The drum majorettes of South Africa can outwork you

Part sports team, part club, teams of “drummies” around Cape Town perform in competitions of athleticism, precision, and character.

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There are no days off for “drummies.” On a national holiday, the Fairmont High School Drum Majorettes gather to practice elaborate routines.
This story appears in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Known as Drummies, drum majorettes began appearing in Cape Town street parades in the 1970s. Today they’re part of competitive clubs, often in schools. Though open to everyone, these teams tend to attract girls from marginalized communities. The long hours of repetitive practice are appreciated as a way to build confidence, pride, and a positive work ethic.

Girls as young as five and women into their 20s are drawn to the mix of cheerleading and marching band. They rehearse elaborate routines for regional competitions, where their appearance and precision earn them accolades. But they’re also judged on leadership and character.

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Keisha Ncube, nine, has been a drum majorette for three years. Girls who join at a young age often stay into their teens, using their experience to guide other girls through intense practices and competitions.

South African photographer Alice Mann started taking pictures of drummies in 2016. She was attracted by their energy, femininity, and empowerment. Mann watched the girls practice and perform. She noticed how a girl’s body language changed the moment she put on her uniform. And she saw the hopes of parents—particularly the “drummy mummies”—who support the clubs by raising money and repairing uniforms.

Enthusiasm and energy are renewable resources. But the activity has lately been in decline, a consequence of struggling schools and, perhaps, more opportunities for young girls to connect, especially online.

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While many drummies are from low-income families, the girls on the highly ranked Fairmont High School team represent a wide range of backgrounds.
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Girls who become drum majorettes early tend to form a support structure of strong friendships.

Still, there are plenty of drummies in Cape Town who come for all-day competitions and who see the long-term value of such a demanding activity. “To be a drummy is very affirming,” says Mann. “It teaches them things they can apply throughout their lives.”