Dancing Dolls

Dance, Little Sister

Coach Dianna Williams and her dedicated Dancing Dolls are about practice, Mississippi pride — and winning

[dancingdolls]


1Doll Territory

Past a McDonald’s, past a check-cashing center, past a textbook rental and across the street from Family Dollar and AutoZone stands the Dollhouse Dance Factory. The West Jackson, Mississippi, studio sits quietly on Ellis Avenue, just off Interstate 20. Bold red letters that spell out D-O-L-L-H-O-U-S-E bounce off blue skies. The sign is a standout at the tail end of a strip mall that also houses a Boost Mobile, Boss Lady’s Luxury Virgin Hair Salon, and a Wing Stop.

Dollhouse founder and Dancing Doll coach Dianna Williams breezes into the production office. She’s wearing tight gray shorts over dance tights, a blue and white tank top that says “Buck or Die,” and a lacefront wig, the curls of which cascade down her back. Hardly dolled up. “See all these businesses? We know everybody,” she says. “Like at Boss Lady’s — her daughter’s a Dancing Doll. Her husband cuts my hair and my son’s hair. People are always like, ‘You all in the ’hood.’ But I like it.”

It’s 6 o’clock on a Wednesday in mid-May, which means a few things: The school year is still in session, it’s time for Doll rehearsal, and it’s the first day of the four-day shoot week for season 3B of Lifetime’s Bring It! The reality show, about a team of Mississippi majorette dancers, their exuberant and brusque “Coach D,” and the DDPs (Dancing Doll Parents), is a bona fide hit, averaging an impressive 1.3 million viewers on a Friday night. Along with Project Runway, Devious Maids, Little Women: LA, Dance Moms, and Atlanta Plastic, it’s among the network’s most popular shows.

Faith Thigpen (left), MaKalah Whisenton (center) and Daija Wilson (right) practice at the Dollhouse Dance Factory before a competition.

And whether viewers know it or not, the Dolls are rooted in the SWAC majorette dance auxiliary tradition. SWAC is, of course, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, made up of 10 historically black colleges and universities in the southern states that participate in Division 1 sports — nearby Jackson State University (JSU) is a member. Legendary SWAC marching bands include Ocean of Soul and JSU’s own Sonic Boom of the South. Legendary SWAC dance teams include the Black Foxes and Golden Girls. The famed, at times troubled J-Settes are so influential they are a verb.

This fevered SWAC experience includes thundering drumlines, high-stepping drum majors, and majorette teams (no baton, thank you) who are as poised as they are provocative. Even if you’ve never been to a game, you’ve experienced the SWAC culture: Think Beyoncé’s field show formation at Super Bowl 2016, or choice moments of J-setting choreography in her 2008 video for Single Ladies. Tradition, pride, blackgirlmagic, excellence, soul — SWAC could as easily be known as swag. And in its way, that swag is the bones of the Dollhouse.

Though the success of Bring It! has inspired other dance shows, such as the failed Lifetime spin-off Step It Up and Oxygen’s The Prancing Elites Project, the show remains a kind of anomaly. Where else is there an unscripted show starring black teens and tweens as themselves: creative athletes with strong relationships with dedicated mothers (and aunties), and supportive fathers who shed tears when their daughters do well? “Our show teaches life lessons,” Williams has said. “It’s an in-depth look into these kids’ lives … you see the struggle, the heartache.”

The thing is, you actually do. Bring It! is that rare reality show that seems, well, real. The girls are their hardworking, emotional, pouting and competitive selves. The show just doesn’t feel like it’s about honing in on the next big celebrity. Bring It! is about team pride, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and about black girls defying odds in the poorest state in the Union, in the Old South where the Confederate battle flag still flies high. And right now, it’s all about winning Saturday’s competition. “I want,” says Coach D (or “Miss D” as the Dolls call her) through pursed lips, “toughness on the floor.”

She stands before the 13 girls participating in the week’s competition and goes through what’s called the “top of the day.” That’s when she tells the girls what’s up for the coming week. Miss D is fresh back from RuPaul’s Drag Con in Los Angeles, where she was signing autographs and participating on a panel about bucking and twerking. “I’ve been around drag queens for the last three days,” she says, “dancing and queening out!”

Camryn Harris, 15, leads a walk-through of specific stands — or eight counts of choreography — with her teammates. At her back are the girls performing this week as the Battle Squad — a subsection of the Dancing Dolls, equivalent to a starting lineup. Dressed in red-and-white T-shirts, bare feet, dance shorts and tights printed with “DD4L,” they are MaKalah and Makya, Daija and Shakira, Denicia and Imonje, Faith and Tanesha, Anaya, Crystianna and KenJanae. Girls whose names, in the words of poet Warsan Shire, “command the full use of your tongue.”

“They’re National Honor Society. They’re National Beta Club members. They’re student council presidents. They’re your homecoming queens. These are my girls.”

Williams has no patience for anyone who says a word against her program. “I hear people say, These kids shouldn’t be dancing like this. They should be in church. They should be in school.” But the Dollhouse has rules that go beyond dancing. “They have As and Bs because they can’t dance if they don’t maintain a C average in class,” said Coach D. “And the kids participate in activities at church. They’re on the Parades Dance Ministry. They’re on the Junior Usher Board. They’re National Honor Society. They’re National Beta Club members. They’re student council presidents. They’re class presidents. They’re your prom queens. They’re your homecoming queens.” Her pride is palpable. “These are my girls.”

The girls are athletes. Muscular and brown — a sea of builds and shades. Most of them have weaves that are as much about protecting their natural hair underneath as they are about the ability to whip it. Camryn has over 600,000 Instagram followers, and there are cameras all around, but the girls in general seem mostly (and oddly) unaffected by their popularity and the production cacophony that whirls around them. Maybe it’s because they’re training. Learning new choreography. Focused.

“She’s good and firm and that’s what I love,” said Gladys Hartwell, Williams’ mother. “She don’t take no mess …When she was dancing, I ain’t take no mess. I made her practice over and over when she got home until she got it right.” And if she ever felt like giving it up? “She couldn’t give up. Ain’t no giving up with me.”

For three hours, the girls face a wall of mirrors as Williams does her best Lydia Grant from Fame. Instead of a staff, she holds a clipboard, and after she gets good and tired of yelling Stamina! Energy! she demands penance in sweat. “I’mma make a believer out of you today,” she says to the girls. “Turn the air off.”

It’s May in Mississippi, which means even at 9 p.m., it’s hot. The Dolls steal glances at each other as former captain, now-assistant coach Kayla Jones, 19, walks over to the air conditioner. You can hear a pin drop in the Dollhouse. No one dares smile, not even the production staff.

“You don’t want to sweat? I’m gonna to help you sweat,” she shouts. “It’s up to you! Y’all better go on and figure out what you doing — because tomorrow, it’s on.”


2The Controlla

Dianna Marie Williams drives around her city fast and sure in a 2014 black Chevy Camaro. We’re headed to the Pied Piper Playhouse & Academy, the children’s day care owned by her grandmother, and the place where the Dancing Dolls were born. The facility is 10 minutes from the Dollhouse and around the corner from Williams’ alma mater, JSU. “This area still tells me a lot about who I am,” she says, turning left on Lynch Street. “Rough around the edges. Not perfect. I don’t say or do the right things all the time. I’m not a beauty queen. I’m still me.”

The neighborhood looks like every city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. There’s Westland Plaza with the Walgreens that used to be a Woolworths. A McDade’s Market that used to be a Jitney Jungle — a chain of supermarkets that had existed since 1919. In this Magnolia State collision of rural and urban there are potholes in the street and abandoned buildings, including Pied Piper Playhouse, which burned almost to the ground February 11, 2015. In second-skin jeans, a cropped denim vest and stilettos that take her 5-foot-8-inch frame to more than 6 feet, Williams tiptoes through grass and gravel near the school’s entrance. “This is like 50 years of history. I went to school here, my mom went to school here, and my son. It’s crazy to see it gone.”

Coach Dianna Williams (right) zones out for a second during downtime at practice. Next to her is assistant coach, Kayla Jones.

Though Williams, her husband of seven years, Robert, and their 7-year-old son Cobe recently moved 20 minutes away, Dianna is a Jackson, Mississippi, girl, born and raised. Her mother, Gladys, is a half-black, half-Cuban Chicagoan. Williams’ father, Donald, is from Monticello, Mississippi, and drove an 18-wheeler (her parents are divorced). As the eldest of six — the other five are boys — Williams learned the meaning of responsibility early. She kept baseboards clean with a towel and a toothbrush, and made sure her siblings finished their homework. “I didn’t have a voice,” she said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Williams was bullied throughout high school. Girls cut her long ponytail off. An ant bed was placed in her locker. She was written about on restroom stalls. “Kids hated me because my mama drove the school bus and was like the neighborhood snitch,” Williams says, only half laughing. “She still kinda is.” Dianna didn’t breathe fire then, the way she can on Bring It. “I was the … shy, never-speak-a-lot, never-say-a-lot. The way I am now? I was the total opposite.”

Dance was the language young Dianna wanted to speak. “Tap was a love of mine,” she says. As a youngster she trained at the Angie Luke School of Dance in Clinton, Mississippi. “I took dance all through high school — ballet, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary, modern.” She also played in the band — clarinet, xylophone, and the cymbals. “And,” she said, “I’d hold the flag.” Teenage Dianna also loved going to the parades downtown and seeing the J-Settes in their capes and white boots, owning the moment.

In 1995, Williams graduated from Raymond High School at the age of 16. She moved to Los Angeles — “with my mom and my family” — the very next day. Hartwell wanted Dianna and her siblings to experience life outside of Mississippi, and soon young Williams was enrolled at California State University-Dominguez Hills “[My mother] had big dreams of … me being this big doctor because I was always talking about wanting to be a doctor. But as you get older, things change. Plans change. Your life changes.”

Williams was working part time at a McDonald’s while the family was in California. Soon her mother fell ill — lupus, and then a brain tumor. “All I saw were past due bills after past due bills after past due bills,” says Williams. “I grew up a lot.”

At 18, she dropped out of school. And she began starring in adult films. “Everybody’s done something,” she’s said. “Nobody’s squeaky clean. And for me, these were things I felt I needed to do at that time.” This foray lasted about a year. “I did what I felt I needed to do to feed my family and help my mom,” she says. “My mom never knew where the money was coming from. She never asked.” Though Williams is in a sense an open book — and talked about her film days on the first episode of Bring It! — these days, it’s not a subject on which she likes to dwell. “I’ve done a good job burying it, not talking about it,” she says. “I’ve done a good job of forgetting. That’s a part of my life I just do not revisit. Intentionally.”

A coach and her team.

The summer of 2001, Hartwell moved back to Jackson. Williams, then 21, followed, and transferred to Jackson State, where she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Within a month of her return, she tried out for the Prancing J-Settes — and did not make the line. That very next month, on the advice of her grandmother, Williams decided to create a team of her own: the Pied Piper Dancing Dolls. The team’s colors, like her grandmother’s nursery school’s, were green and gold.

Williams cups her hands on the smoky glass and peeks into the window. There are toys on the floor of Pied Piper, and kids’ lockers and the cafeteria where she had her very first Dancing Dolls parent meetings. The team started with 12 girls in first through fifth grade. Among her first orders of business was to sit down with the parents and tell them about California. “The Dancing Doll parents have always known about my past,” Williams said. “I don’t hide anything from them. Plus, Jackson is such a small town, I was already the talk of it.”

The girls of course know as well. “We’ve talked about it,” Williams has said. “They know … why I did what I did and why I felt like I needed to — and what I should have done. I explain to them that I didn’t have the support system they have.”

“Jackson still tells me a lot about who I am. Rough around the edges. I’m not perfect. I don’t say or do the right things all the time.”

In 2001, the team began practicing off-hours in the Pied Pipers’ small “auditorium.” They marched on the sidewalk on West Capitol, learning to keep their lines straight. Williams didn’t know a lot about the Salt & Pepper march — a high-step prance popularized by JSU’s J-Settes — or how to properly turn corners in a parade. “I learned along with the girls,” says Williams. “I learned from watching the J-Settes at football games. I’d see these gorgeous girls in the bleachers with these beautiful ponytails and cute sequined uniforms and they’re marching and they’re stomping and they’re dancing and they’re bucking and they’re swinging and I’m like, I want my kids to look like that.”

The creation of the Dancing Dolls was nothing less than a radical act of a woman claiming herself. Williams has in one way or another felt rejected or hated on all her life. The self-described “outcast” of the family, the “black sheep,” the one who says she never felt accepted — she may not put it this way herself, but it’s clear: the Dancing Dolls are Williams’ revenge. And a couple of months after forming the team? Other opportunities arose. “I was offered a job teaching for the city of Jackson,” she’s said, “running the entire dance program, meaning putting together all the recitals, all the performances. I had to teach every single class, which kind of prepped me for where I am right now.”

For the next decade, the Dancing Dolls practiced in Grove Park under a pavilion and on the tennis courts, and at the gymnasium at Cathedral African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Williams changed the troupe’s colors to red and white in 2003, a nod to Delta Sigma Theta — her mother is a member of the sorority. Williams has attempted to join the organization as a legacy, but never got a callback. “I guess,” she said, shrugging, “they didn’t like me.” Williams also continued to try out for J-Settes — five times, she says — never making it past body cuts, wherein the girls are scored by how they look in the uniform.

“Miss Dianna tried out for a dance team in high school,” Williams says, narrating her own story, and affecting the cadence of her Dancing Dolls. “Didn’t make it. Tried out for a dance team in college. Didn’t make it. Miss Dianna started her own dance team and her own business and here I am, right here with her. Miss Dianna is teaching me to be determined, to motivate myself, to never give up. How is it Miss Dianna didn’t get what she wanted, but here she is helping me get what I want?”


3We’re Talking About Practice

Coach D walks to the stereo and presses play.

J-Lo’s 2014 EDM-ish, booming “Booty,” the song she did with Iggy Azalea, thunders through the speakers. Have you seen her? / On the dance floor / She’s got the boom / Shake the room / That’s the lightning and the thunder.

“I told y’all every time y’all move it should be like a what?” Coach D says, loudly.

“Party,” someone mumbles.

“Like a what?”

“PARTY.”

“I ain’t having no party,” Coach D says. “I’m not having any fun.”

There are just two days before the Last Man Standing competition. Williams takes a seat on the Dollhouse floor and confers with her coaches, Jones, Ariel Kinsey (who works on field shows) and Andre Mitchell (who choreographs for the battle squad). Papers are spread out before them, with diagrams of stands that look like football plays. It’s choreography — dances with names such as Tick Tick Boom, Cuckoo Clock, My Chick Bad and Frogger. Until a year ago, each member of the Battle Squad had to have memorized at least 60 stands, because you never know which one the captain was going to “throw” at an opposing team. Now, because of time constraints due to their hectic Bring It! production schedule, Williams, with her assistants and her Dolls, strategize and make decisions depending upon the competition.

The teams they’re competing against this Saturday are the Elite Starz of Nashville, Tennessee; LCDC, aka Lowndes County Dance Company, of nearby Columbus, Mississippi; the Divas of Dance of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and a new team, Pink Diamondz from Cincinnati. The Starz are a small squad. They don’t make the same visual impression as a larger team like the Dolls, but with fewer folks on the floor, they have better chance of being precise. The Diamondz are a large team known for sass, says Williams, and a “whole lot of personality.”

From top to bottomClockwise, from top left: The beginning of a long Friday night rehearsal the Dollhouse Dance Factory; Dancing Doll supplies; the Dancing Dolls backstage, before a competition; Tanesha Roberts checks her tights at practice at the Dollhouse Dance Factory.

The Dolls’ reputation is for compelling choreography, beautiful formations and stunts, and they’re also known for putting a lot of moves — sometimes as many as 30 — in an eight-count. It’s risky, because judges will take off points if the moves aren’t executed. And while the girls look stronger than they did yesterday, Coach D is not impressed. “Captain, they gon’ feed off you!” she says, standing up. “Starts with the head. Let’s go! Five, six. …”

Camryn throws the first stand — meaning she alone executes the first four counts — and on the second four counts, the other girls replicate her moves. MaKaylah and Tanesha do crisscross flips in the air. A flurry of sidekicks blur the movement. Hair bands fly off.

Heel stretch leap! Step grab. Jump, swing your leg up, catch it, pull squeeze!

Don’t cut your moves off!

Look at the line. Is your line straight?

Buck buck buck buck! Arch your back!

The girls execute moves in the mirror like they’re going to fight the reflections. After they complete a stand — hands on hips, sweating, breathing hard — there’s barely a minute’s rest before they begin again. “If you need to get your pump,” Williams says toward the girls who have asthma, “go get it.”

That’s how it goes down at the Dollhouse. Captain Camryn doesn’t even need a pump, but hot, quiet tears roll down her cheeks.

“Camryn,” Williams says, “what’s the problem?”

“My knee,” she says.

“If you need to get your pump,” Coach D says toward the girls who have asthma, “go get it.”

Camryn blames her knee, but Lord knows she could be crying for so many other reasons. She’s been on the move since six this morning. She finished her online Algebra II test, then took a seat on the living room floor in between her mom’s legs as she flat-ironed and curled her daughter’s hair—before school. “I just want to sleep for my 16th birthday,” says Camyrn, a junior honor roll student. “She wanted me to go to a Beyoncé concert,” Camryn says, nodding toward her mother. “But I don’t want to go … I just want to sleep. That’s all.”

The way it goes: Camryn’s mom, Mimi Chandler-Harris, a hairstylist, picks Camryn up from school, Camryn grabs a bite, does some homework, gets dressed for practice and heads to the Dollhouse. After three or four hours at rehearsal, Camryn and Mimi head home, maybe practice some more just to retain the choreography (sometimes with another Doll in tow). Then Camryn rolls her hair, finishes the rest of her homework, and talks to her boyfriend George. They’ve been together a little over a year. Shower. Bedtime. Wake. Repeat.

Camryn used to be the timid little girl with the big red bow. Last season, when she earned a perfect score for her “8th Wonder of the World” solo in the Battle Royale — her choreography a mix of African, lyrical, majorette and hip-hop — she truly tapped into the power within. And tapped into all practice and sacrifice she’s put in.

“Camryn’s … tears aren’t because she’s hurt,” Williams says after practice. “It’s, I’m pissed because I’m hurt and I might not be able to dance. But … she pushed through it.”

The girls do a lot. Rittany Anderson is aunt of Dancing Doll Crystianna, 13, who started out as a Dancing Doll at age 7. And she, like Mimi and all of the Dancing Doll Parents is at once advocate, protector, manager, and cheerleader. Anderson, as committed as she is to the Dolls, makes sure Crystianna participates in other extracurricular activities. Her niece, besides maintaining the hectic Dolls schedule, is a school cheerleader. Anderson is known on Bring It! for her outspokenness, and wants to make sure Hollywood keeps the girls’ best interests at heart.

“Who’s fighting for them?” Anderson says, days later, pounding hand to fist. “Who’s fighting for these black girls that are working like dogs and making this major show that has over million viewers every Friday? Dance Moms have Nickelodeon. They’re on the red carpet, at the Kids Choice Awards. Who’s fighting for our girls? There’s no way they shouldn’t be on [BET’s] Black Girls Rock. Their Bring It! Live tour is 85 percent sold — somebody love them.” She acknowledges that the girls are paid, but there’s more to it than that. “What about the real benefits? That’s all I want for Crystianna. The stuff that may change her life.”

Because Jackson is home, but it isn’t the whole world. They know it. Everyone is dancing toward something bigger than trophies.

Outside, a blue car is parked in front of the Dollhouse. A family stands loosely in the lot, taking photos of the building’s exterior. Into the night, the oldest girl says, “I wanna be a Dancing Doll.”


4Big Rings

High noon on a Saturday. In a huge conference room at the Jackson Convention Center, the Dancing Dolls are laughing and running and screeching and falling onto the floor in heaps of giggles. They make dubsmash videos, faith-fall backward into each other’s arms and sit on each other’s laps. Soon they will change into their costumes — silver and black — and do their hair and makeup. Captain Camryn will run through choreography in mismatched socks.

The Dancing Dolls doing a hair refresh.

One minute, Williams is in the dressing room with the girls, separating silver wristbands from iridescent ones. The next she’s on the sidelines checking out the competition. No Hervé Leger bandage dress today — instead it’s black leggings, white Jordans, a green tank and a black Tau Beta Sigma jacket, the national honorary band sorority that she was recently inducted to by Mississippi’s own Alcorn State University.

From top to bottomClockwise, top left: A fluff of sequined cuffs in the Dancing Dolls’ practice room; Dancing Doll Daija Wilson stretches on the floor of a practice room before a Dancing Dolls competition; Faith Thigpen is ready for competition in Jackson; in a practice room at a competition, Denicia Diew (right) takes a photo of Faith Thigpen.

Williams leads her girls onto the floor. Game face intact, she takes her place on the side. The Dolls stand in formation with their arms crossed. This is what they’ve been preparing for all week, the finale at the end of every Bring It! episode. The crowd is cheering. The music is pumping. Announcer Jay Fever, in signature suit and bow tie starts the show: “Let’s get it,” he says. “Let’s go!”

Lil’ Jon’s Work drops and polite, humble “dolls” shapeshift into sweet-faced killers. Camryn throws the first four count, rubbing her hands together like she’s planning a coup. Her girls stand behind her, staring the other team dead in the eye, just like Miss D taught them. They do backbends and point one foot toward the sky. They do pop-ups from their backs. They do death drops, which Coach D can still do, with swag. When the stand is done, they point at the competition. Slice their necks with their hands. In other words: You’re dead. And we’re everything.

Dancing Dolls at a competition.

The crowd has thinned. Once excited children are falling asleep. At around 11 p.m., for the umpteenth and last time of the night, Coach D leads her girls to the floor, this time against the Divas of Dance. The Ying Yang Twins’ 2005 Salt Shaker provides that final, crunk burst of energy everyone needs. Captain Camryn throws the stand, gives face. The Dolls are uniform and crisp. Unbothered, and not tired. High kicks are high, toe touches are wow. They move like the Southern girls they are — rooted, wild, free. When it’s over, each team takes its place on the floor and waits for Fever to announce the judges’ decision (sorry, no spoilers here). At midnight, 12 hours after they arrived, the Dolls and their families disperse and go home.

Earlier in the week, assistant coach Jones, who attends Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, and is double majoring in dance and child development, spoke a lot about the reality show perception people have of the Dancing Dolls — versus their actual reality. “A lot of people watch our show and think we’re just a bunch of girls out here shaking it fast,” she says, rocking plum lipstick and a huge smile. “In actuality, I feel like the girls use more energy and stamina than some of these football players out here, because we have to concentrate, breathe, run, dance. You have to say so much without saying anything. All through dance moves. And stay on top of our grades. And be a child.” Jones taps her foot, as if she’s had to express this a million times.

“It’s not a game,” she says of the Dancing Dolls of Jackson, Mississippi. “This is a real life thing.”

Bring It! airs Fridays at 9 p.m. starting July 22.

Karen Good Marable is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. If dared, she WILL bust out the entire choreography for "Beat It" AND "Pleasure Principle," as the world is her dance floor. Sha'mon!