How Howard University Is Finding Its Beauty Beat

To fully grasp the power of Black beauty at Howard University, one can easily look

To fully grasp the power of Black beauty at Howard University, one can easily look through the lens of homecoming. Stepping foot on campus during that particular weekend is a true spectacle, in every sense of the word. The festivities are a celebration of Black excellence: beautiful crowds emit glitz, glamour, and unbridled joy throughout the historic streets of the nation’s capital. The energy is simply contagious, begging you to join in on the fun.

For the uninitiated, the main attraction of most HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) homecoming events is not football—it’s the marching bands. HBCU marching bands are known for consistently delivering high-octane performances while covering every genre of Black music—from trap to gospel, soul to soca, and back again.

Kerionne Usin, a Howard University percussionist and junior health sciences major, wearing Brushfoote Beauty Glitter Bomb Lip Gloss, Urban Decay Eyeshadows in Punk and Riff, and RK by Kiss Foundation in Coconut.

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Thus, the bands have grown to become staples in Black culture, evoking pride and power whilst channeling the spirit of the historic fixtures they represent. In fact, institutions located below the Mason-Dixon line have produced some of the most buzzed-about bands in the nation, including Florida A&M’s Marching 100, Southern University’s Human Jukebox, and Jackson State University’s Sonic Boom of the South—all considered innovators of the flamboyant high-step style that many are familiar with today.

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Paula Clarke, a Howard University percussionist and junior criminology major, wearing Too Faced Born This Way Foundation in Truffle and C.O. Bigelow Mentha Lip Tint in Magenta Mint.

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But at Howard, you’d be remiss to not notice the beauty that is taking place in the two auxiliary units: the Ooh La La! Dancers and the Flashy Flags. Undoubtedly the most glamorous sections of the organization, the groups of ladies are responsible for “bringing the beauty to the band,” as described by Howard’s Director of Bands, Kelvin Washington.

Confident, glamorous, and fierce, these specific troupes inject a vivaciously epic appeal into the marching band’s traditionally masculine aesthetic. While marching bands are a predominately male-dominated arena, the women of Howard have no issue holding their own and empowering each other in the process. And fans can’t get enough.

During my time as a band member at Howard, I had floor seats to the main show. Now, nearly a decade later upon my return to campus (aka “The Mecca,” with good reason)—the profound legacy continues.

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(From left to right): Ayanna Snead, wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Hydrating Longwear Foundation in Shade 410, Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored, and Makeup Revolution London Eyeshadows in Fortuity and Splendid; Reagan Wade, wearing Maybelline New York Super Stay 24hr Full Coverage in shade 360 Mocha and Maybelline New York Super Stay Liquid Lip in Pioneer; and Sanaa Davis-McLain, wearing Mac Studio Fix Fluid/Powder in shade NC55 and Sephora Collection Lip Color in Cream Red.

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“Being a Howard student instills a desire for perfection and a strong sense of confidence.”

—Ayanna Snead, former captain of the Ooh La La! Dancers

wade’s mother, jimola witherspoon, center, participating in the south carolina champagne dance team, circa 1988

Wade’s mother, Jimola Witherspoon, center, participating in South Carolina State University’s Champagne Dance Team, circa 1988.

Jimola Witherspoon

For Reagan Wade, a senior biology major from Langster, South Carolina and Ooh La La! Dancer, the art of dance has a deeper connection to the bloodline, with her mother being her ultimate muse. Wade is a second-generation HBCU majorette as well as a newly initiated member of Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Sorority Inc. “My mom recommended trying out for the dance team—she was a Champagne Dancer at South Carolina State University and a member of TBS (Tau Beta Sigma),” she says. “When she’d tell me stories about her dancing days, she always made sure to mention the things she did to maintain her image: ensuring that her hair was always done, her makeup was presentable, and working hard to maintain her figure. Her goal was to be the flyest, and they are standards that she still lives by today.”

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Howard University’s Ooh La La! Dancers (from bottom, left to right): Ayanna Snead, Seyi Olasupo, Sanaa Davis-McLain, and Reagan Wade, all wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Hydrating Longwear Foundation, Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored, and Revolution Beauty London Eyeshadow in Fortuity and Splendid.

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Sanaa Davis-McLain, wearing Mac Studio Fix Fluid/Powder in shade NC55 and Sephora Collection Lip Color in Cream Red.

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“Fly” is an apt description. Both sets of performers are responsible for crafting their own visual concepts, and what they create is nothing short of pure brilliance, from brainstorm to execution. These curated fashion and beauty moments are comparable to high-level world tour art, with creative direction on par with many of today’s top musical acts. In a world where glam teams are commissioned for red carpets, confessionals, and even affluent housewives, these young women are inventing trends in between classes, straight from their dorm rooms.

Their signature makeup looks are rooted in boldness and sparkle, often highlighted by statement red lips, a beauty trend that’s been worn since the creation of dance troupes in the ‘80s. High-shine eye shadows are a more recent staple—the look has evolved over time from powder shadows of earlier days to the now-prevalent applied glitter in red or silver. Finding inspiration has become easier in recent years thanks to the rise of beauty trends on YouTube and across social media. “YouTube has been a great resource for learning tips and tricks with makeup,” says Cheyne Thompson-Quartey, a junior communications major and member of the Flashy Flags. “We often watch tutorials while brainstorming ideas for our looks.”

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Howard University’s Flashy Flags (from left to right): Essence Blake, Kyarha Meadows-Russell, Jasmine “JD” Davis, Cheyne Thompson-Quartey, and Cortney Gilliam, all wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Foundation, Urban Decay Eyeshadow, and Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint in Uncensored.

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Echoes Ayanna Snead, a senior TV and film major and 2021 captain of the Ooh La La! Dancers, “I learned so much about beauty and makeup from my participation in this group. We all put forth our best effort to ensure that our performance looks are top tier. Being a Howard student instills a desire for perfection and a strong sense of confidence.”

“The Yard is your runway,” adds Jasmine “JD” Davis, a senior business computer information systems major and member of the Flashy Flags. “Being on campus every day feels like a fashion show in the most encouraging way possible. There are so many varied expressions of Black beauty.” For Essence Blake, a senior psychology major, being appointed captain of the Flashy Flags allowed her to develop a passion for beauty. “I started learning about the nuances of performance makeup during my freshman year and immediately fell in love,” she says. “I became obsessed with creating looks that were polished but also looked dazzling from across the field. As the leader of the team, it is my responsibility to help ensure uniformity and innovation.”

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Kerionne Usin, a Howard University percussionist and junior health sciences major, wearing Brushfoote Beauty Glitter Bomb Lip Gloss, Urban Decay Eyeshadows in Punk and Riff, and RK by Kiss Foundation in Coconut.

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Through a shared passion for beauty, the Flashy Flags and the Ooh La La! Dancers have become more than just a student organization—they’re a sisterhood.

“It’s truly a bonding experience,” Blake continues. “In terms of creating our beauty looks, we are all small parts of one well-oiled machine. We all come together to brainstorm ideas for each performance. From lashes and foundation to laying edges, there’s always a person on the squad who’s an expert at something.”

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(From left to right): Essence Blake, wearing Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Long Wear Foundation in shade 435 Bisque W; Cortney Gilliam, wearing Juvia’s Place: I Am Magic Velvety Matte Foundation in Kano; and Jasmine “JD” Davis, wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in shade 410 and Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored.

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A critical element to the art form is maintaining long-lasting, performance-grade makeup, as the teams exert physical force at levels parallel to their traditional athlete counterparts. “Properly applying high-quality and sweat-proof makeup is very important for us,” says Kyarha Meadows-Russell, a senior mechanical engineering major. “I also now understand the importance of having both summer and winter shades of foundation. I love it all.”

Apart from the picture-perfect glamour, their beauty goes beyond the physical and extends to the traditions that the dancers hold near and dear. Each group has a very intentional focus on cultivating bonds and memories that last a lifetime, like the heroes who came before them.

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(From left to right): Reagan Wade, wearing Maybelline New York Super Stay 24hr Full Coverage in shade 360 Mocha and Maybelline New York Super Stay Liquid Lip in Pioneer; Ayanna Snead, wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Hydrating Longwear Foundation in shade 410, Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored, and Makeup Revolution London Eyeshadow in Fortuity and Splendid; and Sanaa Davis-McLain, wearing Mac Studio Fix Fluid/Powder in shade NC55 and Sephora Collection Lip Color in Cream Red.

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January 19, 2021 served as one such memory. On that fateful day, the dance troupes participated in the inaugural parade for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a proud Howard University alumna, and were tasked with the historic and symbolic duty of escorting VP Harris from the capital to The White House. “As a Black woman and a Howard alumna, when I see what Vice President Kamala Harris is achieving—it speaks volumes to me,” says Blake. “Women like her give me the confidence to believe that I can do anything that I want to do. She has broken so many barriers. We were a part of history, and it’s a day I will always remember.”

When the world looks for trends and innovations, be it on the national or international stage, time and time again, we look to Howard University. In the beauty world, it’s no different. From the Ooh La La! Dancers and the Flashy Flags to Toni Morrison and Kamala Harris, Howard women have set in motion what it means to build community, strive for innovation, and define beauty—for this generation and those to come.

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Howard University’s Flashy Flags (from left to right): Cortney Gilliam, Essence Blake, Jasmine “JD” Davis, Kyarha Meadows-Russell, and Cheyne Thompson-Quartey, all wearing Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Foundation, Urban Decay Eyeshadow, and Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint in Uncensored.

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https://www.elle.com/beauty/a37958854/howard-university-showtime-marching-band-beauty-identity/