DENHAM SPRINGS -- Though he tried, Gavin Simoneaux couldn’t ignore all the comments he overheard.
Being the only male on the Denham Springs High School colorguard team — traditionally an all-girls squad — he thought the remarks might come. In fact, he expected they would.
Still, they hurt.
He heard comments during football games from confused adults who weren’t used to seeing a guy dancing around the field in a “sparkling gold outfit.” He heard comments from fellow students during pep rallies, in hallways and in class.
Simoneaux thought about quitting colorguard many times over the last three years, especially during his first year on the team as a sophomore. He even feared being kicked off the team at times for the backlash that might come with being the first male colorguard dancer in his school’s history.
At times, it was a lot to bear.
Still, he never quit. Ever since he saw the LSU colorguard team perform during a football game in Tiger Stadium as a kid, it was all he ever wanted to do.
“I would always say, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Simoneaux said.
Though his days on the DSHS colorguard team are over, Simoneaux isn’t done with colorguard just yet. He’ll be doing it for at least another year, as he recently made the LSU Tiger Band Colorguard for the 2019-20 season — a dream come true for the 18-year-old.
And it’s believed he’s just the second male ever to do so.
Simoneaux won’t be the only DSHS alum on the field when the LSU colorguard begins practices this month.
He’ll be joined by two of his soon-to-be fellow graduates — Callie O’Neal and Courtney Pellegrin, who both joined the DSHS colorguard team as freshmen, the year before Simoneaux joined himself.
A dancer for most of her life, O’Neal first got sucked into the colorguard world while at Southside Junior High, where the DSHS squad stopped by for a performance to encourage students to try out.
For Pellegrin, another life-long dancer, she remembers watching colorguard performances during parades in Houma and instantly wanting to be a part of the action.
For Simoneaux, his love for colorguard started in sixth grade when he went to his first LSU football game. He still has an email he sent to the LSU band director shortly after making the Denham Springs High squad.
“I was like, ‘So I graduate in two years, and there’s no guys on the colorguard team, but please let me try out,’” he recalled with a laugh. “The person answered back and was like, ‘Well, you can try out in two years.’”
Simoneaux, O’Neal and Pellegrin tried out for the LSU colorguard squad on April 6 — a tense day that had all three on edge. During the tryouts, each dancer had to make their own flag and dance routine, learn and emulate choreographed routines from the captains, and nail the fundamentals.
The three DSHS students never envisioned all three of them making the squad. Pellegrin, who was undecided on whether or not she’d even try out, didn’t make her individual routine until two days before tryouts, while O’Neal and Simoneaux were rehearsing theirs.
“It was stressful,” Pellegrin said.
Even more stressful was the waiting game at the end, when the colorguard hopefuls stood in silence to hear if their number would be called. O’Neal, who said she had a blunder during the group performance, didn’t think she’d hear hers.
“I blanked and I froze,” she said. “I didn’t think I was gonna make it after that.”
Then LSU colorguard instructor Johnette Folse walked out and called out the numbers: “16” (Pellegrin), “23” (Simoneaux), “25” (O’Neal).
The three DSHS seniors joined for a group hug after all the numbers had been called. O’Neal recalled crying after she got the news. Simoneaux and Pellegrin didn’t think it was real.
“I was in awe because I’ve watched these people on TV and YouTube my whole life,” Simoneaux said. “I’ve seen them in the stadium, but I never thought I’d be one of them.”
“We’ve looked up to them so much,” O’Neal said, “and it’s so weird to think we’re a part of that. It still blows my mind.”
“Just hearing about the Tiger Band experience gets me excited,” Pellegrin said. “It’s a different aspect marching onto that field than here. There’s so much more people, and most of it's televised. It’s just a bigger experience. It’s awesome that all three of us get to do that now. We’re gonna be a part of something that’s so much bigger than us.”
‘Wait, say that again?’
For Simoneaux, making the LSU colorguard team was literally a dream come true, and the prospect of marching in Tiger Stadium wearing that shining purple-and-gold uniform has consumed him for the last three years.
He spent roughly 20 hours a week rehearsing with his DSHS teammates, and then another 20 hours a week at home practicing his tosses, dances and routines. He hardly ever stopped.
“I practice until I can’t see at night,” he said. “Being on LSU colorguard was a really big deal to me. I’ve been talking about it for as long as I can remember. It’s all I really talk about.”
O’Neal and Pellegrin both gave emphatic nods of agreement.
“He talks about it all the time,” O’Neal said with a laugh. “In his car, he listens to the fight songs.”
“He’s been doing that forever,” Pellegrin added.
Simoneaux said he’s looked up to Daniel Mincey, a Morgan City native who is believed to be the first male on the LSU colorguard squad. He also thanked the DSHS colorguard program, where he met “30 of my best friends.”
“I always knew I had them to rely on because we spent so much time together,” Simoneaux said. “We’re literally a family. I’ve always had them to fall back on when I’m feeling down or feel like I can’t do this anymore.”
Though it’s gotten better, Simoneaux said it’s been hard to completely erase the negative stigma that comes with being a male in an all-girls program.
He remembers being worried he’d get kicked out of his first DSHS audition, but instead he was welcomed with open arms. He recalls wanting to quit “on a daily basis” during his first year as he dealt with constant mocking, but that has since tempered down, though not totally.
“At this point, it’s just like, ‘Well, you’re looking at me. You’re at the pep rally and you’re focusing on me, so I guess I’m doing my job right,’” he said.
Simoneaux said it took his family some time to get used to him being in colorguard, but they’ve since opened up. His mother wore “Gavin’s Guard Mom” T-shirts during football games, and after he made the LSU squad, his older brother told him how proud he was.
“They were never supportive until I made the LSU colorguard,” Simoneaux said, “and then my older brother said, ‘I’m so proud of you — you set your mind to something and you achieved it.’”
“I was like, ‘Wait, say that again,’” he added with a laugh.
“It’s been a hard journey, but in the end it’s paid off,” Simoneaux said. “All I want for my community is for people to express themselves without fear of judgment.”