of crowds.
Still, it was nothing compared to what she faced when she moved to Baton Rouge.
“Some of the churches (back home) were really big,” she said. “But when I moved here… the crowds were out of this world. They were huge. Although, to be honest, I just tune everyone out, I don’t think about the people who are looking at me all the time. From a distance.”, they merge with each other. They’re like little dots.”
The troupe practices every Monday and Tuesday before meeting with the Human Jukebox Wednesday through Friday. A 2.7 grade point average is required to become a member, but all current grades have at least a 3.0 grade point average, according to Human Jukebox director Kedric Taylor.
Typically more than 100 people apply for a spot – although the number of puppets varies, it is generally under 11 – and auditions take place over the summer. Successful applicants must be familiar with a wide range of dance styles.
It’s a lot of hard work – and requires persistence, which Walker can personally attest to.
“Not everyone knows this, but I didn’t really make the team my first year,” she said. “Instead, I danced for the Gold’N Bluez (Southern’s basketball dance team). But at the end of the year I thought, ‘You know what? This is my dream and I won’t give up.’”
For Kedric Taylor, the Dancing Dolls go hand in hand with the Human Jukebox.
“When you think of a doll, you think of elegance. You think about class. You think about style. You think about grace,” he said.
“You get the whole arsenal of dance, the full scope of what you need to be a talented, trained dancer. “I think when you put (the Human Jukebox and the Dancing Dolls) together, you bring an element like no other,” Taylor said. “If you think of a cake, the Human Jukebox is the cake, and the (Dancing Dolls) provide the icing.”
On the field, Southern’s football season had its struggles. The Jaguars shoot in spurts and spurts. Heading into the Nov. 11 game against Prairie View of Texas, the Jaguars were hoping to improve on their record of 5-4. Instead, they suffered a 27-21 defeat.
But like any Southern game, the action on the field is only part of the story. In contrast to the football team, the Dancing Dolls and Human Jukebox are both firing on all cylinders – the band with their amazing wall of sound, the Dolls with their finesse and skill.
Throughout the game, the Dancing Dolls sit in front of the band with almost majestic composure, positioned to the side as they gaze across the field.
Eleven minutes before the end of the second quarter they go to the locker rooms hand in hand. As they walk onto the field for the halftime show, again in front of the Human Jukebox, the crowd roars.
Their halftime performance isn’t long—often lasting a full eight minutes—but the show is incredibly tight, with split-seconds and eye-catching movements. Combined with the band’s sound, the sum of the experience adds up to more than its individual parts. All in all, it is truly spectacular.
The end of the season is approaching, with only the Bayou Classic against Grambling State on November 25th. It is a game in which the Dancing Dolls have been performing since 1974.
When she thinks about the end of her time as a Dancing Doll, which took her around the country and dancing in front of thousands of people, Walker has mixed emotions. But knowing that she will always be a Forever Doll — the name given to Dancing Dolls graduates — helps.
“It’s sad to know it’s coming to an end, but (being a Forever Doll) lifts me up and frees me from my sadness,” she said. “It’s bittersweet, but I had my time. … Now it’s time to move on and, you know, live life.”
Walker plans to teach in Texas again in the near future, but dance is also on the agenda. She says her biggest dream is to run her own dance studio.
“Hopefully I can get my business up and running so that other girls like me can have opportunities (to dance) more easily than me,” she said.
“I had to work with very small options. I want to help others who have dreams similar to mine.”