DeSonni Hardge was six when the internationally acclaimed South Shore Drill Team came to perform at his elementary school. The St. Philip Neri kindergartner had been watching the team’s videos for years. He ardently wanted to be part of the iconic group, famed across the world for its elaborately choreographed routines involving rifles, flags, gymnastics and precision marching.
But when Hardge’s grandmother took him to enroll, he was met with disappointment. “They told me I was too young. You had to be 8,” DeSonni, now 16, recalled.
What followed is a testament to a young man of grit and gifts. Drill Team Founder Arthur Robertson saw DeSonni’s disappointment and handed the little boy one of the prop rifles that drill team members manipulate to stunning effect in their routines.
Hardge was ready. “I’d been practicing at home with brooms, baseball bats — whatever I could find,” he said. That afternoon, he became the newest, youngest member of the team.
A former student at Gary Comer College Prep, Hardge, who recently transferred to Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School for his senior year, will join the rest of the South Shore Drill Team on Sept. 22 when they perform at the Chicago’s Youth Art Showcase Festival, (YAS!) a day-long event celebrating young artists in Millennium Park and throughout the Loop. The 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. festival at the Pritzker Pavilion will culminate in a concert by teenage hip-hop artist Desiigner.
Hardge is no stranger to working with big names. A leader in the drill team’s elite Big Guard Rifle Line, he’s performed for President Obama and Chance the Rapper. He’s travelled the country for parades and competitions. This past winter, he and his best friend, Titus Batts, 17, co-captained a drill team squad that became the youngest-ever male team to compete in the Winter Guard International Finals, a hyper-competitive annual event featuring the planet’s best drill teams.
But the drill team is about far more than performing, Hardge said.
“It’s my family,” he said. “I didn’t have any big brothers before I joined the team. Now I do. The older team members look out for the younger ones. When I was coming up, they’d take us to the mall or the movies. They made sure I had a ride if I needed to be somewhere. As I got older, we’d all just hang out sometimes — pizza, basketball. Now, I do the same to the kids who are younger than me. You look out for your brothers.”
Drill team instructor Jeffrey Lovett started with the organization 18 years ago. He’s long been one of DeSonni’s chosen brothers.
“DeSonni is a leader. I saw that right away. He had a quick liking for everyone, and everyone likes him. He’s got a good work ethic,” Lovett said. “I’m driven by the love I have for the team. I want these boys to know they can survive, even if they struggle,” he added.
Hardge needed that support in 2012, when his teammate Jonathan Williams, 17, was fatally shot. “You never know when it could be you,” Hardge said. “Violence pulls the city down, but the drill team pulls it back up.”
Hardge generally practices about 24 hours a week. “When I first started, I was just glad to be there. Once I saw how the older guys performed, I wanted to be one of the best,” he said.
Achieving drill perfection is not without peril. He and Batts recently mastered a harrowing move that involves sending their rifles skyward, executing a combo of backflips and somersaults and then catching the rifles in midair. “I kind of split the top of my head open a little practicing that one once. The rifle came down the wrong way. Bled a little,” Hardge said. Now, he and Batts routinely bring the crowd to its feet when they execute the maneuver, injury-free.
Being on the team can be a source of unadulterated joy. “We performed for Obama in 2010,” Hardge said. “We were all trying to be cool, but it was hard because being able to see the President? It was like – this is the Big Man of the world! He was so focused on us. He treated us with respect. I’ll never forget it.”
Hardge supplements his drill team work by DJing, spinning music for parties, proms and corporate events. “DJing is another way for me to extract my happiness,” he said.
He has advice for those coming up behind him.
“Shoot for the stars. You don’t have any limits. Aim always to be better. You can be as great as you want to me.”
For information about the YAS! Fest, visit the event website.
This profile is part of a series underwritten by Allstate as part of its commitment to support young artists in Chicago and to empower the next generation of rising stars.