ESPN+ series highlights HBCU athletes, including those who dance

Jalaine Edwards (l) and Luke Williams
Photo by Charles Hallman

I haven’t yet attended a Black college football game in person. Watching it on television, especially the halftime performances, can’t provide the same experience as being there I’ve been told.

Brandi A. Hodge, an FAMU graduate from Brooklyn Center, shared her experience: “HBCU football games are a one-of-a-kind experience, from tailgating, watching the various Divine Nine sororities and fraternities stroll, to seeing elderly alumni represent their university is magical.  Every HBCU loves their marching band, to hear the melodic sounds and to see the formations that are created in the field are special.”

ESPN+ two years ago premiered the “Why Not Us” series.  The first two seasons followed the North Carolina Central’s men’s basketball team, then the FAMU football team. The third season, which premiered on August 13, is on Southern University’s dance team, the Dancing Dolls.

At this year’s NABJ convention in Las Vegas, Black journalists saw a sneak peek of “Southern Dance.” The eight-episode streaming series chronicled the summer 2021 Dancing Dolls tryouts and the group’s subsequent preparations and halftime performances during the SU football season.  

The Dolls is over 50 years old, and Dr. Akai Smith, a former Doll herself, is their very demanding yet equally compassionate coach.

Southern University is the flagship of the Southern University system, the only HBCU system in the country, located in Baton Rouge, La.

Producers Jalaine Edwards and Luke Williams, who also directed the episodes, talked about “Southern Dance” and “Why Not Us” after the screening. “As a Black woman, I want to make sure that we get it right,” said Edwards.

Just like his work on Black college hoops and football, Williams said he wanted to treat the all-female dance group the same, to show just how hard they work to do what they do. “We have to find dynamic female characters and tell stories,” he pointed out. “Let’s be intentional and do the best things that we can do.”

Coach Smith is compelling on screen, and you can feel her passion for maintaining the Dancing Dolls’ long history. Naomi Ward, who got cut when she first tried out but survived the intense tryout this time around, successfully tugs at your heartstrings.

“People watching Naomi and everyone had that emotional feeling,” said Edwards on Ward. The same emotions we had after seeing Ward was evident earlier this summer when Edwards and Williams screened their show in front of current and former Dolls. “I jumped when I saw her, when I watched this first rough cut,” she added. “I was like, this is amazing… This is really good.”

The MSR talked to both Edwards and Williams after the NABJ screening. “I think the most important thing [for viewers] is to learn what a true HBCU experience is for the student-athletes,” said Williams. “There’s magic when you go to an HBCU campus.”

Added Edwards, “I always want people to actually feel like they are on campus. I want you to be able to see the rich tradition and culture. I’m so excited for people to get an opportunity to know and learn about their culture and the history here in this country.”

“I think that my most favorite or proudest moment about this is that it is a show on ESPN that focuses on Black women’s stories as a Black woman,” surmised Edwards. “Being able to highlight these young women and show their system, their athleticism. I’m so excited to give these women the opportunity to represent the university the same way that people think about basketball and baseball players.”

“Why Not Us: Southern Dance” and the entire three seasons can be seen exclusively on ESPN+. NBA star Chris Paul is executive producer along with Roadside Entertainment and ESPN’s Andscape (formerly The Undefeated).