Meet The Drummies
Photographer Alice Mann discusses her new book, Drummies, which chronicles the extraordinary discipline and beguiling aesthetics of South Africa's drum majorettes – synchronised teams of pom-pom wielding performers
By Daisy Woodward
Photography by Alice Mann
Six girls, their expressions serious yet serene, gaze down at the viewer. Their orange and gold-sequined uniforms are illuminated by the sun, their fluffy orange and white busbies perfectly complemented by the blue sky above. Another group of similarly decked girls stand in drill formation on a field, in matching uniforms – red in front, green in the centre, blue behind – holding flags above their heads, their faces raised proudly to the sky. These are a cross-section of South Africa’s drum majorettes, girls and young women aged 5 to 18, who compete nationally in teams of 25 to 50 performers, enacting incredibly complex choreographed routines involving flags, batons (known as maces) and pom-poms.
“It’s a combination between cheerleading and a marching band,” explains South African photographer Alice Mann, the author of these arresting images and many others documenting the sport, taken at schools and competitions in the Western Cape and Gauteng Provinces from 2017 onwards. Some 60 of these works, captured in beguiling colour on a medium-format film camera, now feature in Mann’s striking new publication Drummies (as the majorettes are colloquially known), soon to be published by Gost Books.
“I had some knowledge of the drum majorettes growing up in Cape Town, but I was very much on the periphery,” the photographer tells Glorious. “They might perform before a sports match, or at this annual carnival we had, but I didn’t know it was a competitive sport.” It was only when she had established her career as a portrait photographer, with a particular focus on what she describes as “how a sense of community reinforces an individual sense of self” – her previous series include depictions of churchgoers in London’s African diaspora, and the fabulously dressed Sapeurs (or dandies) in the Congo – that the sport surfaced in her mind once again. “Suddenly, it made sense as the next point of focus for my work.”
The first known mention of “Marching Girls” in South African history dates back to 1923. Between then and the 1970s, the country’s drum majorette factions took the form of female marching troupes, made up of school pupils, who would perform at sports events, fêtes and street parades. In 1974, however, drum majorettes was recognised as a competitive sport, with contests springing up in the Gauteng province and, later in the decade, in other regions throughout the country.
Unlike most school sports, drum majorette teams are not divided into multiple age groups, but instead according to whether the performers are in primary or secondary school. As such, 5 year olds will perform alongside 13 year olds at primary level, and 13 year olds alongside 18 year olds once they change schools. “The younger ones just have to keep up, and the older ones are extremely patient and caring,” Alice says fondly.
In terms of the competitions, there are “various different leagues, and the girls work their way up”, the photographer explains. “Within these leagues, they compete against other schools, performing two to three routines of ten to fifteen minutes each, and are marked according to several criteria.” These range from overall presentation (“their uniforms and so on,” Alice says) to their display (“the routine, their uniformity and how many mistakes they make”) as well as their music choices and the complexity of their choreography. “There are certain tricks they perform with their props, for instance, that will result in higher scores,” she adds. “The leader of the team normally throws and catches the mace around 50 times while spinning it. It’s truly amazing to see the level of perfection that the sport demands.”
It was this sense of discipline and commitment, and the camaraderie it spawns, that first drew Alice to the sport – as well as the aesthetic appeal of its glitzy uniforms and graceful, synchronised performances. “Drum majorettes is really big in some communities, but it’s not viewed as a mainstream girls’ school sport in South Africa,” she says. “It tends to be more popular outside of the main city centres, and I think that is to do with the fact that it really elevates and empowers the girls who participate in it.”
This is due, in no small part, to the ambition and hard work being a drum majorette entails. The girls practice most days after school, at the weekend, and during the holidays, Alice says. “There’s a huge amount of prestige attached to it; it says a lot about you as a person. You’re a hard worker, you’re dedicated, you will most likely do well in school.” Indeed, as The New Yorker’s Anakwa Dwamena points out in his 2018 feature on the Drummies series, “Regional excellence promises future scholarships and tuition subsidies at the high-school level and beyond – or, at the very least, a chance to go on national tours.”
Alice was determined to encapsulate the distinct pride her subjects feel towards their sport, whether performing, rehearsing or relaxing in the moments in between. And this, she discovered, involved depicting them in their uniforms. “I initially took pictures of the girls in and out of uniform but at some point I realised that when they were dressed up, this transformation happened: they stood really tall. You could see that they felt incredible,” she says. And you need only glance at the way the girls present themselves in the images – assertive in their white-heeled boots, heads held high – to see this in action.
Interestingly, providing her subjects with this tangible sense of agency was also something that evolved during the image-making process. “At first, I took a much more formulaic approach,” Alice says, describing her original method of photographing the girls face-on against a backdrop. “Later in the year, however, I began working with another school and decided to take a more loose approach to my direction, to make space for the girls to tell me what they thought. They really stepped forward and performed what they wanted to see and what they imagined about themselves, and the series became what it is today.” With this in mind, it is particularly poignant to contemplate the girls’ poses – whether depicted alone, in pairs or larger groupings – which point to the individual role each of them serves within the team, as well as the inherent sisterhood being part of such a well-oiled, tightly operating ensemble requires.
Part of what Alice wanted to achieve with this level of collaboration was a project that truly embodied the aspirational element of being a drummie, she notes. “It represents an alternate reality to the one that exists in some ways, while depicting one that might come to exist as a result of these safe female spaces, where the girls are the sole focus, and have so much energy poured into them and their sport. I think it challenges the view of young South African women as disempowered victims. They look very powerful, strong and confident, that is what the sport, and hopefully this series, has cultivated.”
On Alice’s part, photographing the drum majorettes has galvanised her desire to seek out and photograph the events, activities and occasions that cultivate communities, and create enduring bonds within people’s everyday lives, while continuing to traverse the line between documentary photography and more performative portraiture. “I never tire of seeing how strong people can be and what they can do with that strength. I’m always interested in highlighting that people are truly incredible, even in their everyday pursuits. And it’s equally important for me to show them in a way that they can feel proud of; that’s how they would want to be seen.”