The 2022 ESSENCE Festival of Culture was a truly special weekend for everyone in attendance. Held at the famed Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, the Film Festival highlighted excellence, innovation, and creativity by Black visionaries both in front of and behind the camera.
On July 1, Disney, Andscape, and ESPN+ had a screening for an original documentary show titled Why Not Us: Southern Dance. Executive produced by NBA All-Star Chris Paul; the eight-episode series takes an in-depth look at Southern University’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls.
In the intimate screening, it showed just how rigorous and sometimes stressful it is during the grueling audition process for this historic dancing group. The episode was particularly emotional, especially for the young women who weren’t fortunate enough to make the cut. It also shed light on the difficulty of selecting potential Dancing Dolls from the coach’s standpoint, and the sadness of seeing someone who worked so hard for something, have their dream deterred momentarily.
After the episode concluded, ESPN producer Jalaine Edwards conducted a discussion about the series, its production, and everything else that went into its’ creation. Alongside Paul, the panel included the Dancing Dolls coach Dr. Akai Smith, and SU Dolls Kyre Walker and Arielle Brooks. Upon beginning the candid conversation, Paul expressed his excitement about the film, followed by Edwards posing the question, “is there a specific skill or quality that you’re looking for when you’re seeing a potential Doll?”
“There’s no one particular skill or quality, we look for the girls to be teachable, coachable, and trainable,” Smith responded. “And just have a passion for dance, and a humility for life, and the want to be part of an organization that is bigger than them. So, if we see that through their dance, and they’re showing that in how they perform – that’s that shining light that we look for.”
The process to earn a spot as a Dancing Doll isn’t easy, to say the least. In fact, these young women have to audition every year, regardless of if they made the team previously. Brooks spoke how she prepares, and how self-confidence is key during this annual ordeal.
“Really and truly, I just tell myself with anything, nothing is guaranteed,” Brooks said. “Just staying humble. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s scary, but as long as you trust in your ability, trust in God, anything is possible.”
In recent years, HBCU culture has become more mainstream, with Nike incorporating specific Black universities in their products, as well as the success of shows such as All-American: Homecoming on The CW. Paul spoke to the importance of the Why Not Us documentary series, and how critical it is to tell these stories to a larger audience.
“We were blessed and fortunate with ESPN and Disney to be able to tell the story of North Carolina Central Basketball, we did FAMU Football, and now getting the opportunity to do Southern’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls – its nothing like it,” Paul stated with a smile. “This is all part of the culture.”
“Just to be able to give this perspective, it’s one of those things that you don’t take for granted,” he added. “We all are trying to achieve different things, and different lanes, but there’s always a similar starting point. And to see that with these ladies is definitely amazing.”
As a Dancing Doll success is determined both on and off the field. The opportunity to dance in front of the Human Jukebox is a dream come true for most, but any member of this popular dance team has to also maintain a certain level in the classroom as well. Every girl on the squad has a 3.0 or better, which adds to the “level of excellence” attributed to the Fabulous Dancing Dolls.
“There’s a standard of class that we possess,” Smith said. “There’s a level of excellence that we have. I think that what makes the Dancing Dolls stand out amongst other HBCU dance lines is just that uniqueness. Not just in how we dance, but how we carry ourselves.”
Why Not Us: Southern Dance premieres August 11 on ESPN+.