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Westlake’s hat dance, a tradition worth keeping

hat dance

04 Sep Westlake’s hat dance, a tradition worth keeping

The Facebook post from Omar Zaidi, a 1990 graduate of Westlake High School, also my alma mater, got me riled up.

“I’ve been informed that the school will not be allowing the Hat Dance at the pep rallies anymore. Someone apparently complained,” Zaidi wrote.

Now, I’ll confess that, at this point, that’s all I really know. But I’m going to assume it’s true. 

This is where social media began to shine — bringing like-minded people together to get their voice heard.

Other alumni from across generations jumped in.

Zaidi said, “It was never silly. It was a moment of celebration of family, of community, of all of us being Chaparrals. … There’s absolutely nothing stupid, racist, idiotic or silly about this.”

Rachel Gafeller Silber wrote, “First of all the jarabe tapatillo — Mexican hat dance is a folk dance. No one is disparaging it. It’s just about fun.”

Fun. For sure.

“Jalisco” was one of my favorite songs to play in the band at Westlake. It was fun. It symbolized bringing everyone together around a common icon, a dance to unify and to celebrate our traditions and culture.

Hat dancers at a 1984 pep rally. Photo by Bradley Wilson

Mickey Rose, a 1988 graduate, wrote, “This is painful to hear. As a former hat dancer I took great pride in the dance and as tradition holds true. It was a great experience for all of the student body, especially the seniors.”

I agree.

And I agree that the alumni of Westlake need to make some noise.

This is a tradition worth continuing. It’s worth making current students aware of the power of tradition and of this tradition.

As with all stories, however, there may be another side.

“If it has become a bunch of silliness and the current students don’t care, …” Jason Crowson wrote. 
 
Well, I haven’t been to a pep rally in a while. If the tradition has been lost, if it has become a joke, if the current students don’t care, if the tradition has all but died, then the alumni and current student leaders need to work — together — to bring it back to life.
 
This tradition, as Scott Sparks is quick to point out, has a foundation as old and as rich as the school itself. It’s something nearly 50 years worth of alumni can rally around — together.
 
That’s worth keeping.
 
Now, where social media fails.
 
Jennifer Phillips Beck, a Westlake graduate who says her daughter is now a senior at Westlake, says, “I’m in the midst of it.”
 
Beck says, “Hat dance is alive and well..” 
 
And P. Kay Kennedy, a 1982 graduate of Westlake, seems almost relieved.’
 
“[I]t is a special tradition that made Westlake what it is.”
 
I agree. I also agree that the alumni need to stay involved. Help keep those traditions rich and alive. Dancing around a cowboy hat. Nope. 
 
Russell Webb says, “What? We’ve spent all day getting worked up.”
 
Ah, but more information comes on day two.
 
Indeed, the Hat Dance is no more.
 
School administrators sent out a message saying they are reviewing all traditions of the school, without specifically mentioning the Hat Dance. Indeed, on the record, no one has officially said the Hat Dance is no more. Off the record, however, it’s a done deal. 
 
I guess time will tell. And the involvement of the current students and alumni will matter.
 
Michelle Hansen Conner wrote, “So sad. In my opinion anyone who isn’t supportive of the school’s tradition shouldn’t have been hired in the first place.”
 
I don’t even know the person, but I have to say, I agree.
 
And I disagree with administrators who, according to Jason Booth, “caved to one teacher’s complaint of ‘cultural insensitivity.'”
 
In the vernacular of social media: :-(.
 
I’ve done a bit of research on the hat dance and Westlake’s version. I can find little possibility that the hat dance as performed at Westlake could be considered culturally insensitive. Indeed, quite the opposite. It was — and is — about bringing people together, about giving people a voice.
 
I hope in this case the alumni — hundreds of them already — have a voice in this conversation too.

And I hope someone is listening.

THE HAT DANCE TRADITION
FROM SCOTT SPARKS
A speech for the January 2018 Westlake football banquet held at Chap Hall on campus.
 
At the banquet after everyone had eaten, first, there was a surprise presentation of naming the field house after the original head Coach (and my Coach), Kenneth Dabbs.  Right after that, I was introduced by Coach Todd Dodge. By the way, about 25 players from the early 1970s were in attendance to honor Coach Dabbs and to support my speech about the first teams and the Dance.
 

Hi, fellow Chaps, I’m Scott Sparks, the original Hat Dancer. Starting way back in 1970. So yes, I’m to blame for the heart palpitations of each Hat Dancer at their first pep rallies over the last 48 years. As one Dancer told me in the 1980s, “The first time I was scared to death, but now I’m not embarrassed at all.” Sound familiar, Garrett [Aylor]?

I could not be more honored than to be invited to tell you about the legacy of Westlake’s first years when the Hat Dance was born with Coach Kenneth Dabbs as my Head Coach. Tonight we honor this early legacy with naming the field house after Coach Dabbs, a fitting tribute because the field house is where hard work, preparation, blood sweat and tears, and laughter and camaraderie prepare a team to perform at their highest level under the Friday Night Lights. Congratulations, Coach Dabbs.

The lasting tradition of the Hat Dance also honors the origins of the football program at Westlake High and celebrates the present and future. It humbles me to share this story, because it is NOT about me. Instead, the Hat Dance represents the first TEAMS at Westlake. The greatest legacy that our first teams provided in the infancy of Westlake’s history was going from zero to heroes…and never ever giving up when all the odds were stacked against them.

In 1969 when Westlake was founded, we had no traditions. No legacy. In fact, we had no buildings until 1970. We went to classes in portable buildings and practiced football at St. Stephens because we had no field to practice on. We had no stadium so all of our games were “away.” As I recall, only one player on Westlake’s first team had played even a single varsity game at another school (my brother, Jim Sparks, was a starter at Austin High). About half of the original team were sophomores including me, so we’d only played football in junior high. So you might say our first team was lacking in experience.

Head Coach Kenneth Dabbs and Assistant Coaches Robert Wallace and Ebbie Neptune arrived and cobbled together a team with little or no experience at the varsity level. They instilled discipline and commitment to play a season where the games didn’t even officially count because we played hybrid teams (part JV, part Varsity). At the end of the season, we did play two varsity games including with Georgetown, ranked #4 in the State. They were favored by the Austin American-Statesman to beat us “72 to nothing or more if they want to.” We did lose 36-0 but we were the only team that year to hold Georgetown scoreless in the first quarter – a small victory. It’s fair to say that we played the whole first year with more heart than skill or talent.

In 1970, our second year, we moved into school buildings that is now Westlake High. In the August heat before classes started, the football team with the help of the cheerleaders and the Hyline literally laid down patches of grass on our knees on the dirt field so we could play our first home games in our new stadium. (As a side note, you can imagine how we felt when that grass was torn out years later to be replaced with artificial turf. Tears were shed.)

That second year, we now had an official schedule playing varsity teams including district foe Georgetown who beat us again. We struggled mightily my junior year and had a 2-8 record.

In the middle of this very challenging season in 1970, the school body was gathered in the Commons where we held our pep rallies. Nothing unusual, a typical pep rally with jumping cheerleaders, screaming students, and the band blaring rousing music. At this one pep rally in the middle of the season, the band played a tune that was a little unusual for a pep rally, a Mexican tune called “Jalisco.” The crowd and the team were casually clapping along when suddenly, my teammate, Bob Mayo, nudged me hard into the middle of the floor of the Commons. There I stood, suddenly the center of attention, wondering a split second if I should slink back to rejoin my teammates and find a moment to punch Bob. But also being a drama student, I did the only thing possible in the middle of the Commons floor – I started to dance.

That impromptu dance ignited the crowd at the pep rally with tremendous spirit because I was brazen enough to dance instead of slink back to the shadows. The school sorely needed something to cheer about. So I repeated that performance at pep rallies for the rest of my junior year.

Again, we had no traditions and the students didn’t have a lifetime invested in our school since we were all still brand new. We were hungry to find our way and define for ourselves whatever Westlake meant to us because we had no history to rely on. Our losing season of 2-and-8 could have set the tone for the future, but we were having none of that. The first sophomore class, now humbled but proud Juniors, were determined to work our butts off to become winners our senior season. Our touchstone for success was to beat Georgetown before we graduated, so that was our rallying cry through all the sweat, blood and tears and with the inspiring guidance of coach Dabbs and coach Neptune.

During the off-season before our third year, I had no idea but our school counselor, Toody Byrd, lobbied to keep the Hat Dance at pep rallies because we sorely needed a tradition. Coach Dabbs agreed as did Lee Montgomery, the Band Director (he needed to be on board because his band had to play “Jalisco” every week at the pep rallies). And of course I agreed to humble myself to dance that odd Mexican jig for yet another season. Just to be clear, the Hat Dance was not continued a second season because it was good luck because we just came off a very humbling 2-8 season. It continued because this silly dance built a tremendous amount of spirit at pep rallies and literally gave us something to rally around.

Through a huge amount of hard work and commitment during the off-season, and the addition of quarterback Scott Ingraham transferring from McCalllum to Westlake to run our Houston Veer/triple option, we went from 2-8 in 1970 to a very successful season of 9-1 in 1971. NINE-WINS-and-one-loss! After such humble beginnings, we were ranked as high as #5 in the State late that season in the 2-A division (yes, we were a small school in those days). We scored 284 points and gave up only 64. Doing the math, we averaged scoring 28 points a game and gave up only 6.4 points. That’s four touchdowns for us and less than one for them And, oh yes, we beat Georgetown 23-20 at their stadium!!! We came a long way, baby.

I will always be so proud of our team that set the table for Westlake’s future to always strive for greatness even when they’re down. I have NO illusions that my Hat Dance put a single point for us on the scoreboard, but it built up spirit and engaged the student body to cheer us on.

And imagine the extra excitement the couple of times my Senior year when I danced with Coach Dabbs conducting the band with all the flair of the Music Man!

At my last football banquet in 1972, I passed the Hat Dance on to Dwight Davis, a great friend and an offensive lineman who would be a Senior the next year. I hoped the Dance would last one more year. Instead it has lasted 48 years and counting. I’m more surprised by that than anyone in this room!

While I danced with only my feet, arms, and imagination, tools were later added along the years to make it a little more authentic. The cheerleaders bought a huge, red embroidered sombrero to be danced around, and a rose was added. Mrs. Betty Etier sewed a sequined vest for the dancer with initials of every dancer. The circle around the dancer was also developed over the years, as was the senior class joining in on the floor. I’ve also seen on recent videos that the Hat Dancer is often joined by teammates with sort of a dosey-doe. (In my days, no one doseyed or doe’d with me, but such is evolution of the Dance.) The center of attention, however, has always been the Hat Dancer himself.

(By the way, the tradition of the Hat Dancer being bequeathed to offensive linemen was never set in stone, but I think that tradition caught hold because they are integral to the team but the least celebrated, so this is their moment to shine and represent the team in all their clumsy glory.)

The continuation of the Hat Dance is a huge honor to me and I am very humbled by the wonderful responses I’ve gotten through the years that it was “my favorite part of the pep rally.”

But FAR more important, the continuation of the Hat Dance honors that TEAM in the beginning of Westlake’s history that never gave up and started a winning legacy that lasts to this day.

So please take just a moment to think about that legacy the next time you cheer on a Hat Dancer.

Please take a moment to think about that legacy the next time you enter Chaparral Stadium and Ebbie Neptune Field.

And please take a moment to think about that legacy the next time you enter the newly named Kenneth Dabbs Field House.

So thank you….thank you Garrett Aylor…thank you to every brave Hat Dancer over the last 48 years including the one being named tonight…thank you Coach Dodge…thank you Toody Byrd… [looking up to the sky:] thank you Coach Neptune…and thank you Coach Dabbs.

And to all of you football players here tonight…to each and every one of you….as LeeAnn Womack sang: “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder. I hope you dance!”

GO CHAPS!!!

[Moments later, the 2017 Dancer, Garrett Aylor with Scott Sparks by his side, announced his successor: Senior-to-be Blake Webster. With thunderous applause, Blake came to the stage. There were hugs all around, and then the three of us danced at the same time to Jalisco…representing 1970 and 1971, 2017 and 2018.]

Here’s an article attributed to Laura Matthew written in 1982. I’m still checking on the source. Laura was the managing editor of the Featherduster in 1982.

“HE STARTED TO DANCE: Imaginative accident responsible for Mexican hat dance tradition”

The Commons. 1970.

A typical pep rally: jumping cheerleaders, screaming students, and the band playing the director’s favorite song. Nothing special, just an ordinary high school ritual witnessed every week during football season.

But a football team member [Bob Mayo] obviously thought this ordinary ritual was getting a little boring. So while the band played “Jalisco” and the crowd clapped along, he pushed the guy in front of him, who happened to be a football player and a drama student, into the middle of the floor of the Commons.

There he stood, suddenly the center of attention, and at a loss for what to do. Being a drama student, he did the only thing possible — he started to dance.

Toody Byrd

Toody Byrd

Although he may not have meant to, Scott Sparks started a Westlake tradition when he did that impromptu act on the Commons floor. Then a junior, Sparks began dancing the same Mexican matador jib that has become the Westlake hat dance and he continued dancing a second year when he was a senior, Mrs. Toody Byrd, a counselor at Westlake since 1970, said.

While Sparks did his dance with only his feet, arms, and imagination, Byrd said, tools have been added along the years to make it a little more authentic. The cheerleaders bought a huge, red embroidered Mexican hat to be danced around, and a rose was added.

The vest was made by Mrs. Betty Etier on the request of then-hat dancer Greg Marberry. He found Mrs. Etier sewing sequins on her daughter’s Hyline uniform, and suggested that she make a sequined vest for him. She did, and reserved a place on the vest for the initials of every hat dancer.

The circle around the dancer was also developed over the years, as was the senior class joining in on the floor. The center of attention, however, has always been the hat dancer himself.

Traditionally, the hat dancer is always a senior, always a lineman, and although it isn’t required, always a captain. In the early years of the tradition he was elected by the entire football team, but later was picked by the dancer of the previous year. (Scott added: I personally chose Dwight Davis to succeed me and it was announced at the football banquet.)

“I felt very privileged when I was picked,” Kevin Johnson, this year’s hat dancer, said. “You don’t realize how bit an honor it is until you get picked.” The hat dancer, he said, is a leader, someone who is dedicated and who people can look up to and respect.

“I think it’s pretty much of an honor for the boy chosen,” Byrd said. “It’s really become an important part of the pep rallies.”

Johnson began learning the dance last spring, he said, from Andy Dasso, last yar’s dancer, and the 1980-81 dancer, Kyle Taylor, helped him during the summer. He practiced to a tape the band gave him.

“Once I learned the steps, it just took practice to get it down,” Johnson said. “The first time I was scared to death, but now I’m not embarrassed at all.”

If any of the hat dancers were embarrassed, it never stopped the tradition from flourishing. It has continued and grown for 12 years, and some of the names of those who danced around at the pep rallies are still familiar: Dwight Davis, Terry Peschka, Greg Marberry, Kyle Taylor, and Andy Dasso. (Scott added dancers who immediately followed Dwight Davis in the 1970s: “and Greg Cavanaugh, Bill Gossett, and Doug Gray.”)

And, of course, Scott Sparks, who graduated from UT with a drama degree and now performs on Broadway and in soap operas. Perhaps his success began with that one uninhibited moment on the Commons floor.

7 Comments
  • Kristi Wilson
    Posted at 18:14h, 04 September

    I’m sure the fight song will be next…it incites violence and glorifies gang membership. .

  • Omar Zaidi
    Posted at 22:23h, 04 September

    Thanks for writing this, Bradley. We need to curate the legacy of what made Westlake what it is. You certainly did your part.

  • Scott Sparks
    Posted at 01:23h, 05 September

    Thanks for posting this, Bradley. It kind of puts a bow on the wild ride we had today about the future of this tradition that I started in 1970, 48 years ago. I am the first to say that it is crazy that this tradition has lasted this long but I am honored as deep as can be that it lives on as an embrace of Westlake’s legacy through the ages. I had the honor of being invited to the last football banquet held at Westlake in January 2018 to speak to the crowd about the roots of this tradition and what it means both to the first WHS classes to begin traditions when there were none, and why I believe in the big picture that it has lasted. I then had the honor to be onstage when the 2017 Dancer announced his successor and we all danced to a recording of “Jalisco”. Am I the luckiest Westlake alumni ever or what? Love to Westlake alumni, current students, and Go Chaps!!!

  • Claudia McCall Boze
    Posted at 10:32h, 05 September

    I’m glad it’s not true and the dance( tradition) will keep going

  • Scott Sparks
    Posted at 22:34h, 05 September

    Bradley, I would like to email you a Word attachment which is the speech I delivered as a guest at this year’s football banquet in late January 2018. Just send me your email address at mine: scottsparks8@gmail.com.
    The speech is all about the origin and lasting tradition of the Hat Dance, with an added tribute to our first head football coach, Kenneth Dabbs, who was being honored at that same banquet. The field house was officially named after him that night. BTW, you have my permission to post the full speech or edit it any way you want. I feel sure you will really like it — and it sure takes everyone back to the first days of Westlake. I spoke to about 400-500 players, parents, friends, teachers, coaches at that banquet and got quite an ovation. I was onstage when the 2017 Hat Dancer named the 2018 winner, and then all three of danced to Jalisco. Who would have thought we’d come to this point at the beginning of the season following that event. And thanks for all you’ve been doing the last couple of days. i am deeply grateful –Scott Sparks.

  • Denise Snider Isenhour
    Posted at 22:13h, 06 September

    Thank you for sharing the history of the Hat Dance. It brought back fun memories. We were really blessed to go to Westlake the Pride of the Hills!

  • Marnie Sullivan
    Posted at 14:34h, 07 September

    Well done, Bradley. It’s shocking to me that this long-standing tradition would ever be in question. There is absolutely nothing disparaging about it. The teacher who filed the complaint should be the one removed. Marnie Sullivan ’84

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