At the University of Southern California vs. Fresno football game earlier this month, USC’s newest dance team made history by becoming the school’s first all-Black majorette team, the Cardinal Divas.
The dance squad was created by USC junior Princess Isis Lang, who wanted to create a safe space for other Black students at her predominantly white institution. Majorette dancing is a style of dance that began in the South and Midwest in the 1960s and is often closely associated with historically Black colleges and universities. In recent years, majorette dancing has reached audiences via the Lifetime reality series “Bring It,” which featured The Dancing Dolls of Jackson, Mississippi.
After the game, Lang made a Twitter post celebrating their first performance, but she never could have imagined the backlash. Two days later, the Cardinal Divas were not only trending on Twitter but had also received thousands of messages from people voicing their opinions. On social media, many people celebrated the stunning display of Black culture; others were furious.
“Honestly, the backlash hasn’t affected me because I know they can’t take away my joy and my gratitude for what I and this team have done,” Lang said. “In terms of support, it’s just amazing to see how making one little group became this big thing!”
So why was there so much outrage? One of the most frequent comments under Lang’s Twitter post referenced the PWI vs. HBCU debate, a perennial conversation on Black Twitter. Some people often argue that Black students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) shouldn’t be allowed to participate in certain activities that are seen as synonymous with HBCU culture.
Some believe having an all-Black majorette squad at a PWI is offensive to the traditions and legacies of HBCUs. The teams are often seen as an integral part of the historically Black college experience. At sports events, along with the marching band, the majorettes are a main attraction at the halftime show.
But, of course, everyone can’t and doesn’t want to attend a historically Black college. In the Twitter conversation, many people mentioned that HBCUs are expensive, and many do not offer substantial scholarship packages for certain programs, often limiting who can choose to enroll.
Maya Tillett was shocked when she first saw Lang’s tweet. She is a Hampton University alum and former captain of Ebony Fire, the school’s majorette squad.
“For those who don’t know, being a part of a HBCU dance line is not an easy feat,” Tillett said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and there’s a lot of deep history that goes behind it.”
Tillett, a dancer with Ebony Fire for five years, said the team is seen as a crucial part of the school’s image. The team was often invited to special events, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a New Year’s celebration in Rome.
“We are brand ambassadors for the school,” she said. “We are the frontline of student recruitment, and a lot of people don’t know that.”
Tillett said the Cardinal Divas have received the type of publicity and opportunities that HBCU teams rarely get. The dance group appeared on Jennifer Hudson’s new talk show this week.
“She’s gotten a lot of public recognition, where there are a lot of HBCU dance lines who have years and years of experience but have never been graced with those opportunities,” Tillett said. “But all of a sudden, now that she does something different at a PWI, it’s being looked at.”
However, Tillett agreed that here is a need for Black students at predominantly white colleges to create safe spaces.
The Cardinal Divas aren’t the first majorette group at a predominantly white institution — and they aren’t USC’s first predominantly Black dance group. In 1998, Lisha Bell, Maya Mitchell and Amanda Hall founded the USC Fly Girls. What started off as a hip-hop group to showcase Black culture became a source of pride for Black students at the private university who often didn’t see themselves represented on campus. However, the group hasn’t performed since 2008.
When Lang started her USC journey in 2020, there weren’t any dance groups that catered to what she wanted to do. Lang had been dancing on majorette teams since middle school and wanted to bring some of those experiences into her collegiate career.
“I didn’t see a space for Black women, so I created one,” Lang said. “Black people deserve to be seen any and everywhere. They also deserve to take their culture everywhere.”
USC is located in a predominantly Black area in South Los Angeles, but Black students made up only 5.8% of the student population in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the school’s website.
Akilah Perry, a sophomore in the Cardinal Divas, has known about HBCUs, majorettes and bands since elementary school, and after watching Lifetime’s “Bring It!”
“Being able to create this space for Black students, and women specifically, has been truly amazing and a wonderful thing,” Perry said. “I’m really happy to be a part of this journey with these outstanding girls.”
USC has several dance teams on its campus, but they often don’t cater to Black students. In a recent Los Angeles Times investigation about USC’s most famous dance team, the USC Song Girls, former coach Lori Nelson was reported saying she was only after “the Southern California look.” Many team members interpreted that as meaning “white, skinny, blond, conservative, Christian, sorority girl,” Ryan Kartje reported.
“I created the Cardinal Divas because I didn’t see anything that spoke to me,” Lang said. “I didn’t want to change who I was, how I look and how I dance to fit in.”
Since Lang’s post, the Cardinal Divas have also received numerous words of encouragement and support.
“Well sis, let’s get this training started!” tweeted Dianna Williams, the star of “Bring It!” and coach of the Dancing Dolls. “Im on the next flight to California!! Dm me.”
USC alum and former majorette dancer Saweetie expressed her pride in seeing Black students from her alma mater make history.
For many students and admirers, the Cardinal Divas have created a new space for Black students on campus while continuing to inspire future generations everywhere. The group plans to keep ignoring the haters and do what they love most: dance.
“Being a part of this team makes me feel invincible, like nobody can really tell me or my teammates anything,” Lang said. “We really came in with force, power and dedication. Speaking on my behalf, being the founder, captain and president of the organization, it really just goes to prove Black women are amazing.”
Their next goal is to dance on the field with USC’s band at halftime, and they won’t stop till they get there.
“This is just the beginning,” Perry said. “We are going to be that team to look out for and because we come in all gas, no brakes. We just have to live up to our name and we will be the best majorette team in California.”