Five decades ago, under the direction of Patricia Clark, the first group of young ladies stepped out onto the field to perform for Ricebird football fans during a halftime show. Now, former Derby Dolls and the current squad will step onto the field together Friday evening for their “50 Years of Perfection” performance.
According to organizer and Derby Doll alumni Stephanie Roye Jensen, they are expecting close to 200 former Dolls who will be doing a streamer jazz routine to ‘Hello Dolly,’” which she says, “was the first routine the Dolls danced to in the fall of 1969. It’s a very special song to many of the early Dolls.”
The first uniform, sewn by Mrs. Dettling, was solid white with a red leather belt for officers and red and white for fellow Derby Dolls. Each also wore a white derby hat with a red band. Over the years, the uniform has changed, sometimes adding other costumes and accessories for certain performances and competitions.
Clark came up with the slogan that continues to ring true for former Derby Dolls today.
“I coined ‘Once a Doll, always a Doll’ at the spring show, hoping good memories would be lasting, future Dolls would be supported, and no Doll would ever be forgotten,” Clark said.
Clark admits recalling those early years are a little difficult now, however she remembers how the name was chosen for the drill team.
“Several hats were viewed by the administration and they left the selection up to me,” Clark said. “I chose the derby, because it would be a unique feature from other groups in the district. Getting a name was not easy. Finally I sent a list of suggestions to administration and they chose Derby Dolls. A close second was the Ricebird Brigade and then the El Campo Bells.”
Another story as to how the derby hat became popular at El Campo High School football games comes from current director Jenna Rod Zabodyn.
The year prior to when the Derby Doll organization was formed in the fall of 1969, the Ricebird varsity football team advanced to state.
“The football team made it all the way to state,” Zabodyn said. “It is said that the entire community backed the football team that year. They said we pretty much packed up the entire town and headed to Austin for the big game. I’ve even heard of a sign being posted on the way out of town stating ‘Last one out, turn out the lights.’ Anyways, amongst the hustle and bustle of playoff season, the men in our community began daunting red derbys to all of the games. They’d get really snazzy – red ties, red shirts, red derbys, red blazers. They said not a red piece of clothing could be found in town. The derby trend caught on and by state all Ricebird men were sporting red derbys to the big game. Wanting to distinguish themselves from other surrounding drill teams, the Derby Dolls were formed using the fashion statement formed in the Fall of 1968.”
Clark recalls moving to Wharton in September of 1968 and how she became accepted as the first drill team director at El Campo High School.
“My next door neighbor told me of an opening at the junior high in El Campo,” she said. “I had sent in an application so I called and had the office at El Campo pull up my resume. They called me for an interview for the junior high position but also inquired about my training that I had listed for twirling, dancing, drill team and theatre. The superintendent told me that the school was moving into a new district and they all had drill teams. There had been talk about starting one. We talked a long time and I returned later with a plan of action, so to speak, and the rest is history. I guess I was chosen by faith.”
Clark organized a meeting for potential Derby Dolls.
“We had an assembly program for all the girls in high school and I talked to them about the plans, responsibilities and goals for a future drill team. The girls signed up, we had practices and a team was chosen,” she said.
Try-outs involved a routine presented in front of out-of-town judges.
“I remember because they gave me more girls than I had asked for. I asked for 50 and they gave me 67,” she said. “They were right. It was the perfect number. There we all were.”
Clark felt confident and was up for the challenge of becoming El Campo High School’s first drill team instructor. She also knew it would be a learning experience for herself as well as the girls.
“I had never directed a drill team and they had never been in one,” she said. “We all learned together. Having been a twirler in high school and college, I knew and loved band and halftime. I had dance experience and had choreographed for several drill teams when I was in college.”
Officers were selected and Clark also adopted another slogan for the group.
“I started the saying ‘The name of the game is perfection’ at the circle before half-time and used it for every performance,” she said.
There have been nine other directors between Clark and Zabodyn who became director in 2018. As a Derby Doll alumni who led the drill team as their captain from 1999 to 2000, Zabodyn feels blessed to have come full circle.
“What makes this extra special for me as a director is that 20 short years ago, I was standing on that field surrounded by alumni performing at our 30 year reunion serving as captain of the team,” Zabodyn said. “Once a Doll, Always a Doll has taken on a whole new meaning for me. Never in my wildest 18 year old dreams, would I imagine myself where I am today.”
Zabodyn, along with other volunteers like Stephanie Roye Jensen, also a former Doll, are making plans for the weekend event.
“We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring support of our alumni throughout this reunion process,” Zabodyn said. “So many have chipped in to help with committees and organize the event.”
“The history teacher in me felt compelled to start organizing this celebration,” Jensen said. “I met with Jenna last spring and told her my ideas and we invited several ladies from the five decades to join us for a planning meeting in July.”
From there, Jensen and Zabodyn created a routine to be performed by former and current Derby Dolls during this Friday’s halftime show. They created committees to handle registration, t-shirts, publicity, a Saturday brunch and decorations.
“We’ve had several practices each week for those in the area as well as posting the routine online for others to learn,” Jensen said. “It’s been so exciting to see all the dolls come back to dance again and to dance all together in support of this great organization that has taught us many life lessons. It’s been awesome seeing all of the news clippings and pictures from the early years posted to our Facebook group page. It’s going to be really fun dancing again on the field under the Friday night lights.”
Amy Brodsgaard Rod, who was a Derby Doll from 1991-1993, said she “was always very proud to be a Derby Doll because it was challenging and not everyone could do it.”
In addition to being able to learn routines, Derby Dolls also must adhere to polices and rules.
“There has always been a certain standard for the team, and in order to meet that standard, it requires a lot of discipline and hard work from everyone,” Rod said. “Derby Dolls teaches teamwork, and you quickly learn that in order for the group to be good, everyone has to meet the high expectations. Many people do not realize that even after you make the team, you still must try-out for each dance each week and there are consequences for breaking rules.”
With rules, hard work and discipline comes leadership, Rod said.
“Derby Dolls taught me leadership skills and how to work with others – even those who you may not get along with very well outside of drill team,” she said. “Along with being a ton of fun, Derby Dolls is unique because it teaches so many lessons its members can use as they leave high school.”
“The Derby Doll program is unique and special on so many levels,” Zabodyn added. “Spending 12 plus hours each and every week with your team year around gives you bonding opportunities beyond measure, a sisterhood to say the very least. The discipline instilled over the course of three years in Dolls is extremely beneficial in the real world.”
Ginger Ann McMasters, who lives in Bakersfield, Calif., was a charter member/officer in 1969 and is excited to return to her hometown for the 50th reunion.
“Attending a Derby Doll reunion has been on my bucket list many years,” McMasters said.
Following the Derby Doll Facebook group page has brought back many memories for McMasters.
“This really has brought some heartwaring emotions viewing the pics posted of DDs (Derby Dolls) from its origin in 1969 to present, others sharing memories about their experiences as a Derby Doll.”
"When I took the position, I remember posting a quote that certainly spoke to me at the time and still holds true today – In order to leave a legacy, you must lead a legacy. I can’t think of anything better than being trusted with this amazing legacy that lives as strong today as it did 50-years ago,” Zabodyn said. “It is a true blessing and an honor. I strive every day to make this organization and alumni proud.”
In addition to the halftime performance at Friday night's game in Ricebird Stadium, the Dolls will have a reunion brunch on Saturday at the ECHS cafeteria.
El Campo High School Derby Doll Directors
PATRICIA CLARK 1969 - 1983
LISA STOGNER 1983 - 1984
KIM BETHEA 1984 - 1986
KIM MELANSON 1986 - 1990
DOBIE PICKETT 1990 - 1996
ALLISON BARNES 1996 - 1998
TAMMY MAY 1998- 2005
DOBIE (PICKETT) ROD 2005 - 2012
JENNIFER MORTON 2012 - 2018
JENNA ZABODYN 2018- PRESENT