By Georgiann Potts
Special to The Citizen
In 1978, R&B vocal pair “Peaches and Herb” recorded the hit song entitled “Reunited” which became a crossover hit, scoring on both the pop and soul charts. More than one past Neville High School Bengal Belle was heard singing this song during the weekend of September 13-15 when dancers representing five decades of drill and dance performance gathered for their 50th Anniversary celebration. Over 200 former Bengal Belles traveled to Monroe from eleven states to celebrate this milestone together.
Included in the “official” reunion events were a tailgate picnic in the stadium pavilion, followed by special seating together for the Neville High-University High football game. Late morning Saturday, the ladies gathered at Bayou DeSiard Country Club for a reunion brunch that combined nostalgia with hope — hope that the next 50 years would be as fabulous as this first 50 had been.
For some, the “unofficial” beginning of the weekend came earlier as they attended the Neville pep rally Friday morning — some for the first time in decades! There the Reunion Bengals were honored with special seating and were recognized.
Organizing such a special weekend required a lot of people working together to make certain that all the details were handled. The Bengal Belle 50th Anniversary Core Team consisted of a dedicated group of determined women: Jessica Smith, Caron McPherson, Dana Jefferson, Linda Armstrong Southwell, Anya Morris Fulco, Mandy Giffen Fritzer, Brenda Hamilton Bonin, Annie Green Jopling, Janie Horton Saxon, and Nici Jefferson Hanks.
For the occasion (and to wear to the tailgate and football game), special T-shirts were designed. They were white, with a graphic of the very first line printed across the front. The shirt read “Neville High School Bengal Belles: 50 Years of High Kicks and Splits”. Prior to the beginning of the game, the ladies mingled at the pavilion, sharing their memories while enjoying barbeque and light finger foods.
A few minutes before kick-off, the Reunion Bengals entered a special section in the visitors’ side of the stadium to enjoy the game together. At halftime, the they gathered by decades on the visitors’ sideline, marched toward the center of the field, and watched as the 2019-2020 Bengal Belle line performed in their honor. Near the end of that dance, the performance music changed to the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family” and many of the Reunion Bengals joined the current line to finish the dance together. As the lines were introduced by decade, the current Bengals saluted each in turn.
Bayou DeSiard Country Club’s ballroom, main dining room, and fireside room provided the setting for the Saturday brunch. When the ladies entered, they were greeted by a “Neville Tiger” display complete with several ceramic tigers standing guard atop a silk tiger-striped cloth. Floating above the scene was a giant balloon shaped in the number “50”.
In the ballroom, table displays were carefully arranged by decade. These featured uniforms and competition outfits from each, as well as line photos, scrapbooks, and awards. The Reunion Bengals lingered over these, and laughs of delight could be heard from all corners.
The ladies were invited to take their seats by Linda Armstrong Southwell, first captain of the Bengal Belles (1969-’70). The lines were seated by decades at white-skirted tables for 10 in the main dining room and the fireside room.
At each place stood a bright yellow bag with the iconic Bengal Belle boot ornament attached. Tucked inside were commemorative cups to mark the occasion —the perfect favors!
Following a welcome from Southwell, Jennifer Aycock Sweeney (1969-’70) gave the blessing and invited the Reunion Bengals to go to the brunch buffet by decades, with the 1970’s going first. The ladies enjoyed a delicious meal including an egg and sausage frittata, waffles and fried chicken with maple syrup, fresh fruit, an assortment of petite breakfast breads including scones and muffins, and a luscious cinnamon roll with toasted pecans and sugar icing. For dessert, there were two custom-designed cakes — one in the shape of the iconic boot!
As the ladies were finishing their meal, Mandy Giffen Fritzer (1969-’70) recognized special guests Vee Marshall Hollis, Leslie Faucett Creel, John Turner, Rita Blanchard, Sandra Smith, and Auden Yates. She then recognized Paula Potts Stockton, Beverly Doles Graham, and Judith Morgan Manfree (captain and co-captains of the 1971–‘72 line) as being the ones who created “The Torture Dance” — a 117 high kicks routine that was developed to help the line build stamina and which is still in use today.
Patsy Hammonds Rials (1969–’70 co-captain) gave a synopsis of the Bengal Belles’ early days. She spoke lovingly of Dean Yates, the seamstress who sewed the first uniform for the first 21 Bengal Belles to wear, and recognized the impact of Rita Blanchard who was the very first sponsor of the Bengal Belles. Rials’ comments brought laughter and tears.
Kathy Whatley Searcy (co-captain 1969 - ’70) led the group in remembering the Bengal Belles who are no longer living. She spoke about the memorial scholarship fund and encouraged everyone to consider donating. In addition, she asked that anyone knowing the name of a Bengal Belle who has died to please give their name to a member of the committee. Dana Jefferson, representing Neville Friends and Alumni (NAFA), also spoke about the importance of the scholarships and recognized the most recent recipient, Olivia Boardman.
Caron McPherson (choreographer and sponsor 1987–2000) told about the transition years when she worked with the lines. She pointed out that these were the lines that moved from the military style to jazz moves with a little hip hop, as a complement to the high kicks and splits. She also got permission for the Bengal Belles to dance at every pep rally, not just the two or three a season that had been the pattern.
Nici Jefferson Hanks talked about the tradition of legacies within the Bengal Belles and asked those present who were themselves legacies to please stand and be recognized.
The current choreographer and sponsor, Jessica Smith, closed the program by introducing the current line and talking about the future of the Bengal Belles. She thanked the current Bengal Belles who had served as official hostesses for the reunion weekend, and had helped make certain that everything went smoothly. Smith spoke of the enduring legacy of the organization, and the duty that she feels to carry on that legacy in the same manner as has been done before.
Following the brunch, the Reunion Bengals posed for a group photograph on the bank of Bayou DeSiard just off the patio.