The UArts Royals bring a sultry Southern style to Philly dance

A member of the University of the Arts Royals dance squad performs in the audience at the Gershman Y on S. Broad St. in Center City, Philadelphia.

Concertgoers had jammed the door of the Performing Arts Center in Wallingford. Attendants in the lobby repeatedly explained that the show was now standing room only.

No matter; folks still grabbed tickets.

The hip-hop troupes in track jackets, girls in mint-green tutus, tap dancers in showtime unitards were standard fare at the annual benefit Dancing for Life.

But the rush to get into the hall was because of one specific troupe: The Royals of the University of the Arts, who specialize in something not usually found in these parts.

They are a Southern-style majorette squad performing a kind of dance called j-setting, after the Jackson (Miss.) State University J-Settes. By tradition, historically black colleges and universities have majorette teams to accompany their marching bands. Where cheerleaders communicate “pep,” black majorettes specialize in “sultry” and “fly.” In another break from tradition, the Royals welcome men in their troupe.

Camera icon KAIT MOORE / Staff Photographer
Members of the University of the Arts Royals dance squad performs in the audience at the Gershman Y on S. Broad St. in Center City, Philadelphia.

Many audience members were relatives of the dancers. “They just want to see their kid and get out,” Karen Rawlings, executive producer of the event, said of the families who come to the performance. “But when they see that it’s a high-energy, fast-moving show, they [love it.]”

At at an open-mic event at the University of the Arts this month, when Capt. Jiamond Watson kicked off the routine, a swarm of students encircled the team for a better view, phones ready to start filming. As the Royals rolled their bodies, they made sure to make their hands linger just so. “Give it to him!” one man shouted. “Don’t hold back, sis!!”

Marques Furr, the group’s cofounder and coordinator, loves the way the style makes him feel. “Especially getting away from the technique of ballet, modern and jazz,” he said, “where you can just be free, just be sexy.”

Terrance Dean, a journalist and researcher, connects the majorette tradition to the black church experience. With its repetition and audience reaction and dance-offs, Dean likens the format to the call-and-response tradition in gospel music.

Dance teachers across genres often teach choreography in sets of eight rhythmic counts. Majorettes choreograph in short phrases that fit into eight  or 16 counts. Then they add more sets of movement, sort of like adding stanzas to a poem, rather than paragraphs to an essay.

The dancers don’t perform this choreography in unison; they stagger their moves. So a team captain might attack a set of shimmies, kicks, and turns first while the row behind waits before repeating the exact same moves. Many Americans have seen this style before:

Beyoncé performed it in the “Single Ladies” video.

Watson, the captain, was familiar with majorettes because both of her parents attended historically black institutions. When the sophomore saw that the Royals were at the University of the Arts, she joined, pleased that she could get that slice of the black college experience. “It’s the first time I practiced dancing it and really embodying it,” she said.

And embodying it is key. Furr said he gives this advice to all members: “Think about you dancing in front of your boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever your preference is. Think of that.”

Dean and Lamont Loyd-Sims, who has researched the genre, say  j-setting holds special meaning for its performers: If the black body and black sexual expression has been marginalized, then black majorette traditions represent a certain brand of liberation. Furr agrees. But some of his professors have questioned whether the form demeans women. He’s not convinced the culture fully translates. “A lot of people up North don’t get that tradition,” he said. “When it’s not in context, it becomes a whole different conversation.”

It could be said the Royals would not be here without YouTube. Furr and cofounder Andre’ana Miller used to watch video after video together. They’d cue up routines from the Alabama State Stingettes,  the Southern University Dancing Dolls, and the North Carolina A&T State University Golden Delight Auxiliary. And then maybe the Howard University Ooh La La Dance Line, for example. Furr had learned the style back home in Nashville, and Miller had danced on the majorette line at her Capitol Heights, Md., high school. That was in fall 2015, when both were freshmen. By that November, Furr submitted paperwork to the university to start their own group.

Before YouTube, before “Single Ladies,” majorette-style-dancing had already spawned a few subcultures, most prominently among black Southern gay men and the highly competitive youth dance circuit showcased on the Lifetime series Bring It.  Cheyney University and Lincoln University have mounted similar teams, but Furr and Miller’s influences were firmly Southern.

When Dean first reported on the dance genre in 2009, he didn’t see any unisex groups. That’s changing, he says.  “I love the fact that the teams and troupes are becoming more inclusive,” he wrote by email. “It shows the power that this younger generation has in being intentional by building community across lines of gender and race.”

This is the Royals’ first year without men on the team. (Furr and Miller are now the group’s coordinator and manager, respectively.) They still are hoping to secure more chances to dance in front of live music, as when the Royals took to Broad Street with the West Philly Orchestra last year.

Although the campus is swimming with musicians, there’s no marching band, and the instrumentalists who enjoy them don’t always have time. “They’ve got gigs, and outside of school, they’re trying to make a name for themselves,” Miller said.

For now, Furr is still pulling music from SoundCloud, YouTube, and professional band recordings.

At the open mic, the troupe rose from their seats as the sound of horns slid out of the speakers. Watson swung her head around in a circle, brushing the seats in front of her with her hair. The students sitting there didn’t seem to mind. Then the rest of the team followed.

“Joy is such a movie star,” one student sighed. To close the routine, each Royal did a body roll to get back into their seats, windmilling their hair along the way. The student shook her head in amazement, “That was fantastic.”