Southern University’s Dancing Dolls: 50 years of grace, style and beauty
Monique Molizone-Morgan reflects their tenets of tenacity, discipline and womanhood
By now, you’ve seen Homecoming, Beyoncé’s film adaptation of her two-night 2018 Coachella performance. The film’s opening credits feature clips of Southern University’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls, the dance team that performs with the school’s Human Jukebox marching band.
From the mimic of their famous catch-on step (stepping to jazz eight-counts that the leader begins while others catch on), fans wondered whether Beyoncé had been lurking on social media for their halftime performances. But long before the social media pandemonium, the Dancing Dolls were the pride of Southern University and model dance team for bands at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The Battle of the Bands at the Bayou Classic in 1993 was when Monique Molizone-Morgan, then a high school junior and dancer, first saw the Fabulous Dancing Dolls. There in the Superdome, Molizone-Morgan, who was accustomed to pompom choreography, fell in love with their eclectic style and began studying them.
“When I saw the strut and the way they carried themselves and their arms, I said, ‘I want to be that.’ That moment was a moment in time,” she said.
Molizone-Morgan, a doll from 1996-1998, took a nontraditional route to dance, but her experience reflects the Dolls’ tenets: tenacity, discipline and womanhood. Her college plans didn’t include attending Southern, just an hour away, or any HBCU. Her family expected her to attend Tulane University in New Orleans instead.
Now she’s working in higher education in Houston as a coordinator for community outreach and board services.
More than 20 years later, she has hung up her sequined unitard and white gloves, and her life has come full circle. Starting as an inner-city student, escaping a rocky home life to follow her dreams from college to adulthood, she continues to give back to the young people in whom she sees herself.
Recently, she and more than 100 of her Forever Doll sisters from every era got to relive some of their dancing days during the Dancing Dolls 50th anniversary celebration for Southern’s homecoming against Alabama A&M University.
Between practices for the historic halftime performance and raising her two daughters with her husband, Jabari, Molizone-Morgan is also finalizing her dissertation for a doctorate in human services. Her belief, from her own experiences, is that education will lift you out of poverty, and true to her HBCU roots, she will continue to help African American students through higher education.
“My dissertation focus is on how administrators engage with the LGBQT, but I wanted to look into a disenfranchised population within the black community from a student services perspective,” she said.
As Molizone-Morgan recalls her own life, she credits exposure — pursuing postsecondary education, and through that, becoming a Dancing Doll, for changing her life.
Jeffrey Holmes, a Los Angeles-based educational administrator and mentor, says Molizone-Morgan has transcended her circumstances by being spiritually grounded, which helps her connect with the people she serves through her work. “That’s the quintessential element that keeps people on track,” he said. “She really has empathy for the people who are involved. She makes deep connections with everything.”
tenacity, discipline and womanhood
In the mid-1990s, there was more to her life than dancing. Due to her father’s drug abuse, she and her mother moved from their uptown neighborhood to New Orleans’ 9th Ward to live with her grandmother temporarily in 1993. “I basically felt like I’d lost my home because we were living with a family member,” she said.
By her senior year, a decorated dancer, Molizone-Morgan was still at odds with her mother over where she’d attend school. Becoming rebellious because of the upheaval in her life, she intentionally botched admission applications to universities. She ultimately ended up at a local community college, just miles away from her home.
After a first semester of heavy partying, she flunked out of community college. But after she came to understand that education was a priority, her mother gave her permission to enroll at Southern.
When she’d finally enrolled in fall 1995, she’d missed tryouts by two days. She met band staff, becoming an apprentice of sorts while performing with other dance groups on campus. She tried out again in spring 1996 and was denied.
She returned to New Orleans for the summer, working as a hotel waitress, but a surprise call from longtime band director Isaac “Doc” Greggs requesting her presence to practice as a Doll made her future official. Once apprehensive, her mother dropped her off at the Dubose Music Hall, but her housing wasn’t ready, so she moved in with a fellow freshman Doll Shawn Lagarde and her family until the fall. They became fast friends.
“She was the one who kept us together and kept us in line,” said Lagarde, also a former competitive gymnast. “ She was that overall good friend who had a good spirit.”
It was challenging, but rewarding adapting to Doll life.
To know the Dancing Dolls, though, is to first know Southern’s Human Jukebox marching band and its history. Like its motto, “Often imitated, never duplicated,” the band likens itself to a jukebox, having the ability to play any genre of music from Top 40, rhythm and blues, gospel, pop/rock and even trap music at the drop of a dime. Rather than twirlers and flags, a special kind of movement was needed to fit the band’s musical repertoire.
Back then — even now — there were lessons and rules to keep students focused on campus. Back then Southern was the largest HBCU in the country. For example, the band directors taught Molizone-Morgan that first impressions are lasting impressions and looking the part is half the battle. The other half is delivering academically and through dance, understanding that every encounter is an opportunity for advancement, whether it be for a dance team or a job.
Year after year during Molizone-Morgan’s tenure on the team, she came into her own, traveling across the country for band performances at New Orleans Saints games, bowl games and other entertainment events and being exposed to the diversity of black people, even while attending an HBCU.
“It taught me a lot about the different cultures in the African American community,” she said. “I was coming from an inner-city family — full of love, but I didn’t know we were poor because my family was just loving like that.
“When I got to Southern and got in that Dancing Doll room, and I was with families who looked like the Cosbys and girls who had really good relationships with their fathers, girls who grew up with professionals in their families. My family was a lot of laborers. Going to college exposed me to what I wanted to become.”
And so she cultivated lifelong friendships with her fellow Dolls. “We were more like sisters. That camaraderie led to people being each other’s weddings, forever best friends, sharing the most intimate things in college to adulthood.”
There was time for only two things: coursework and dancing, but she still managed to create friendships, becoming a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and meeting her future husband, Jabari, a band member. She met him in the College of Business, not on the field.
After three years of dancing with the Human Jukebox marching band as a Doll, Morgan graduated in 2000, but the impact of the Dolls would continue to manifest in her life.
In 2002, while working as a recruiter for the university and in graduate school, she was tapped by Louisiana state Sen. Cleo Fields to build a dance team for the Louisiana Leadership Institute, an after-school program to nurture academics and the arts in high school students statewide.
A marching band was being formed as a part of the programming, and Fields didn’t consider it complete without a dance team. A Southern alumnus, he knew the reach of the Dancing Doll legacy, so selecting her was a no-brainer.
“Monique was the icon of dancing in Baton Rouge at the time,” Fields said. “She started, and she did a remarkable job. She brought the program from zero to 100 in a matter of months.
“Everything they did was with class, from when they walked out on the field to the time they took their capes off,” he said. “And when they were on the field, and they did it with class.”
Her biggest challenge, according to Fields, was feedback from parents when girls couldn’t uphold the standards of the team. Failure to maintain grades or attend practices led to members being “zipped.”
“She ran a very tight ship,” Fields said. “No-nonsense, and when I realized the first few calls from parents complaining were just about the rules, I was like, ‘man, I love this woman.’ ”
Molizone-Morgan took dancing seriously because she knew it was an indication of how to navigate other parts of life, from school to work.
“It was more about than just being on the dance team,” she said. “This was your job. You’re a small-town celebrity, and you are an ambassador of the institution and we need you to act accordingly at all times. Even though I may have come from a different background, I had to mature.”
Growth was a byproduct of dancing as a Doll. “Your attitude is your most important asset, and it would carry you from being a Dancing Doll to your work ethic,” said Gracie Perkins, 78, a co-founder of the Dolls.
The expectation of each Doll and band member was to be respectful and exemplary students and dancers/band members or be “zipped,” which means removed from the organization.
“We were fair, but we were firm,” said Perkins.
Their style and routines were special
By the 1990s, the Dancing Dolls had been in existence for 20 years, but their popularity had skyrocketed after taking a national platform during the Bayou Classic, “the granddaddy” of HBCU football classics. The inaugural game was hosted in 1974 and broadcast on NBC from 1991-2014 until it was moved NBC Sports Network in 2015.
Over the last 50 years, the Dolls’ style has evolved to incorporate more complex choreography, ballet and jazz, using their signature white gloves and parasols in routines, a nod to the New Orleans second line while keeping the tradition of beautiful outfits and the kick line, reminiscent of the Radio City Rockettes.
In those 50 years, 168 women have been Dolls. Forever Dolls have gone on to become education professionals (teachers, school board members, higher education), professional choreographers and performers, owners of dance studios and more.
Perkins, along with Greggs, the longtime band director, selected eight young women fresh out of high school to dance along with the band in 1969. The marching band then was all-male, so the young women would add excitement to the field shows and provide another form of entertainment to the crowd.
Greggs and Perkins knew exactly what they wanted and their focus on style and precision would continue to set the Dolls apart from other HBCU teams. The women would not be majorettes, but dancers. Despite majorettes’ popularity at that time, there would be no batons, tasseled boots or high steps from the women on the field, but classic dancing.
“Majorettes — that’s what Doc didn’t want. Doc wanted something totally different that would be more like pageantry,” said Perkins. And so the young women would experiment with various forms of dance from jazz to tap, but one element was nonnegotiable: the kick line.
In their debut performance, they wore sequin hats, a gold leotard, shiny high boots and long gloves. They began performing at Southern and in Scotlandville, an African American community in Baton Rouge, at debutante balls, sorority and fraternity pageants and other society events.
Over the next 40-plus years, the teams along with the band gained popularity, performing at the Rose Bowl, President Clinton’s inauguration, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, NFL games and every Bayou Classic game since 1974. The Dancing Dolls earned acclaim in their own right, dancing in two Super Bowls, including with Madonna in 2012 and later behind Beyoncé in her Lemonade visual album.
Perkins says she and Greggs, who died in 2014, didn’t imagine the Dancing Dolls would grow into the historic institution it is today. “We had no idea it would be like this, and I think it’s because we had so much discipline and the discipline was carried over into the community.”
Practices closed to the public and the band, a tradition that remains today. And so does teaching excellence in their appearance and attire. That discipline rendered excellence on and off the field and soon more dance groups in the community began to pattern themselves after the team.
Even more, that discipline and teaching would help young women from all walks of life, like Molizone-Morgan, blossom into young women.
Casey Greggs, granddaughter of Isaac Greggs, was one of those young girls. Raised around the Dancing Dolls much of her life, she says despite her proximity to them, she was still in awe of them.
“I know that I had a different privilege that most little girls don’t get, but I was just as shocked as every other little girl watching them,” Greggs said. “They were so classy and poised, nice and sweet. They were women that little girls could look up to.”
Before becoming a Dancing Doll in 2009, she was a Louisiana Leadership Institute Starlette dancer in high school under Molizone-Morgan’s leadership. She says her guidance was a direct influence of her Doll experience.
“Everything that she learned from Dolls, she brought those same values and principles over to us when we danced for Louisiana Leadership,” Greggs said. “She taught us a lot of sisterhood. She taught us fellowship. We learned a lot from her, and she gave us great experiences.”
Molizone-Morgan and her dance teams, though not affiliated with a university, continued to compete nationally, even performing in the Rose Bowl in 2007 and a dance-intensive program hosted by performing arts icon and actress Debbie Allen.
Molizone-Morgan went on to become a Dolls’ adviser for two years as a volunteer, coaching and advising teams while continuing to work in higher education in other roles, completing her master’s degree in public administration in 2007.
Now two decades later, as she recalls her own life, she credits exposure — pursuing postsecondary education, and through that, becoming a Dancing Doll, for changing her life.
“If it weren’t for influences on my life, where would I be? I would be a stereotype,” she said. “But my mom, regardless of my surroundings, decided that she would allow me to be around others, and that exposure provided me a landscape to say this isn’t what you’ll grow up to be.”