Drumline Live Brings the HBCU Marching Band Experience to Stage

by Debra Danese for The Dance Journal

Drumline Live was a packed production of musical numbers, interspersed with snippets on the background of show-style marching bands. The Saturday, January 11th show opened with a brief introduction on the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) history and tradition of these bands. The live tour aims to bring this experience to a wider audience and The Merriam Theater was filled with patrons of various ages. The performance was presented as part of the Kimmel Center Family Discovery Series and played to a full house.

The showmanship and pageantry of HBCU marching bands was highlighted in the 2002 movie, Drumline, which starred former America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon. Drumline Live Producer and Director, Don P. Roberts, served as the Executive Band Consultant for the film and brought his expertise to the stage. The live show included a reference the movie with a rendition of “Shout it Out,” which was featured in the film.

The music was the star of the show and included tributes to artists such as Michael Jackson and Prince. A brief video described the start of Soul Music and Berry Gordy’s part in the making of Motown. This segued into a spirited medley featuring songs by Ray Charles and The Supremes. The choreography here was high energy and showcased the iconic moves of Tina Turner and James Brown. Not all the vocalists had the chops to pull off such big numbers. A powerful performance of an Aretha Franklin tune was the exception and had the crowd loudly applauding with appreciation. Tom, an audience member invited onstage to join in for a verse of “My Girl,” brought the crowd to their feet with his smooth moves and enthusiastic singing.

The cast was comprised of both brass and percussion ensembles. The musicianship was stellar and had something for everyone. There was audience engagement throughout with a call and response, drum battle, snapping, clapping, and “on our feet dancing” to a variety of music genres. What I did miss was the actual synchronized marching with high knees and intricate formations that HBCU bands are famous for. Being a big part of their tradition, I was expecting to see that incorporated more into their numbers.

Joining the musicians onstage were four female dancers. The host, Cortellus “Hollywood” Wesley, described them as “high kicking, hair slinging” integral members of the group. He referred to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl and Coachella performances that included HBCU bands. This segued into the dancers performing very much in Beyoncé’s style, which was fully loaded with hair tossing and booty popping. It showcased what the dancers bring to a stadium crowd- explosive energy with a heavy touch of glam. The show should have stayed with what the dancers did best and eliminated the choreography that required a higher level of technique. Solo work and a 1930’s Swing piece exposed incorrect alignment, lax feet and soft knees. Although performed with flair, the result looked unpolished and awkward.

For entertainment value alone, Drumline Live is worth a see.

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