If you live in Asheville, whether you know it or not, there’s a good chance you’ve met someone with ties to the Hillcrest High Steppin’ Majorettes and Drum Corps. Established in 1977 by the late John R. Hayes, the group and its various offshoots had over 10,000 kids participate during its 42-year run.
“I remember around ’86 or ’87, we were about 120 deep,” says Hayes’ son Michael, a former drum major and choreographer with the group. “And we were from everywhere [in Asheville], and we marched around Hillcrest and that was our daily routine. And every time we started, the whole community would be out. There was a sense of pride.”
That legacy continues with two local dance teams, Majorette Dolls of Asheville and The Carolina Diva Diamondz, whose founders both have strong ties to the Hillcrest group. And though the Hillcrest unit has been dormant for several years, it may soon be revived and carry on the work of its esteemed founder.
Finding its footing
John Hayes moved to Asheville in 1976 to work for the Asheville Parks & Recreation Department. Through his job, he became close with the residents of the Hillcrest Apartments public housing and saw an opportunity for youth development — and possibly more.
“He had this idea of bringing back the old way of marching that you used to see at Stephens-Lee High School,” Michael says. “Much like the [marching bands at historically Black colleges and universities], they were the star of the show. If you went to the game, you stayed for halftime.”
John got buy-in for his idea from the parents in Hillcrest, particularly the mothers, and launched the Hillcrest High Steppin’ Majorettes and Drum Corps the following year.
“In ’77, it was about baton twirling — which was still new to Asheville. It was still creative. It still gave hundreds of kids this opportunity to be a part of something that was special, that was mind-blowing, that would have people following them for miles and miles when they marched in parades,” Michael says. “And it was Black kids doing this.”
But that style, he notes, was already somewhat passé in other parts of the U.S. Between 1977 and ’84, Michael and his siblings alternated between Asheville and Winston-Salem, where their mother lived. In 1983, Michael and two of his brothers joined a Winston-Salem band. That same year, John brought Hillcrest over for the annual homecoming parade at Winston-Salem State University, whose school band had a long legacy of greatness.
“[Hillcrest was] still doing the same old baton routine and there were no [drum] cadences,” Michael says. “That was good when they first started. But now it’s 1983 and you come to Winston-Salem, home of the Red Sea of Sound and the Stone Funk Drummers — you’ve got to bring some noise. And me and my brothers thought they weren’t really bringing it.”
Knowing that they’d be back in Asheville the following year, the younger Hayeses had a talk with their father about elevating Hillcrest’s sound and style. And that summer, Michael and a group of his Hillcrest bandmates received an opportunity to get to that next level when they were invited to attend Grambling State University’s weeklong summer band camp.
“It was grueling,” Michael recalls. “[The other kids] called us ‘country.’ We’re in New Orleans and they’re calling us ‘country’ because we still had that baton-twirling mentality.”
For the first two days, Michael and his fellow members felt overwhelmed performing next to drummers pounding out complex cadences and dancers who seemed ready to step onto an HBCU team. But the Asheville players soon regrouped. “We’re from Hillcrest; we don’t run,” Michael remembers thinking.
The renewed focus paid off. At the end of the week, he placed third out of 50 male drum majors, bandmate Cheryl Pulley was awarded third best female drum major, Michael’s sister Dewanna earned a top three majorette spot and the Hillcrest drummers came in 10th.
“So we come back and this is the beginning of how Hillcrest really branched off into being a leader of this new thing,” Michael says.
Growing the legacy
In his competing days, Michael says it wasn’t uncommon for him and his siblings to wake at midnight to work on beats and choreograph routines in their yard. Such dedication was necessary, he notes, to stay creative for the 20-25 parades the group marched in from Thanksgiving through the end of each year — events where Michael says people came just to see Hillcrest perform.
As the group’s reputation grew and the Hayes children stayed on after graduating high school to help their father, Hillcrest received additional opportunities outside of parade season. Numerous dance groups formed from the majorettes and competed in talent shows, often with routines choreographed by Michael.
Hillcrest also performed at basketball games for UNC Asheville and Mars Hill University, marched in numerous parades at the request of North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt during his 1977-85 and 1993-2001 terms and got to meet Roots author Alex Haley.
In 1995, they performed at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Michael recalls legendary dancer and actor Gregory Hines being so taken with their groove that he joined them for a few blocks, dancing alongside the majorettes and matching their choreography.
Over time, multiple generations from the same families passed through the group, and several members went on to become notable community leaders. Among Hillcrest’s famous alums are former Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, and Mickey Ray, who played football at Appalachian State University and went on to become a beloved school resource officer with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department before retiring in 2019.
“The beautiful thing that happened though is it wasn’t just people from the Hillcrest housing development. It was so big that people from all over the city came to be a part of this,” Michael says. “And it was meant for that purpose. It was meant to take young people from around this area — because we had white folks that marched with us too — and give us an experience like we’ve never had before.”
Passing the flame
Music and dance, however, were merely an entry to self-empowerment and self-improvement. Michael notes that while marching instilled discipline, camaraderie and creativity in participating youth, his father also educated them on Black history and cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa. The Hillcrest program also stretched out to include championship basketball, football, track and double Dutch teams, as well as a community garden that consistently won top ribbons at 4-H competitions.
That holistic approach is likewise at the core of Majorette Dolls of Asheville, started in 2017 by Quiante Brown, a former Hillcrest drum major. The same goes for The Carolina Diva Diamondz, which formed in 2020 under the guidance of Tamera Simmons, who danced with Michael in talent shows in the group Big Booty Posse, and whose daughter was a Hillcrest majorette.
“It was my way of giving back to my community and giving young men and women that outlet they may not have,” Brown says. “Even travel — going to Greenville, S.C., for a competition was like going to Mexico for some of them.”
Both dance teams focus on education and character, holding high standards for its members if they want to continue participating. That sense of pride has led to each group performing at Asheville’s Juneteenth celebrations and the Holiday Parade, where Majorette Dolls have won the Youth Program award the past two years and The Diva Diamondz have also shined.
“I’ve seen the girls grow a lot. I focus on giving them confidence, making them feel special about themselves and trusting that they can do this regardless of their shape and size,” Simmons says. “I don’t discriminate. I don’t say, ‘Oh, because you’re this size, you can’t dance.’ Any size can dance.”
Such inclusiveness and support would no doubt earn approval from John Hayes, who passed away in 2021. But before his death, he had a conversation with Michael and reminded his son to hold true to the values presented in the song “The Greatest Love of All,” made popular by Whitney Houston. Though the elder Hayes lived a life that adhered to the entirety of the tune’s opening verse, he felt the most important line was, “Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”
“He said, ‘If we can continue to hold on to that part, then we can always reach the next generation,’” Michael says.