The Texas Aggie Dance Team made headlines more than two decades ago when it was the first group of women to dance at a Texas A&M athletic event.
The headlines also were quite literal — a form of fan protest against the dancers' performance at old G. Rollie White Coliseum.
“Right in front of you were former students and some of them, including women, would hold up newspapers while we were dancing,” said Terri Johnson, a dance team member in the early 1990s. “Apparently they didn't care for us ‘breaking tradition.' It didn't really affect us, but it wasn't nice.
“Here we were trying to dance, and some of the fans were holding up newspapers because they didn't want us there.”
Fast forward two decades, long after any controversy surrounding the dance team's presence at basketball games had calmed. A debate is blossoming in Aggieland about whether the women should make a move across the railroad tracks to Kyle Field, home of the football team and century-long staples, the Aggie Band and the Yell Leaders.
A&M, which is exiting the Big 12 and entering the Southeastern Conference this summer, never has had a women's dance team or even women's spirit squad perform at Kyle Field, the Aggies' football home since 1905. The topic is up for discussion among A&M's leaders — but in its early stage.
“Any time we look at an issue of this nature, our response is always going to be how does it affect the game-day atmosphere at Kyle Field, and would it infringe upon our traditions or our uniqueness,” said Jason Cook, A&M's vice president for marketing and communications. “We take decisions of this nature very seriously and very deliberately.”
There are two primary schools of thought on the subject — and both are covered in the Johnson household in northwestern Houston.
Jon Johnson, a horse doctor and graduate of A&M's veterinary school, listened intently to his wife, Terri's, story about the early years of the dance team. He then was asked what he would do if the dance team began performing at Kyle.
“I'll bring a newspaper,” he said.
Like many “Old Ags,” he's an unapologetic hardliner concerning the matter.
“What is A&M known for?” asked Johnson, 36, a 2001 graduate of the vet school. “Tradition. A dance team at Kyle would make A&M like everybody else — it would not make A&M different in any sense.”
His wife, who earned bachelors and masters degrees from A&M, disputes that idea, and believes the dance team at Kyle eventually would be accepted like it is at Reed Arena, the school's basketball home since 1998.
“Even if there were some ninnies who held up newspapers back then, it was just so much fun to support the basketball teams,” said the former Terri Simmons, 37. “It would be nice if that same kind of passion we brought to basketball games could be brought to football games.”
“Passion?” her husband responded during a lively give-and-take from their couch. “We don't need to bring any more ‘passion' to Kyle Field — it's already there. What other schools' cheerleaders get the response out of their crowd and the noise level that the Yell Leaders get?”
Along those lines, A&M junior Samantha Ketcham is angling to become the school's first female Yell Leader, with student elections Feb. 27-28.
“We haven't been an all-male school for nearly half a century, yet in all of that time not a single woman has been elected as a Yell Leader,” Ketcham wrote on her website.
A&M first admitted women students in 1963. Other universities with similar military backgrounds — West Point, VMI, the Naval Academy and The Citadel, for example — have female cheerleaders today.
“I'm not asking for anyone to vote for me on the basis of my gender,” Ketcham continued, “but rather to not discriminate against me for being a female. ... I'm not trying to break the tradition, just be a part of it!”
Morgan Holcomb echoes those sentiments from the dance team's side.
“We're not trying to take away from the traditions, but a female presence for us would be good at Kyle Field,” said Holcomb, a senior and the dance team's captain. “Especially with our move to the SEC.”
John David Crow, A&M's lone Heisman Trophy winner and a former A&M athletic director, is in favor of the dance team performing at Kyle Field.
“They're part of our athletic department now, and should be a part of every sport,” said Crow, 76. “With our move to the SEC, we're giving up a lot of our traditions of who we've played, and will be starting new ones with new opponents. So this would be a good time to start a new tradition with the dance team. It's just a good idea.”
The decision ultimately will rest with the athletic department, with heavy input from university administration.
One idea is that the addition of a dance team, or at least females together on the sidelines as a spirit squad, would help dispel the notion that A&M is not simply the home of the famed Corps of Cadets, but also a vibrant, diverse university of about 50,000 students, almost half of whom are female.
“There is a perception that A&M is a regional, all-military institution,” Cook said. “Because the TV cameras during football games tend to gravitate toward the Corps, the Aggie Band and toward the Yell Leaders simply because of the unique environment, and that's something we're proud of and we cherish.
“But we also have 48,000 other students who make up the 12th Man, and a very diverse group of students.”
A couple of weeks ago, Terri Johnson enjoyed her first A&M basketball game from the stands in years, when the Aggies played host to rival Texas. The 23-member dance squad, of course, particularly caught her eye.
“Their outfits are a lot cuter than what we had,” she said, chuckling. “Our midriffs didn't show in the early '90s, and we looked like we should have been ice skaters. Now, they seem like a much more integrated and permanent fixture to the basketball games.
“Back then, we were just asking, ‘Please, please let us dance.
Please invite us, we just want to dance.'”
Holcomb and her fellow dancers know the feeling at A&M — 20 years later.
“We need to be involved at Kyle Field in some way,” Holcomb said. “It's time.”