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Up to the Challenge 

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Article by Riley Cowing

Photography by Paul Versluis

Originally published in Johnson County Lifestyle

Wanda Winters, founder and director of Pythons Drill Team, has led the team for more than 30 years. In this time, she directed the program toward growth, competitions across the country and giving back to the community. 

The documentary about local Pythons Drill Team, titled “Blow the Whistle,” opens with the Kansas City skyline followed by footage of a team practice in a parking lot, then cuts to an interview with director and founder Wanda Winters. She describes herself as demanding, persistent and an overachiever which isn’t necessarily surprising—she has led the drill team for more than 30 years. 

Winters started the Pythons Drill Team in 1986 while teaching in the Kansas City school district. It began with 10 girls, $100 and performing to music playing from a boombox. Her own experiences on drill team motivated her. 

“After I graduated, I decided I wanted to keep doing that because it’s a lot of fun and a lot of traveling,” she says. “I just really enjoyed it.”

Following in the footsteps of the Marching Cobras Drill Team, founded by Willie Arthur Smith in 1969, the Pythons added a drum line which helped increase membership to more ages. The Pythons first competed in Chicago about three years after the team was founded, and now they attend at least two to three out-of-state competitions per year.

“With all the hours of practicing, we wanted to showcase what we’ve been learning,” Winters says. “We’ve got to take it out beyond the four walls and become a competitive drill team which we have become.”

Beyond attending practice twice a week for two hours, members must complete 50 hours of community service and maintain good grades. Winters finds the skills learned in drill team translate beyond practice itself. 

“The No. 1 thing is it keeps us out of trouble,” she says. “It never gets old. I just [saw] a member who was on my team 15 years ago. The first thing he starts doing is marching or, ‘I remember this, I remember that.’ The value of it...I think it’s almost like a lifestyle, a positive lifestyle. It gives you like a level of respect, a level of determination.”

In the documentary, Winters mentions her hopes for the team include securing a consistent practice space, instilling community pride and continuing to provide a safe outlet for the youth. 

“My favorite aspect is providing a safe haven for the inner-city youth who can’t afford other after-school programs,” she says. “I have impacted so many young people’s lives through dance, drumming, showmanship, competitions and performing arts. It prepares them for leadership in their respective communities while achieving personal success, lifelong skills, physical fitness and healthy habits. Most of the members who have graduated high school and continued on to college have their own businesses or have become key persons of a company.”

When asked what keeps her motivated through numerous years of service, the answer is simple—the kids. 

“You can see the fun and you can see the challenges and [their] artistic abilities in marching and dancing and drumming,” she says, “and you put all those into drill team, and they just simply love it. When we go to competitions, and they put on their costumes and just show the world, the community their talents—I love it. I just love to see the joy on their faces.” 

Wanda Winters and the Pythons Drill Team were recently featured on Queer Eye/Fab 5 Season 4 in July.  

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