With 31 veteran Darlings returning, 32 Dixie Darling applicants filled with anxious energy showed up to the Payne Center April 2 to vie for the limited remaining slots that would be decided over an emotional seven-hour process.
Before sending them upstairs to the audition room, the Darlings took candidates’ applications, letters of recommendation and headshots to use as reference to decide who would become the team’s newest members. As the candidates would come to find, not everyone has what it takes to make the team.
“A lot of girls don’t have the opportunity todowhatwedoand what we love,” said De’Jonelle Gleeton, a Dixie Darlings captain. “We have hundreds of girls who try out probably every year, [with] only a few being chosen.”
Dixie Darlings Director Tracy Smith said the team held clinics throughout the semester to sharpen the skills of participating candidates leading up to the audition. And while only a handful of candidates participated in those, most have a background in dance, participating in high school and community college drill teams and in studio dance. Whatever the method, Smith said the girls needed to come prepared.
“You have to have advanced dance skills, you have to be able to do certain technical elements,” Smith said. “In addition to your dance technique is your dance performance. I have to know that they’re really strong performers, and they can really commit to a performance. And then of course, your stamina is also important.”
Fifteen years of dance led up to this audition for freshman dance education major Alex Spoon, preparing her for the day’s performances. A teacher at two dance studios, Spoon is a 10-year veteran of a studio team and performed for two years on her high school dance team. Yet, as she looked around the room at 9 a.m. shortly before the auditions started, she was nervous and a little jittery.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people here,’” she said. “I knew some of them and I knew they were great dancers, so I knew that I would have to up my game to try to stand out in the crowd.”
The judges, including Smith and Gleeton, would grade the 32 on technique, ability, personality, performance and personal presentation.
As the day progressed, their ranks narrowed. First at noon and then at 2 p.m., the judges tallied the scores and deliberated before Smith announced each cut.
“During that process, we were just trying not to think about what was about to happen,” Spoon said. “When we saw Mrs. Tracy came out to tell us the first round of cuts, we all got really quiet, and you could see their nerves come out again. Then she told us, and it was really friendly. No one was completely distraught that they got cut. They were encouraged to come back at the next tryout and there was no harsh feelings between anybody.”
After the first cut, the auditions continued, and by 4 p.m. the Darlings
had made their decision and held an instructional session with the new recruits for another hour.
When the picks were announced, the room was filled with excitement from its newest recruits. Some cried, some were shocked and some were overwhelmed to the point of silence.
Spoon stood among them, one of nine chosen for the team. Spoon stayed composed despite her exhilaration, primed by years of auditions.
“I smiled, I hugged my friends and we talked about it,” she said. “There were some people crying. Some people ran around the room. It was like everyone showing their own way of how they were feeling.”
It was a powerful moment for Gleeton as well. She said she looks forward to showing the recruits what it means to be a Dixie Darling.
“We’re just really happy to take these girls under our wings and show them the great experience we have to offer,” Gleeton said.
According to both Gleeton and Smith, being a Darling means more than just performing alongside the Pride of Mississippi, USM’s marching band, at football games. The team fosters excellence in its members through exhibitions, community outreach and as representatives of the university.
“These girls really are ambassadors for USM, and they hold that in high regard and they respect that position,” Smith said.
Smith said she loves her job and is honored to be able to nurture the talent of the new recruits.
“I think the absolutely best part would be watching these girls as they mature from these somewhat shy freshmen, or sometimes confident freshmen, by the time they leave Southern [Miss],” she said.
For her part, Spoon said she is excited to take on this new challenge.
“I have a few friends that were Dixie Darlings, and they’ve told me a little bit about what they do,” she said. “I’m just really excited to see what I can accomplish this year.”
The final round of Dixie Darlings auditions will be held April 30. Candidates are asked to bring headshots and recommendation letters to the auditions. Candidates can apply upon arrival or online on the Dixie Darlings website.