By Molly McIntire
Jaws drop and the crowd erupts in applause as Aaron Calliham swings Callie Garner up in the air and catches her on his hip right before her head can touch the ground. Smiling and throwing up a gig ‘em sign, the Elite Wranglers have captivated the audience at the Big Event Kickoff at the Association of Former Students of Texas A&M University.
The Lil’ Wranglers and Elite Wranglers, formed by Sharon Toups, began when she wanted to see if her children could manage some of the dance steps she picked up from her time on the Aggie Wranglers, the Country and Western exhibition dance group of Texas A&M.
“In 1999, I had my son who was seven and my daughter who was four, and I thought I would see if they could do some jitterbug like I used to do,” says Toups, who danced with the Aggie Wranglers from 1987-1989.
What began as an idea almost 20 years ago has grown into a group of 120 kids between the ages of 5 and 18 who perform on either the Lil’ Wranglers or the Elite Wranglers team. The Lil’ Wranglers also have their first licensed branch in the Dallas Fort Worth area under former Aggie Wrangler Kati Arnold, says Toups.
The Lil’ and Elite Wranglers practice at Expressions Dance and Music, where there are different styles of dance taught, as well as different competition teams, including the Wranglers. These styles include: ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, modern, hip-hop, and of course, Western swing for the Lil’ Wranglers performers. Toups, who is also the technical safety consultant for the Aggie Wranglers, works with the kids to ensure they do not do moves and lifts that are too dangerous for their age. Safety is their number one concern, she says.
“Her head can hit the ground very easily, which is why there are so many safety protocols when learning any kind of Wrangler moves,” says Calliham, speaking of his partner work with Garner.
“Wranglers is definitely a team. We are not just a group of kids who dance together,” says Garner, who has been dancing with Calliham for the past two years for the Elite Team.
The Lil’ Wranglers is not only about dance styles and safety precautions; these dancers’ develop life skills and refine their character.
“[The Lil’ Wranglers] teaches you a lot more about life: how teamwork is involved, how trust is involved … it’s not just an activity for kids or entertainment for people, it’s like a life lesson for kids,” says Lil’ Wrangler Mason Cashion of his experience on the team.
“I think I gained a lot of confidence getting to go to all of these performances and getting to go on stage, so I think that’s really helped me with things outside of dance,” says Myla Greene, a Lil’ Wranglers performer who dreams of becoming an Aggie Wrangler when she gets older.
One of the groups most recent achievements was performing at the Inauguration Parade.
“We are performing in a parade in front of senators, in front of federal government personnel … then we are going to be dancing about 10 yards away from our United States president. … It’s something electrifying, and something I’ll probably never be able to top,” says Calliham of his experience in D.C.
You don’t have to be the president of the United States to see the Lil’ Wranglers perform. To see the teams perform, go to the Lil’ Wranglers website at www.lil-wranglers.com and fill out a request form, or call Sharon Toups directly at (979) 575-3044.