When the Pride of the Dakotas marches in the 2022 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in five weeks, it will be like putting the “final jewel on a triple crown,” director Kevin Kessler said.
After all, the South Dakota State University marching band has marched in two Rose Parades − 2003 and 2008 − and two presidential inaugurations − Reagan’s first, in 1981, and Clinton’s second, in 1997. But this is the band's first Macy’s Parade.
“Macy’s is one of the most watched parades in the U.S., and in the world, really, alongside the inaugural and Rose Parades,” Kessler said. “It’s one of the three great American parades.”
Kessler was a student drum major in the band in 1997 when the Pride marched in the inauguration. He said the Pride being chosen for this opportunity − it’s one of nine bands chosen to march this year, out of hundreds of applicants − is a “very special honor.”
“It speaks highly to the quality of students that we have in our band, because they’re a really talented bunch of musicians,” Kessler said. “It’s great that they get to showcase that in front of a national audience.”
For junior drum major Portia Bird, appearing in the Macy’s parade as one of four student band directors, known as drum majors, will fulfill a dream she’s held onto for all 20 years of her life.
“I am so excited. I remember seeing all the floats and (bands) there when I was younger watching” the parade on TV, Bird said. “It’s kind of a childhood dream to get to experience that in real life.”
When senior drum major Matthew Dulas marches on Thanksgiving, he will be following in the footsteps of his parents before him, SDSU alumni who were also in the Pride, but who never got a chance to march in a parade of this size.
“Coming from a small town, it means more when students get to go out and do these really grand, exciting things,” Dulas, from Pipestone, Minnesota, said. “It’s a great way to cap my senior year and end strong with a really cool trip, and an opportunity that doesn’t come often for a lot of people.”
Brookings' best-kept secret
This parade appearance has been nearly three years in the making, Kessler said. That’s because the Pride received its invitation to march in the parade during February 2020 with the intention of marching in the November 2021 parade.
The parade announcement was supposed to be made in late March 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed plans, so bands that were slated to play in 2021’s parade were deferred to this year’s upcoming parade.
“We had to keep the invitation secret for 14 months,” he said, noting the band was finally able to share the good news in April 2021.
With the excitement of the news coming out, 80 more students joined the Pride for the big trip, Kessler said. The Pride now has 340 marchers compared to 260 the year prior, meaning Kessler had to accommodate purchasing more horns and making sure everyone had a uniform.
SDSU community 'generous in helping us get there'
Once the band made its announcement, it was finally able to start working with planners on where the now 340-member band would stay in New York City, how they would get there, where they would eat and which sites they would visit while in the city.
The band’s flights to NYC will depart early in the morning on Nov. 20 and return to South Dakota by Black Friday. The group plans to visit the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Rockefeller Center, a Christmas spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, and to perform at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum the day before the parade.
Students will also have a little free time to explore the city on their own and see sites that aren’t on the itinerary, like Central Park or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example.
Jackrabbits near and far are looking forward to supporting the Pride, too, as Kessler said there will be two separate groups following the band on their journey. One is a group of fans and family about 300-strong so far who will cheer on the Pride, and another is a group of about 100 alumni who will make the trip, organized by the SDSU Alumni Association.
Between the 340-member band and hundreds of supportive fans and other family, friends and alumni who will make their own separate treks to NYC to support the marching band, there will certainly be a large contingent of SDSU fans cheering for the Pride on Thanksgiving day.
Kessler thanked the SDSU Foundation for taking the lead in fundraising efforts that will allow the band to travel to NYC, since the total cost per student is about $2,500. The foundation has stepped up and started a campaign to help the students with the cost along the way, he said, raising as much as $700,000 for the Pride to travel and covering $2,000 for each student.
“People have just been so generous in helping us get there,” he said.
Macy’s also donated $10,000 to the band in support of their march toward the Big Apple.
Our work 'will pay off in the end'
But all that support means practice makes perfect. So, the Pride of the Dakotas has been practicing since its big announcement. Kessler said the band scheduled a number of extra rehearsals to put a routine in place for the parade.
Sophomore drum major Brennan Mason said normally the band meets four times each week for about an hour and 15 minute-long rehearsal, and each week, there has been a multi-hour rehearsal of their Macy’s routine.
“It’s like having a rehearsal every week,” he said. “It’s worth it. We make the best of it and have fun.”
Mason said he’s excited for the opportunity to march in NYC because the “musicality and the quality of the ensemble” has improved, and, “to be able to go on a national stage and show that is great for the program.”
Most of their rehearsals have been on SDSU’s practice field, or in the Sanford Jackrabbit complex, Kessler said, thanking the athletic department for its generosity in giving the band time to use their facilities.
Practicing also means memorizing all the music the band will play, Bird said, noting that it’s not typical of the band to memorize all of their songs, as they usually march with lyres that hold the sheet music they need.
“That’s work that will pay off in the end,” she said. “We’re putting in extra work to do something really appealing for Macy’s.”
The band is doing a rehearsal in full uniform Sunday, after the big Hobo Day parade on Saturday. Kessler said NBC asked the band send a recording of the performance planned, so producers can assess if any changes need to be made, and to see where to get the best camera angles.
Practice has been 'motivating'
At 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, Kessler said the rehearsal block for the bands to practice their routine in front of Macy’s begins. He’s not sure of the band’s official report time, yet, but each band will have about 10 minutes to rehearse their routine in front of the famous store so NBC can check its camera angles and microphones for each band’s performance before they go live.
The parade is nearly 3 miles long, Kessler said, and the Pride has to stage for the parade at the intersection of 86th and Central Park West in New York City. The parade officially starts at 77th and Central Park West, then goes south to Columbus Circle, along Central Park South, Sixth Avenue, then turning onto 34th Street to get to Macy’s.
Kessler isn’t sure yet if the Pride will be at the start, middle or end of the parade, but is certain there will be balloons near them on the way. Last week, he traveled to NYC to have a meeting with Macy’s parade planners, and they gave him a general idea of where the band would be in the order, but they said it would be subject to change.
Along the route, the band will play SDSU’s fight song, “Ring the Bell,” along with a medley of songs from the musical “West Side Story,” Kessler said.
In front of Macy’s, the song that the band will play is being kept secret until Nov. 1, Kessler said, but he gave a hint that it will be a jazz tune.
Sophomore drum major Bri Renneker said the band has been practicing its performance block formation with a large star painted on the practice field so the band can center itself and visualize their formation.
“It’s motivating, I would say,” Renneker said of the band’s practices. “Everybody’s super excited for it, and we’ve been pumped since it was announced a couple of years ago.”