ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) - The African-American precision drill team known as the French Dukes is back together again after more than a three-decade long hiatus.
“My father was a French Duke – Jimmy Jones – and as a child we used to be right here,” said Lisa Jones pointing at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. “We used to watch them drill. They haven’t been together in so many years, so I thought these guys need to recognized.
Lisa Jones from A2 Ole Skool Family Productions rounded up the original French Dukes for a reunion. Their first public performance after reuniting was Saturday, July 14 at the 3 rd Annual Picnic at Veterans Park in Ann Arbor.
The oldest participating French Duke to step back into action is 60-year-old Michael Bridges. He remembers how it all started.
“Two young men from Ann Arbor, their Mother took them to the Emancipation Parade in Canada, and they saw another team drilling. They came home and said they could do that,” said Bridges. “And so they got a sponsor by the Elks, and they started stepping in competitions and parades and Ann Arbor talent shows. It just took off from there.”
Jerry Ginyard – the Vice Commander who calls the steps – joined when he was 13 and continued stepping until he was 22!
“It helped me as a teenager to get out of the drug business and the fighting, stealing and the robbing,” said Ginyard. “And it kept me out of jail,” he added.
The group’s name was inspired by the French tam berets they wore and a popular song of the day – Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.”
Ginyard said the French Dukes won every state and national non-military drill competition they ever entered.
They were also crowd favorites at special events.
“Every parade we went to, people would leave their seats and follow us,” recalled Bridges with a smile.
One of the group’s signature moves was the “French Dukes Special.”
“That’s when we kind of double-time it, and we throw our hands back. And we kind of do a whole different routine, and our flag boy comes to the middle twirling the flags. We kind of salute the people, and they just cheered us along every time we did that,” said Bridges.
As our 7 Action News crew was capturing their moves on camera at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, a small crowd of on-lookers started gathering next to the group’s family members. They applauded and cheered throughout their practice drills.
Of course, the reunited drill team will never forget being cheered on by a U.S. President.
“President Richard Nixon had seen us perform during a visit to Michigan, and he remembered us,” said Ginyard.
They must have made quite an impression. The French Dukes were invited to perform at Nixon’s second inaugural parade on January 20, 1973.
“We saluted the President, and he saluted us back while he was up in his little box,” recalled Ginyard. "It was cold, but it was nice, and we really appreciated it."
The group was also invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“We were, but we didn’t raise enough money to get there,” said Ginyard. “Ed Sullivan didn’t want to pay. He wanted us there, but he didn’t want to pay.”
The group fizzled out in the 1980s as team members went their separate ways.
But now that they’ve reunited, the French Dukes are actively recruiting.
"Our goal is to get to, reach out to these young kids,” explained Ginyard. “You'll get away from the X-boxes and the Wiis, and you'll grow into a nice, respectful young man."
“I like their footwork,” said 14-year-old Kevin Freeman who told us his Grandpa used to help them out. He was watching them practice with a big smile on his face.
The group is looking for boys ages 10 and up to be part of the new French Dukes drill team. Organizers are also looking for girls to be in their own team called the “Dukettes.”
If you know of someone who would like to join, email Lisa Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org .
You may also contact her on the facebook page: French Dukes Remembered
Jones said Ann Arbor’s Mayor John Hieftje is expected to make a Mayoral Proclamation to honor the French Dukes on August 2.
You can see the reunited French Dukes perform on August 17 at the Heritage Festival in Ypsilanti.
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