Davis, Gussie Nell (1906–1993)

By: Jeanie R. Stanley

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: September 9, 2020

Gussie Nell Davis, founder of the Kilgore Rangerettes (and therefore of the world-wide dance-drill team movement), daughter of Robert Augustus and Mattie Lavinia (Callaway) Davis, was born in Farmersville, Texas, on November 4, 1906. She attended public schools in Farmersville and, with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, entered the College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Woman's University), Denton, in 1923. She changed her major study to physical education and received a B.A. degree from CIA in 1927 and a M.A. from the University of Southern California in 1938.

Miss Davis began her professional career as instructor of physical education and pep-squad director at Greenville High School in 1928. Drawing on her combined experience in music, dance, and physical education, she trained the all-girl "Flaming Flashes" to use small wooden batons that she commissioned from a local furniture maker, as well as flags, various props, drums, and bugles in increasingly complex dance-drills and marches. Although there were several female drum and bugle corps or pep squads performing at football games, the Flaming Flashes were the first twirl-and-dance group. In 1939 when Davis was asked by B. E. Masters, president of Kilgore College, to "find a way to keep people in their seats at halftime" without using drums or bugles, she organized the Kilgore Rangerettes, a precision dance-drill team that performed for the first time in 1940. With the assistance of choreographer Denard Hayden, accompanist Hazel Stewart, long-time sponsor L. N. Crim, and assistants Peggy Coghlan, Barbara Harmon, and Deana Bolton, Miss Davis directed the Rangerettes until her retirement in 1979.

The Rangerettes performed for the Lions International Convention in 1940 and gave their first bowl-game appearance at the Little Rose Bowl in 1946. Subsequently, their performances at college and professional games, conventions, and other events have included the Cotton Bowl (annual since 1949, except for 1950), the Sugar Bowl (1950), the All-Star Game (1951–55), President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Inauguration (1953), the International Rotary Convention (1959), the Pecan Bowl (1966), the Shrine Bowl (1966), Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (1967–69), the National Convention of Chambers of Commerce of Venezuela (1973), the American Fortnight in Hong Kong (1975), various engagements in Romania (1977), and the annual Rangerette Revels (since 1943). The Rangerettes have been cover girls on numerous publications, including Esquire (October 1950), Look (August 4, 1959), Saturday Evening Post (October 5, 1963), Life (numerous times), and Newsweek (December 12, 1977). They have been the subject of articles in such diverse publications as the American Weekly (November 22, 1953), the Paris Match (February 29, 1964), Family Weekly (December 27, 1964), Southern Living (January 1967), Sports Illustrated (December 16, 1974), Texas Star (November 14, 1971), Texas Woman (February 1979), and Texas Highways (January 1981). They have appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show" (1952) and "60 Minutes" (1971), and in such movies as Cinerama's Seven Wonders of the World (1956). All-American and sportscaster Red Grange dubbed the Rangerettes "Sweethearts of the Nation's Gridirons" (1950). The Ice Capades designed a 1973 show around the young women, who wear white Western hats, belts, and boots, red tops, and "flippy" blue skirts, all parts of a copyrighted costume. The Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston spotlighted the group in 1977 as a "living art form."

With Irving Dreibrodt, retired director of the SMU Mustang Band, Davis founded American Drill Team Schools, Incorporated, which has provided instruction for drill teams across the United States. In addition to serving on the Kilgore College Staff (1939–79), Davis was a consultant to drill teams, a judge of drill-team competitions, a member of the National Drill Team Directors Association and Rangerettes Forever, and a member of the board of directors of Fiesta, International.

She and her Rangerettes did not escape controversy. Until the mid-1970's, there were no Blacks in the Rangerette line. Davis said, however, that she would be receptive when a qualified Black tried out. In response to an adaptation of Erwitt's film Beauty Knows No Pain (1971), titled after the Rangerette motto, feminists and other critics expressed dismay at the emphasis on physical attractiveness and rigorous and authoritarian training; the product, the critics charged, was a troupe of "sexist" and "mindless" "Barbie Dolls," and their activity was inappropriate for the college curriculum. Miss Davis countered that there is nothing wrong in learning self-confidence, discipline, cooperation, and the ability to perform precision dance, along with poise, etiquette, and personal grooming. Hard work, team work, and a "boss lady" were necessary ingredients, she stated, to produce a dance performance judged better than that of the professional Rockettes. She further argued that half-time and special-event performances by the Flaming Flashes or the Rangerettes gave girls a chance to experience acclaim previously open only to male athletes and the band. Although Davis admitted that she was "really a devil" in 1940 when she put the Rangerettes' skirts two inches above the knee, the young women, according to her, were always dressed modestly; sex appeal was never mentioned. The director of Seven Wonders of the World," Walter Thompson, said that all of America "should be proud" of the Rangerettes. Davis's numerous honors suggest that others share this view.

She was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore. She was honored with Gussie Nell Day in Kilgore (1964) and in Farmersville (1970) and Gussie Nell Davis Day in Texas (1979). She was made Texas Woman of the Year by the Texas State Civitans (1969). Davis Hall, a dormitory at Kilgore College, is named in her honor (1969). She was named Women in Communications Headliner of the Year (1973) and Outstanding Alumna of Texas Woman's University (1978), featured in the Rangerette-Showcase Museum (1979), enrolled in the Greenville High School Football Hall of Fame (1980) and the Texas Women's Hall of Fame as arts nominee (1990), and given numerous commendations. She died in Kilgore on December 20, 1993, of respiratory complications and was buried in Farmersville Cemetery.

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Dallas Morning News, December 21, 1993. Notable Women of Texas, 1984–85 (Irving, Texas: Emerson Publishing, 1984). Texas Star, November 14, 1971. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Physical Education, Home Economics, and Health
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  • Women
  • Performing Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jeanie R. Stanley, “Davis, Gussie Nell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/davis-gussie-nell.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994
September 9, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: