The song “God Blessed Texas” blares out from loud speakers, and the Wildcat Wranglers of Lake Highlands High School energize a crowd with their fancy footwork.
The audience taps its toes as red, white and blue uniforms twirl before their eyes.
This country western dance team, dressed in outfits that resemble our stage flag, brings a little bit of Texas with it to every performance.
It also brings a lot of Lake Highlands.
As representatives of our community, the Wranglers build Lake Highlands’ reputation each time they step out on the dance floor, which they do often. You’ll find them performing at local, state and national events from assemblies at neighborhood elementary schools to Governor George Bush’s Inaugural Ball in Austin to a national tourism convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
“The Wranglers certainly add to the positive image of the high school, the community and the (school) district as a whole,” says Vernon Johnson, superintendent for the Richardson Independent School District.
“They’re a great image builder. You couldn’t buy the kind of publicity they generate.”
“It’s something for the community to hang its hat on.”
Those who have seen the Wranglers perform describe them as all-American teenagers.
The students say they are just having fun.
The 23 couples do line dances, such as the tush push, and choreographed routines, and near the end of a show, they pull audience members onto the floor to teach them the cotton-eyed Joe. A few couples are showcased during solos.
Johnson has been to several shows and at one was taught to dance.
“They do some outstanding aerobatics,” he says. “They throw each other up in the air. It’s amazing, not just traditional country western dance. It’s with great flair.”
“If you can imagine Apollo 13 lifting off the pad, that’s their energy. You light the rocket and get out of the way.”
The Wranglers practice each school day during the high school’s first period from 8:50 a.m. to 9:50 a.m.
They learn stunts and polish old moves.
After school, weekend and summer practices also are common to prepare the students for their numerous public appearances.
“They are treated just like a professional dance company. They are not treated like high school kids,” says Wranglers’ director Katha Black, dance instructor and chairperson of the Health and Physical Education Department at the high school.
For their efforts, the students earn a fine arts or physical education credit.
They also get a boost in self confidence, Black says.
“I’ve seen a tremendous increase in self esteem in a lot of the kids,” Black says. “I’ve seen pride in our school. The Wranglers enjoy representing this school.”
“The one comment I get from adults is that the kids are courteous, polite and having so much fun. They’re amazed at how well-mannered the kids from Lake Highlands are.
“There is so much bad publicity about teenagers today. This is one way for the public to see really neat kids.”
Young, Hot and Hip
The Wildcat Wranglers Dance Team was formed in Fall 1992 by Black and Mark Pace, a former assistant football coach at Lake Highlands Junior High. Pace was a member of the Texas A&M Wranglers during his college years, and he and Black fashioned their high school country western group after the one at the university.
With its professionally choreographed country western routines, the Wildcat Wranglers was the first group of its kind for teenagers in Texas, Black says.
In the first year, the group made 39 public appearances, and Black snagged four national sponsors, Justin Boots, Wrangler jeans, Circle T and Bee-Wild Apparel.
The Wildcat Wranglers have since been featured twice on CBS’s nationally syndicated television show “Hot, Hip and Country.” They have performed at George Strait and Joe Diffie concerts, and appear in the Little Texas music video “God Blessed Texas,” which airs on Country Music Television and The Nashville Network.
Pace moved to Arkansas at the end of the 1993-94 school year, but Black continues to manage the Wranglers as their reputation blossoms. She is assisted by math teacher Robert Rowe.
The Wranglers are now asked to do more performances then scheduling permits, and events are booked months in advance.
The group performs for free, but asks for donations when it travels outside of RISD to pay for expenses, such as transportation and promotions. The cost for the students is $150 per year, and they each receive a pair of cowboy boots.
Black tries to work with the students so that being a Wrangler doesn’t interfere with other activities.
She tries not to schedule more than two shows a week and requires couples to attend at least two shows each month, she says. The students can choose which two shows they attend.
Other high schools, including Berkner and W.T. White in DISD, have formed or are trying to form dance teams similar to the Wranglers. Teachers from schools in Terrell and Rockwall also have called Black requesting information about how to form groups. At Lake Highlands High School, 94 students tried out for this year’s 46-member team.
But the Wranglers didn’t start out so popular.
In the beginning, only 12 students signed up for the Wranglers, and 11 of them were girls. Black told the girls they had to recruit partners.
Black and Pace begged members of the Wildcat football team to join the Wranglers.
“We literally stood in the hall and tried to pull people into our class,” Black says.
After a week, the Wranglers had 12 couples. By midterm, 21 couples were on the dance floor.
The country western theme attracted boys to the program.
That’s why seniors Justin Varnon and Stephen Holley joined, they say.
Both of these football players are country music fans who frequent teen nights at local country western clubs.
Being a Wrangler teaches them a skill they can enjoy their whole lives, they say.
“I have a great time going out and dancing,” 18-year-old Holley says. “It’s a good way to meet people. It’s a good way to meet girls. If you’re better than everyone else, naturally you attract attention.”
Ann Hanson, a neighborhood parent, says her sons have been enriched by the Wranglers. Her middle son Seth is currently a Wrangler, and her oldest son Swede, who graduated last May, was a Wrangler.
“It’s given them balance,” Hanson says. “Rather than just having academics and athletics, they have something creative. It’s taught them stage presence, audience appeal and how to present themselves.”
Working Up a Sweat
For girls, being a Wrangler means getting tossed around and dizzy.
Senior Jennifer Haynes, 17, gets turned upside down, lifted into the air, flung around her partner’s back and sometimes dropped on her head.
Still, she says the dancing is hardest on the boys because they have to lead.
“I like being able to dance,” Haynes says. “It takes a lot of work. You have to trust your partner so much. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of trust.”
Haynes is a Wrangler veteran and dance captain.
This is her third year with the group, which is now in its fourth year.
Haynes tried out with her partner, 18-year-old senior Reed Heim, when they were sophomores.
Partners are paired by choice or by Black. Some of the couples are dating, some are friends.
Students who want to try out attend school workshops where they learn routines they are expected to perform for Black.
The students don’t have to be country western experts, Black says. She often works with beginners.
“You learn by trial and error,” Black says. “When you dance with different people, you learn from those people. It really takes practice, floor time and being open”
“If the kids have a sense of rhythm and coordination, we can work with that.”
It took Haynes and Heim a year before they were good enough for solos, Haynes says. When they first tried out, they barely knew how to two step, she says.
Seniors Eileen Oxley, 18, and Varnon, 17, are another star couple.
Their athletic backgrounds help them with the Wranglers, which can be a physically challenging activity, they say.
“We work up a big-time sweat,” Varnon says.
Oxley is a varsity cheerleader, and Varnon plays guard on the football team, and both are National Honor Society members. One thing they enjoy about the Wranglers is that it’s the only coed athletic group at the high school.
They are typical of the students on the Wranglers. Many are athletes with good grades. But for some students, the Wranglers is the only team they have belonged to, Black says.
“There are all types of kids,” Black says. “For some of them, this is the only thing they have. We have other people who are involved in tons of activities. It’s a real mixture.”
On the Road
The Wranglers haven’t built their reputation on two-stepping alone.
Black does her own fancy footwork to book the Wranglers for shows.
She runs a professional, but unofficial, public relations agency from her office in the girls’ locker room at the high school. There she stores photos, videos, brochures and press releases promoting the Wranglers. She also recruits parents to help with the many tasks of managing the Wranglers, from transporting the group to altering uniforms.
“Katha Black is the Wranglers,” says Lake Highlands Principal Ron Mathews. “She’s a tireless, meticulous organizer and a promoter. She has very good contacts in the dance world and with organizations that use dance groups. She’s a very resourceful person when it comes to contacts.”
Thanks to Black, the Wranglers have performed at the 1995 inaugural ball for Governor George Bush and Lt. Governor Bob Bullock; three 1994 World Cup Soccer events, including the opening ceremony; half-time shows for the Dallas Cowboys and Dallas Mavericks; the 1993 Dallas Ambassadors Forum; several corporate functions; and the 1993 National Tourism Convention in Atlantic City, where they helped promote Texas’ tourism industry.
“They’re a class act,” says Colleen Albert Rickenbacher, who booked the Wranglers for the tourism convention.
“They look very Texas. When people come to Texas, they want to see a John Wayne. With their uniforms and country western dancing, the Wranglers are exactly what people want.”
Rickenbacher is a Lake Highlands resident who works for the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, of which Black is a member. After Rickenbacher attended her first live Wranglers performance, she fell in love with the dancers, she says.
Through the Visitors Bureau, the Wranglers have performed for people from all over the world.
“They (visitors) look at the Wranglers as representatives of Dallas,” Rickenbacher says. “That’s what their job is. They’re selling our City. They do a very good job.”
One benefit to being a Wrangler is that students travel and mingle with successful adults, from business executives to celebrities to politicians, Rickenbacher says.
And, in turn, these people become familiar with Lake Highlands.
“They put Lake Highlands on the map,” Hanson says. “People know of Lake Highlands because of our academics. They certainly know about Lake Highlands for football. Now, they know about Lake Highlands for the Wranglers. They round out our school.”