As someone that was a majorette for 7 years, I have always been curious about the history of baton twirling. Understanding that majorettes stemmed from drum major and are always at head of the band was the extent of my knowledge. Due to the nature of this project, I felt it was appropriate to learn about baton twirling and investigate its connection within the African Diaspora.
For a long while, I thought of baton twirling as an activity which originated in France. However, the twirling and tossing of narrow objects is not European convention. Baton twirling was introduced to Europeans and European Americans by Africans and people of African descent as early as the late 1700s. In the 1700s, the African drum corps were a part of the European military and used batons in an “animated fashion,” unlike that of their white European commanders (Abrahams 44).
Other adaptations of the African drum crops can be seen in other places throughout the black Atlantic. In Haiti RaRas bands are led by Major Jones dressed as women, twirl and throw “silver batons made out of light metal,” “dip to the ground,” “spin face to face,” and battle each other. Haiti is not the only place baton twirling has been seen. In Trinidad, people similar to Major Jones have been found at the head of parade tossing figures around called moko jumbis. In Montevideo, brooms are held and spun similar to African American dancers in the 19th century that did the formal dance called the cakewalk. In addition to this, Colonel Thomas Higginson noted that he saw a cakewalker with a pot on his head twirling a baton and bending backward. This suggests that the baton was transformed from the traditional stick carrying European officer early on (Abrahams 43).
Baton twirling in the beginning was not meant for women and neither was acceptance into marching bands. There was no place for women in bands in Europe for quite some time and majorettes did not exist before the 1920s in American bands. Accepting of women into bands did not come without resistance. Commenting on majorettes, Marshall McLuhan as late as the 1950s could ask: “who dreamed up that goose stepping combination of military mechanism and bootjack eroticism? That ludicrous hodgepodge of uncontrollable desires and imbecilic motions" (Abrahams 44).
Much of what we perceive majorettes to be are “teenage black female baton twirlers in skin tight spangled suits” that captive the attention of crowds in parades. And though this may be true, handbooks on baton twirling distort the early history and perception created by McLuhan. Majorette takes art and skill as noted by Constance Atwater in her book On Baton Twirling: The Fundamental of Art and Skill. She calls upon the name of both god and corpse in the Kongo by saying “You want to achieve a saucy little body movement so that you don’t feel like a high stepping zombie.” Being a majorette was a form of debut for many black girls in New Orleans as some mothers and chaperones of the girls say that it taught them how to ‘“use what they have…to be ladies.”’ This still hold true today as it takes patience, dedication, and passion (Abrahams 45).
Abrahams, Roger D. "Liberation, Protest, Affirmation, and Celebration." Blues for New Orleans: Mardi Gras and America's Creole Soul. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2006. 37-58. Print.
Below is a link to a video of me performing a majorette routine: