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Often thought of as a male domain, women drum majors have been flexing their muscles and their leadership skills across America for almost 40 years

Major moves

Mace-wielding women crash the halftime show

October 23, 2015

Google defines the term “drum major” as a male leader of a marching band. While historically true, that hasn’t been accurate for nearly 40 years, and excludes women across America who are commanding marching bands right now.

At university sporting events, the drum major serves as second-in-command to the band director and handles everything from conducting to training. The role requires muscle, and the leadership skills to command the respect and attention of hundreds of musicians at any given time. “Their movements are very strenuous,” said Walter Williams Jr., CEO of The National Show Band Association, a network for show-style bands known for their high-stepping halftime performances.

It wasn’t until 1907 that a marching band performed it’s first halftime show at a football game and, even then, bands were still associated with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and included male students in the military, said Gary Smith, who started one of the first training clinics for drum majors in the 1950s. “The makeup of men over women was probably 9 out of 10,” said Smith, of his time as a trainer back then. He is also emeritus band director at the University of Illinois Marching Illini, where in 1977, he appointed the school’s first female drum major. Today, the Marching Illini have three female drum majors and joining them this year is the University of Alabama, who just this month debuted its first all-female drum major squad in the band’s 103-year history.

Here, we’ve rounded up 21 drum majors leading the way.

Taheerah Hansen says she feels like a super hero while in uniform. (Courtesy of Terrence Wolfork)
Taheerah Hansen says she feels like a super hero while in uniform. (Courtesy of Terrence Wolfork)

Taheerah Hansen, 25
Fort Valley State University Blue Machine Marching Band

Hansen has been a drum major at the Georgia institution since 2012. The liberal studies major thinks it’s an honor to lead the group of 60 performers, feeling a little bit like a superhero while in uniform. As for serving in a position historically reserved for males, Hansen said it feels “pretty darn cool.” “It’s respected that we can hang with the best of the guys and even do a better job than them,” said Hansen. “We’re making history.”

Mary Parsons performs a back bend, one of the moves she says is a true mark of a drum major’s abilities. (Courtesy of Mary Parsons)

Mary “Kate” Parsons, 22
Old Dominion University Monarch Marching Band

Parsons, a psychology major and four-year member of the band, said being a drum major is one of the greatest accomplishments of her life. Yet, nailing the masculine way drum majors move on the field took some getting used to. “You have to be sturdy and controlled and it takes practice to get into that mindset,” said Parsons. Her favorite moves include a super toss — when the mace is thrown really high — and the back bend. “It requires strength and control and is a testament to your abilities as a drum major,” she said. Watch the band perform Mark Ronson’s and Bruno Mars’ popular hit Uptown Funk here.

Bianca Hunter says one of her strengths is her commanding presence. (Courtesy of Bianca Hunter)

Bianca Hunter, 22
Red Sea of Sound at Winston-Salem State University

Hudson is the third woman to be appointed drum major at the North Carolina university, an achievement that has motivated her both on and off the field. “I knew that going for this position would push me far beyond my limits and that I had to by far surpass the males that stood beside me also fighting for the position,” said Hunter. “Serving this male dominated position has never intimidated me, however, it has pushed me to perform and serve the band in a great capacity that I would have never imagined,” she said.

Nicole Nowotny likes to have passion when she’s conducting. (Facebook/UCF Marching Knights)

Nicole Nowotny, 20
University of Central Florida Marching Knights

Nowotny, who has been a drum major since 2014, said she brings a lot of passion to her conducting style. “I love dramatic cut offs,” said Nowotny, who is currently majoring in psychology. “The crowd loves seeing you put a lot of energy into what you’re doing,” she said.

Bria Douglas is a drum major in a show-style band, known for their high-step, high-energy performances. (Courtesy of Bria Douglas)

Bria Douglas, 22
Prairie View A&M University Marching Storm

The music education major said one of her favorite things about being a drum major is inspiring young girls. “It is a position many people want and few are chosen for,” said Douglas. “Not many females get this opportunity, especially at a HBCU.” Catch a short glimpse of Douglas in action here.

Shannon Black does a back bend
Let at her go! Shannon Black takes center stage as she does a back bend, touching her plume all the way to the ground. Spartan drum majors regularly perform this move in front of thousands of spectators. (Courtesy of Shannon Black)

Shannon Black, 21
Spartan Marching Band at Michigan State University

Black is the third woman to be drum major since the band was founded in 1870 and is sometimes mistaken for a drum majorette, a term used to describe female baton twirlers. “I get asked a lot if this is my first year as drum major,” said Black who is a veteran drum major at the university. “It sometimes seems that people think I am inexperienced simply because I am a woman.” But she gets plenty of encouragement, too. “While I am in my uniform [they] tell me how proud they are of me and that I am doing a great job and that ‘it’s great to finally have a woman leading the band!’”

Watch the band’s marvel-themed halftime show here.

Shanice Wormley is pictured doing a high-step marching technique, a signature for show-style bands.
Shanice Wormley is pictured doing a high-step marching technique, a signature for show-style bands. (Courtesy of Shanice Wormley)

Shanice Wormley, 20
Hampton University Marching FORCE

Wormley says performing feels a lot like a workout. “Every performance has high energy and high knees,” Wormley said. “With the acclamation we get from performing, it’s all worth it.”

Emmy Lawniczak says she portrays the music through her motions in order to achieve a particular sound while conducting the 350-member band. (Courtesy of Sound of the South)

Emmy Lawniczak, 19
Sound of the South at Troy University

Lawniczak said some members were surprised when she became drum major. “I was only a freshman, and to add to it, a girl —and the drum majors in our band have generally been men,” said Lawniczak. But once she started doing her job, she said, the “shock” eventually wore off. “I like to think that I’m seen as a leader, musician, and brother before any stigma of my gender comes into play,” she said.

See Lawniczak in action here.

When conduction Madelyn Colby loves to do the “crank” move to show points of intensity.

Madelyn Colby, 19
The Pride of Niner Nation at University of North Carolina at Charlotte

As one of two drum majors for the band, Colby’s responsibilities include conducting, teaching marching technique, and making sure all 150 members of the band stay motivated. “It takes a lot of focus from everyone,” said Colby. “It only gets worse with increasing size, but if you have leaders who can get their members engaged, the problem can be mitigated,” she said.

Hannah Childer’s in uniform on the field. (Jennifer Hollar Photography)

Hannah Childers, 21
The Marching Tar Heels, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Childers said her leadership abilities, conducting skills, and personality landed her a spot on the podium, but with 250 members, getting to know and “lead” everyone can be tricky. “It can be hard to have to ‘lead’ your friends when they don’t like it. Especially the ones that are your age, because they sometimes think it’s not your place to tell them what to do,” said Childers.

Brittany_Ashley_Carey copy
Seeing double: Brittany and Ashley Carey, both identical twins, in uniform on the field.

Brittany & Ashley Carey, 20
The Famous Maroon Band at Mississippi State University

The twins, born just five minutes apart, said the hardest part of their job is making sure all 330 of the band’s members are in sync. “Sometimes that can be stressful because if Ashley and I are not on the same brainwave, then the band could suffer from it,” said Brittany. And while they don’t get many reactions for being female drum majors, they often experience surprising stares for being identical. “There were a few kids in band that asked if we were related and we just had to laugh about it later,” she said. This is Ashley’s first year and Brittany’s second year serving as drum major. Watch both women lead the band through the popular ’70s hits Funkytown and Brick House here.

Casey Sukel is one of three female drum majors in the Big Red Marching Band.

Casey Sukel, 22
Big Red Marching Machine at Illinois State University

Sukel is one of three women who hold the title this year. The band has had a long history of women serving in the leadership position, and they’ve all been well received, but every now and then people are still surprised when they see her in action. “I am often asked if I need help while putting podiums or other heavy equipment away,” said Sukel. “The other day actually, a member of the band seemed surprised as I lifted my podium into our storage locker, and I had to remind him that I did this every day,” she said.

About Face: The Million Dollar Band has been around for 103 years and this is the first time it’s had an all-female drum major team.

Savannah Smith, 21; Jessica Palmer, 21; Kayla Sisco, 21; and Holly Kinsey, 21
Million Dollar Band at The University of Alabama

This is the first year in UA’s 103-year history that all of the drum majors are women. Savannah Smith, a senior studying music education, said she didn’t immediately recognize the significance. “While we do not feel that it affects our performance on the podium or the band’s willingness to follow us, we are excited about the opportunity it provides to be role models to young women and girls that dream of becoming leaders in their field,” Smith said. Watch the 400-member band perform here.

This is Cheyenne Smith’s first year as drum major of the 340-member band. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Smith)

Cheyenne Smith, 19
University of Delaware Marching Band

Smith is one of three female drum majors currently leading the university’s 340-member band. “The most difficult part of being drum major is being aware of everything and being ready to solve problems before they occur,” said Smith. “As a drum major you have to constantly be thinking one step ahead so that potential problems never become reality,” she said.

Rose Craig (center) says being a drum major has taught her how to be selfless. Photo courtesy of Rose Craig
Rose Craig (center) says being a drum major has taught her how to be selfless. (Courtesy of Rose Craig)

Cameryn Wysocki, 19; Rose Craig, 21; Victoria Sewell; 21
University of Illinois Marching Illini

The Marching Illini got their first female drum major in 1977 and have a long-history of women serving in the position. “Knowing that this organization supported and continues to support the development of all leaders regardless of gender has inspired me to continuously strive for excellence,” said Rose Craig. “I am incredibly proud, honored, and humbled to have had the opportunity to serve in this role and hopefully to make former drum majors proud of the legacy they started.”