Berkeley’s Bearettes first to bring majorette-style dance to UC system

Saabirah Faatimah leads a practice with the Bearettes, who are performing in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in Zellerbach Hall on July 6 and 7. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally)

If you’ve been to a Cal football or basketball game in the past few years, you’ve probably seen the Bearettes.

They’re the first majorette-style dance team in the University of California system, and among the first on the West Coast. The UC Berkeley troupe is made up of seven to more than a dozen dancers, depending on the semester. They dress in blue and gold and dance at games during breaks and halftime, accompanied by the Cal Marching Band. They’ve also performed at other campus events, like Caltopia and Calapalooza.

Saabirah Faatimah, who graduated in the spring with a degree in theater and performance studies, joined the group in 2016 and was captain of the Bearettes last year.

“I can’t even imagine my life at Cal without the Bearettes,” said Faatimah.

Faatimah grew up having dance battles with her six brothers and sisters in their living room and went on to practice a variety of dance forms, including ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, West African, samba — even polka, though it wasn’t her favorite.

“I have found out so much about myself through dance and performing,” she said. “It’s a moment for me to be like, ‘This is who I am,’ in a way that can only be communicated through dance.”

Saabirah Faatimah dancing

Faatimah grew up having dance battles with her six brothers and sisters in their living room. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

But it wasn’t until she got to Berkeley and joined the Bearettes that she had the chance to practice majorette dance lines, a style of dance that was both familiar and unlike anything she’d done.

“With the Bearettes, it was very much a learning experience for me in terms of how I demonstrate my vitality as a woman,” said Faatimah. “There’s a way that you sit. There’s a way that you stand. And when everyone’s done dancing, there’s a way that you punctuate the end of pieces. Everything is so structured and so specific. It’s highlighting the strength, the beauty, the silhouettes, the wit, the cleverness of the black female form and identity.”

This majorette-style dance, also called dance lines or hip-hop majoretting, began in the late 1960s at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. It combines the energy of the high-step marching style of black college bands with West African, jazz, modern and hip-hop choreography.

While the Bearettes celebrate the rich history of this dance tradition, says Faatimah, they also welcome people of all genders, races and abilities to join the team.

Dancers practice in a dance studio with a band

Faatimah joined the Bearettes in 2016, and was the captain of the team last year. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

“The Bearettes’ goal is to have our arms stretched out to everyone,” said Faatimah. “We want students to feel like it’s open to them, that they can just give it a try.” Even if someone doesn’t want to be a performing member, she adds, there are other ways to be part of the group, maybe as a board member or in marketing.

The Bearettes dance team was started in 2015 by student LoRay Davis, a dancer who had dreamed of forming the group long before she made it happen. With the help of her friends, she introduced the southern style of dance to the campus. “I believe that UC Berkeley needed it at the time,” said Davis. “The number one public university just seemed like the most appropriate place.”

I have found out so much about myself through dance and performing. It’s a moment for me to be like, ‘This is who I am,’ in a way that can only be communicated through dance.

In July, the Bearettes will perform at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. In its 41st year, the festival features an array of ethnic dance forms, from Egyptian belly dance to Mexican folkloric dance. Faatimah is the captain and creative director for the Bearettes’ festival performance.

“This will, by far, be the biggest outside performance we’ll have done,” said Faatimah. “It’s really exciting. I think it’s special that it’s at Zellerbach this time. I don’t remember the last time that I’ve seen an HBCU dance team lifted up in this way at an event like this. It’s a great opportunity for the performers, but especially for the people coming to see it.”

Latanya dancing

Latanya Tigner, a lecturer of dance at Berkeley, is co-artistic director of the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. (Photo by Jim Mourgos)

Latanya Tigner, a lecturer of dance in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, is co-artistic director of the festival. At Berkeley, she teaches a class called “African Dance in Hip-Hop,” which explores how African dance forms are found in hip-hop movement and African American social dance forms throughout the ages. Faatimah took the class last spring.

“Latanya creates a space that’s so fertile for exploration and finding something new in every single class, but having fun while you’re doing it,” said Faatimah. “I never really thought about how all the ways I move are connected until this class.”

As an artistic director of the festival, Tigner says she made it a priority to bring in more African American dance forms.

“A lot of the time, we see traditional African and Caribbean, but not as much African American dance on the festival’s stage,” said Tigner. “African American dance forms are ethnic dance forms. Systemically, African American contributions to American culture go missing from history. So, it’s important to always go back and know the origins of a dance.”

This year, the Bearettes will perform with Afro Urban Society, a Bay Area performance group that celebrates and recognizes the African-urban experience as a local and global phenomenon.

woman sings and plays a drum

The Bearettes will perform at the festival with the Afro Urban Society. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

“There are so many forms of African American dance out there that I’m trying to bring into this arena, so that people become more familiar with them,” said Tigner. “As part of the festival, we want to look at dance from cultures represented in Northern California and ask, ‘How are they evolving? What are the contemporary iterations of these traditions? What are the collaborations that can happen between cultures?’”

African American dance forms are ethnic dance forms. Systemically, African American contributions to American culture go missing from history. So, it’s important to always go back and know the origins of a dance.

After the festival, Faatimah plans to start applying to Master of Fine Arts programs in theater. While she’ll officially be done dancing with the Bearettes, she says she’ll jump at an opportunity to perform with them again.

No matter where she is or what she’s doing, Faatimah says she’ll always find a way to keep dancing. “It’s just a part of who I am. You can’t take me anywhere and I’m not dancing after a while.”

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival will run two weekends, July 6 and 7 and 13 and 14. Each weekend features different performances. The Bearettes will perform on July 6 and 7 at 3 p.m.

Learn more about the Bearettes on the group’s Facebook page.

See a schedule of the 2019 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

Saabirah with her hands on her hips dancing

After the festival, Faatimah plans to start applying to Master of Fine Arts programs in theater. And, she says, she’ll always find a way to dance. “It’s just a part of who I am.” (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)