Youth dance teams modeled on the Aggie Wranglers lasso audiences with country-and-western dance
By Joseph Carman
In the Lone Star State, Texas A&M University’s Aggie Wranglers have achieved legendary status. Whenever this exhibition country-and-western dance team, established and run by Texas A&M students, performs at halftime shows or Disney World, on cruise ships, or even in Qatar, their routines—blending swing, polka, and hoedown moves, with complex partnering—bring down the house. Since 1999, a former Aggie Wranglers dancer, Sharon Toups, has passed along that couples-dance style to kids ages 5 to 18, who have achieved celebrity status in their own right.
Toups’ choreography demands exact timing, deft partnering skills, overhead lifts, high spirits, and even higher kicks. It also features more intertwined arms than George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco. The highly skilled kids who perform it, trouping around the state of Texas, comprise the Junior Wranglers (ages 5 to 10), Lil’ Wranglers (ages 6 to 14), and Elite Wranglers (ages 12 to 18). The young team, which has a friendly association with the Aggie Wranglers, performs at festivals, basketball games, and fundraisers, and participates in dance competitions. The Wranglers’ swing style includes a mixture of East and West Coast swing moves, tailored to Texas tastes. The girls wear skirts and boots; the guys wear jeans and boots and sport cowboy hats.
The choreography demands exact timing, deft partnering skills, overhead lifts, high spirits, and even higher kicks. It also features more intertwined arms than George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco.
Toups studied dance from age 5 with Sharon Stevens, director of Sharon’s Studio of Dance in North Houston, and began assistant teaching at age 13. When Toups enrolled at Texas A&M in 1985, at age 17, she became friends with Kimberlee Norris, a fellow student who had formed the Aggie Wranglers the year before. Toups joined the team, dancing and touring with the Aggie Wranglers for three years.
Eventually Toups became the student organization’s vice president. “I coordinated and taught lessons to college students while raising money for the team to travel to Disneyland and Cancun to perform and share our love for country-and-western swing,” she says.
After she graduated from Texas A&M in 1989 with a degree in marketing, Toups married, moved to Hawaii with her husband, and started a family. She taught private dance lessons to children of military families; when she and her family moved back to Texas, she continued to teach privately. Eight years later, after her father died, she opened a dance studio in one room at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Bryan, Texas, which she says, “saved me from a deep, dark depression.” The Bryan studio changed its location (several times) and its name, to Center Stage Productions.
One day when her two children, Seth and Sarah, then ages 7 and 4 respectively, were playing, Toups experienced an “aha” moment. “I was watching him lift and play with her, and I said, ‘Let’s try to do this correctly, technically,’ ” she says. “It was the old dance teacher in me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—he could lift her and she could hold her body tight. They could polka and two-step with ease, and they could hear the beat. That’s how the Lil’ Wranglers started.”
Toups called some other parents and started the group with four kiddie couples, all students in her school. She made costumes, assembled the music, and scheduled performances in Brazos Valley, in and around College Station (home of Texas A&M). After two years, the team started competing. At a meeting of the Aggie Wranglers, she asked what they thought about her teaching Wrangler swing to other Brazos Valley youth.
Given the green light, she trademarked the names Lil’ Wranglers® and Elite Wranglers® and is in the process of doing the same for the Junior Wranglers and Wrangler Certified Instructors. Toups says she trademarked the names because she felt the program was unique.
“Building a program from scratch takes money, time, dedication, and hard work,” Toups says. “Being trademarked is beneficial because no one can use our name without my permission, which protects the program’s integrity. Protecting the choreography has been difficult, a fight all choreographers have to deal with. But with the trademark, I have footing to fight against copying if I need to use it. I now have the time to build new franchises.”
Since 1999, the dance troupe has grown from eight Lil’ Wranglers to a total of 71 Wranglers: 15 Juniors, 29 Lil’s, and 27 Elites. Auditions are held each July. “We’re getting contacts from Houston, Dallas, and other studios who are interested in [the franchising of] our program,” Toups says.
In 2011, Toups closed Center Stage Productions to help her daughter pursue a career as a pop singer in L.A. (Toups flies to California regularly to be with her.) The next year, she asked Lynsey and Paul Dorsett of Expressions Dance and Music, in College Park, if they could accommodate the Lil’ Wranglers program. The partnership worked perfectly.
“Expressions Dance and Music is our first Lil’ Wrangler franchise, but it also serves as our home base; therefore I direct the entire program,” says Toups. “Lynsey was thrilled, and I was thrilled. We work really well together. Now all Wranglers train and hang their hats at Expressions Dance and Music.” The Dorsetts leased an 1,800-square-foot space next to Expressions specifically for the Wranglers.
In recruiting boys and young men, the intrinsic style of the program is key: it allows the guys to be guys. “The way to do it is to give them something where they can shine, be themselves, and can compete in something they do well,” Toups says. “This is country-and-western swing for guys.”
Her son, Seth, who has been with the program as an original member since childhood, is the first from the youth program to make the Aggie Wrangler team at Texas A&M. The style, he says, “is very masculine, and every girl down South loves a man who can country-dance. So it’s very helpful for the boys’ confidence.”
Now 22 and six-foot-two, a senior majoring in sports management at Texas A&M, Seth
praises the lifelong benefits of the program: “It taught me how to work with girls, both on and off the floor,” says the former jock, who played high school football, baseball, and basketball while dancing with the Elite Wranglers. “It taught me how to lift and spin girls of any size, and they were completely safe in my arms. This program gave me the confidence to do that.”
Each year, the Aggie Wranglers teach around 3,000 students, faculty, staff, and community members how to polka, two-step, waltz, and jitterbug. Seth teaches weekly lessons for the Aggie Wranglers, as well as for the Lil’ and Elite Wranglers.
“The Wranglers teach more than just dance,” says Paul Dorsett, whose two sons, Bradley, 15, and Blake, 17, dance with the Elite Wranglers. “Sharon hammers home that they are representatives of a program, that they need to conduct themselves in a certain way, especially at a performance venue. The boys open doors for ladies, let them go first. The program teaches them how to better communicate with a partner.”
And there are other benefits. “When we go places to perform,” Dorsett says, “they’re treated like little celebrities. The Lil’ Wranglers are bombarded by people who want pictures with them. We don’t always see that with our dancers in other styles like ballet, contemporary, or hip-hop.”
The team’s young women learn plenty of life skills as well. “The Wranglers gave me more structure and discipline, the ability to see the difference between playtime and being serious, and knowing how to get ready for competitions and performances,” says Jacklynn Espinoza, who joined the first group of Lil’ Wranglers at age 5 and now teaches at Expressions Music and Dance. She serves as Toups’ right-hand gal. “As an adult, I’m able to instill these things I’ve learned into our current group of Wranglers. They understand it’s a rare organization, and a family.”
Starting in the fall, Toups will teach a ballet class at Expressions for those Wranglers who aren’t already studying other dance styles. The studio also offers recreational Wrangler 101 classes for beginners and those who are curious about it.
Nine certified teachers instruct the Wrangler program, all of whom were in the LW/EW program or with the Aggie Wranglers. Toups is working out the details of the franchising plan; initially, with Seth helping to develop the programs, she would like to bring the Lil’ Wranglers to Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.
For each franchise, Toups will make a custom plan that still adheres to the program she created. Assisted by Seth, she creates all the choreography. “If changes need to be made to a routine for any reason, I can do so,” she says. “I can also create new routines for each studio.”
To minimize competition among franchise studios, they will be 30 to 50 miles apart. “There is never a reason for two Wrangler studios to cross paths or cities to compete, as long as I am directing the situation,” Toups says. “That way it’s beneficial for everybody.”
This summer Toups is taking the Lil’ and Elite Wranglers to Disney World to perform, a trip that includes the kids’ families and is paid for by an annual November fundraiser called the Lil’ Wrangler Barn Dance, which drew 1,000 guests last year. There is no admission charge to any Wranglers performances.
Expressions hosts a weeklong Summer Boot Camp, open to anyone ages 5 to 18, that teaches Wrangler basics. Toups also teaches Boot Camps at other host studios—a great way, she says, for a school to start a Lil’ Wrangler program.
In 2006, Texas A&M created a new position for Toups: technical advisor for safety for the Aggie Wranglers team. “Safety is our number-one priority,” she says. “As a part of risk management, I’ve developed a plan for testing each couple on the safety holds needed for the Aggie Wrangler team’s moves.”
One potentially perilous move called the “cliffhanger” involves the woman dropping from an overhead lift and rolling down her partner’s body. “If they don’t start with the correct grip, the girl could hit the floor,” Toups says. “We usually teach moves in parts so that the boys understand how to protect the girl from falling. We ask the dancers, ‘What do you do if this happens?’ so that the kids are prepared for situations that may arise.” When teaching difficult Wrangler moves, Toups uses mats with qualified spotters.
Toups holds twice-yearly teacher workshops for the Aggie Wranglers, who teach Wranglers-style dance to A&M students and community members. Each semester’s new Aggie Wranglers need teacher training; the seasoned Wranglers hone their teaching techniques.
Each of Toups’ staff of studio teachers (in contrast to most of the Aggie Wranglers teachers Toups instructs) was an Aggie Wrangler, an Elite Wrangler, or a Lil’ Wrangler. “They are already experienced in the style and know the terminology,” Toups says. “I hold a teacher workshop at the beginning of each dance season, as a continuing education [requirement] to remain a Wrangler Certified Instructor.”
Toups says she’s been delighted with the results of the Wranglers program. But would this program fly in other regions of America? Toups thinks so, because “it offers guys an opportunity to dance while not pressuring them to do styles that may not be interesting or comfortable to them. The dancers are taught from day one that the guy is the frame and the girl is the beautiful picture.
“It’s beyond inspiring to watch these young dancers grow in partnering skills, communication skills,” she adds, “to see them work through awkward teen issues, and become victorious in performance abilities.”
They love the applause, Toups says, “but who doesn’t? I teach them to work to entertain the audience; the audience will respond. I teach Wrangler dance as a life skill, a social skill, that they can take with them for the rest of their lives.”