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Released October 18, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG - Half a century after the first edition of The University of Southern Mississippi's Dixie Darlings graced the football gridiron, members of the 1954 precision dance group plan an encore performance when they return this weekend for

homecoming at the university. And though some years may separate the 1954 squad and their current counterparts, 25 of the original 32 dancers are ready to show they've still got what it takes to be a Dixie Darling.

"I can't believe 50 years went by this quick," said Nancy Powell of Hattiesburg, who said being a Dixie Darling was "a lot of fun but really hard work."

In 1954, university band director Dr. Raymond Mannoni founder wanted to start a drill team of young women to perform with the Southern Miss band. He wanted a group patterned after the Kilgore (Texas Community College) Rangerettes. Mannoni had seen the Rangerettes perform at the Senior Bowl game in Mobile in January 1954 and contacted one of its members, Joyce Scimeca (now Joyce Scimeca McHenry), in June of that year and asked her to come to Southern Miss (then known as Mississippi Southern College) to audition. He then introduced Scimeca to MSC president Dr. Robert C. Cook, who offered her a full scholarship after their meeting, and the dance team was established.

"The girls were chosen by Dr. Mannoni partly from their performances in high school (as dancers or cheerleaders)," said McHenry, a Covington, La., resident who was instrumental in helping Mannoni begin the program and choreograph dance routines.

"When we began, there were 16 regular (dancers) and two alternates. By year's end, that number had doubled."
After the first week of practice and being called the "Dixie Maids," Mannoni decided he did not like that particular title, so he called everyone together to make a decision. After several suggestions, he narrowed it down to two names: the "Dixie Dancers" or the "Dixie Darlings."

"Barbara Rhodes and I wanted the name to be 'Dixie Darlings,'" Scimeca said. "I don't remember if he allowed us to vote on one of the two names or if he decided himself, but 'Dixie Darlings' was chosen and we were ready to perform for the first time at the MSC-Alabama game at Montgomery in September 1954."

The original Dixie Darling costume was a black velvet top and shorts. The top had a gold braid over a scooped neckline, and the shorts had a gold tassel on each side. The dancers wore white boots with black fringe, and donned white gloves. The media often referred them as the "World-famous Dixie Darlings."

Powell said the demanding practice schedule for the Dixie Darlings was due to Mannoni's desire to have a top-notch halftime performance. "He was a real perfectionist," said Powell, who was a cheerleader in high school and had received dance lessons.

And just because a Dixie Darling had performed at one game or event was no guarantee they would be in the starting lineup the next time, Powell said, evidence of Mannoni's desire for quality performances. "We had to try out before each game," Powell said, "because there was always at least a couple of alternates or more (to compete against), so you would have to worry about that."

The original Dixie Darlings comprised Ann Bond Beasley of Greenville; Ann Briggs McCormick (deceased); Carolyn Cochran McGinnis of Houston, Texas; Kay Crenshaw McCrary of Laurel; Joyce Dawson Trenton (deceased); Betty Farnham Cotten of Hattiesburg; Jean Freeman Webb of New Orleans; Pat Harris Millican of St. Simons Island, Ga.; Jeanel Hewes Pettey of Gulfport; Mary Lou Key McClammy (deceased); Betty King Self of Richardson, Texas; Ann Lynch Boyer of Jacksonville Beach, Fla.; Lady Dell Mechatto Martin of Merritt Island, Fla.; Miriam Middleton Moyer of Brookhaven; Ann Miller Jordan of New Orleans; Fredde Mincher Taylor of Long Beach; Mary Brown Nowell Kaiser of Natchez; Jo Ellen Pirtle Clark of Ruston, La.; Nancy Powell Bryant of Hattiesburg; Barbara Rhodes Dearman of Jackson; Joyce Scimeca McHenry of Covington, La.; Mary Ann Smith Jasper of Wesson; Sue Smylie Thompson of Meridian; and Patsy Stegall Richardson of Hattiesburg.

Ann Larman and Dee Ervine coordinate the Dixie Darling Alumni Association and have spent several months planning for the golden anniversary of the group's founding. The 1954 group will be honored at halftime of the Southern Miss-East Carolina game, joining hundreds of other former and current Dixie Darlings for an on-field performance during halftime. The game is set for a 6 p.m. kickoff.

On Friday, Oct. 22, members of the 1954 Dixie Darlings will have a luncheon at the Southern Miss M-Club meeting room and then a social on Friday night. On Saturday prior to the game, the group will march in the Southern Miss homecoming parade, which begins at 2 p.m., and then attend a special reunion tailgate party arranged for the group.

"We started (contacting former Dixie Darlings) in February of this year," Ervine said. "We told them, 'If you're ever going to come back (for a reunion), this is the year.'"

Ervine said that Dixie Darling reunions are a wonderful time for women who participated to have a "fantasy weekend to get together with a group of people who share a love for dance and performing and having a really great time."

In addition to communicating with former Dixie Darlings about events and other news, Ervine, Larman and other active alumni of the group perform community service, including fund raising for breast cancer research.

Ervine said the Dixie Darlings' popularity extended well beyond the Southern Miss campus. For years, the group was regularly invited to perform at the Blue-Gray game, the Senior Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and in the Miss America parade. Once, while Ervine was a Dixie Darling in the early 1960s, the group performed at an all-star football game at Soldier Field in Chicago. "I can remember we would get off the bus and immediately be asked for autographs," Ervine said. "We got a lot of national attention."

Powell and her fellow Dixie Darlings have fond memories of their days as members of the "World-famous Dixie Darlings" 50 years later. "We had a good time, and got a lot of attention from the boys, and that was a whole lot of fun, too," she said, laughing. "It was an honor to be a Dixie Darling."

Scimeca McHenry will revive her role as leader of the group, helping her 1954 colleagues practice their old dance routines for their big day. "I told (fellow Dixie Darling) Miriam (Moyer Middleton), 'Isn't it wild that 50 years later we're

still preparing to do these same dances (for the reunion)?'" Scimeca said. "I never dreamed then (1954) that the Dixie Darlings would still be going strong and be so popular. It's nice to be honored for something you did 50 years ago."

Sarah Rouse, 18, of Hattiesburg is a Southern Miss journalism-public relations major and a first-year Dixie Darling. "It's really big that we've been going on this long and still have the tradition of performing the same moves," she said. "I'm excited about being a member; it's exciting to be there on the field in front of huge crowds."

For the homecoming event, Rouse said the 1954 members are ready to show off their talents. "They've been practicing with us and they really know their stuff," she said.

For more information about the reunion, contact Southern Miss Bands at (601) 266-4990 or Dee Ervine at (228) 452-3345.


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November 23, 2004 9:23 AM