In color guard, worlds collide

A sports subculture with silk flags, wooden rifles and serious competition

A sports subculture with silk flags, wooden rifles and serious competition
Members of the winter guard team Emanon, from Hackettstown, New Jersey, during their performance at the West Long Branch competition.

It’s noon on a Saturday in early March and the 25 members of Connecticut’s Trumbull High School winter-guard team have been in the gymnasium for nearly 3.5 hours. Normally a practice session for the all-female squad would end at 9, but there’s a local competition tonight, so the team will wrap things up at 4:30. That gives the girls two hours to eat, drive to the event, get glammed up and practice, again, before their set.

Trumbull is considered an elite team in the sport of winter guard, a popular high-school pastime that mixes dance theater with military-marching traditions such as flag spinning and saber throwing. (It’s also referred to as “indoor color guard”; that sport takes place in the fall, typically as halftime entertainment during football games, and teams perform alongside marching bands.) Since the Trumbull team has won a spot in the color-guard world championships 10 times since 1998, the girls are guaranteed a slot in the eastern regionals in two weeks. Barring any serious injuries or missteps, they will compete in the finals in Dayton, Ohio, from April 16 to 18.

Even so, nothing is left to chance. Tonight’s show matters. Says 17-year-old junior Abi Holmes, “You have to treat it like it’s a championship. Otherwise, why bother?”

The team’s routine is set to astronomer Carl Sagan’s 1994 speech “Pale Blue Dot.” It begins with most of the girls standing together as a unit, meant to symbolize Earth, while “the sun” — 17-year-old senior Kayla Murray — circles around them. After a minute or so, the girls scatter. Brian Forte stands a few feet from the center of the gym floor. A graphic designer with NBC, he works with the team part-time as an equipment technician, part of a 10-person staff paid for by the Trumbull Board of Education. Sensing a slight dip in the energy level in the room, Forte urges the girls to “think about two elements of the universe colliding.”

Top: The Trumbull High School teammates practice their routine at rehearsal before regionals. Bottom left: Team members get glammed up halfway through practice in preparation for competition that night. Middle: Morgan McPartland stretches during the team's lunch break. Right: Flags rolled up in preparation of a routine during Trumbull's practice. (Click to enlarge images)

The movements are demanding, a dramatic mix of modern dance and rhythmic gymnastics. As the particles of Earth disperse, a cadre of girls catapult white wooden rifles and metal sabers high above their heads, then spin and snatch them midflight. That’s followed by another group of girls waving and hurling large silk flags into the air. It’s an impressive feat: The flags and rifles are relatively heavy, and a missed catch could result in an injury. To ensure that everyone is safe, training is thorough. Jamie Kasiewicz, a 16-year-old junior, says, “You start with the flag, then you go to a weapon, if you feel comfortable enough.” Luckily, all that goes awry during the rehearsal are a few dropped sabers.

The routine lasts five minutes, ending as elegantly as it began. Forte and fellow technician Brooke Wheeler, clap. Then, after a brief pause, Wheeler shouts, “Reset!” The girls take it from the top.

Bruises and calluses are a common sight and shared experience in the color guard ranks. (Click to enlarge images)

The slogan for winter guard is the “sport of the arts.” The proliferation of ankle and knee braces and bashed-up feet among the Trumbull team members erases any doubt that it is, indeed, a sport. During a lunch break in the school cafeteria, Kasiewicz speaks to that physicality. “You get bruises, you get injuries, but you push through. … You’re tough, but you can be pretty on the floor. You can look great, but when you’re in practice, you’re pushing through.” Her teammate Holmes laughs. “Your legs are burning,” she says. “Yeah, we’re not here to look pretty or impress someone. We work hard.”

Winter guard, along with color guard, derived from military ceremonies; in the military, “color guard” refers to a detachment of soldiers who carry a regiment’s flags. One of the key components of both sports, flag spinning, was introduced to college football games in the 1930s. By the late 1970s it had become a staple in college’s biggest football conferences, and had spread to high schools. Today there are 3,029 active winter guard teams registered with the sport’s governing body, Winter Guard International, or WGI, Most are in the United States but groups also exist in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

WGI oversees the competitions and establishes judging criteria. Teams can be single-sex or mixed, affiliated with high schools or independent. The town of Trumbull has two: the high-school team and another called Alter Ego, whose members tend to be older. Because winter guard teams do not work with a marching band, performances allow for more creativity in costume choice and music.

“Dance has definitely become more intensive for us,” says Murray. “We’ve become more focused on body, because there are movement judges, body judges, equipment judges.” Murray is referring to winter guard’s exacting judging system. Adds Kasiewicz, “There’s a vocabulary score — how hard the work is, what work you’re doing — and there’s an achievement score, which is how well you do it and execution.” By “vocabulary,” she means the depth and range of movements, known as “movement vocabulary.”

With the exception of Kasiewicz, whose family has been involved with color guard since the 1960s, the girls’ first exposure to the sport was through friends or attending shows.

“I didn’t think I would be that interested, because I played sports like basketball, baseball and soccer,” recalls Victoria Vidal, 14. “Then I got to [color guard] practice and thought, Wow, this is really going to help me in life. It has taught me so much. It has taught me time management, how to take care of a lot of my own problems.”

Girls rest during a weekend practice. (Click to enlarge images)

Those sentiments are echoed by her teammates, who say that the sport’s structure and demanding hours — Kasiewicz likens winter guard to “a part-time job” — have helped them focus and become more self-sufficient. During the primary competition season, which runs from the end of January through the end of March, they practice three times a week. At an age when many girls deal with bullying and discomfort with their appearance, the Trumbull teenagers seem to thrive as a group, take pride in their physical and mental strength and have each other’s backs.

“You realize that having a catfight is not going to get you the goal. A catfight is not going to get you through the season, so we leave our personal lives at the door,” says Murray. That support system extends beyond the team members to the coaches and, of course, the parents, especially the mothers, some of whom act as chaperones or help out at competitions. Asked what it means to be a color-guard mom, Susan Holmes replies, “Taking care of the team as though they’re all your daughters. Your daughter is not more special than any other girl out there — they’re all your daughters when they’re out there. It’s family.”

While it’s popular in suburbs and towns, particularly in the South, winter guard has yet to make significant inroads in cities. Jim Zulick, Trumbull’s movement designer and technician, says via email that he thinks that’s because of a lack of funding and practice space. “Gym space may be difficult to come by,” he says, “and with a lack of football games and therefore halftime marching-band shows, there aren’t great opportunities for getting new kids interested in the overall activity.”

There may be other factors, too. In keeping with winter guard’s military heritage, the sport’s rules mandate that routines include at least 3.5 minutes of play with rifles and other equipment. While the guns are just props, it’s hard to imagine a school in, say, Chicago or Brooklyn being comfortable with the violence they represent.

“You get some weird looks,” Kasiewicz says of the rifles and other equipment. “But it’s wood, it’s taped. People know it.” Says Holmes, “I don’t think that any of us have ever thought of about how other people who don’t know about the activity see it or how they look at it. … Oh, they’re dancing around with weapons.”

Left: The team listens to their coach's feedback in advance of a competition later in the night. Right: Julia Coe and Natalie Marini laugh during a lunch break. (Click to enlarge images)

Held this year on the Monmouth University campus in West Long Branch, the East Coast regionals are as much an opportunity to catch up with old friends and see what’s new in the winter guard world as they are a sporting event. The venue’s lobby is filled with vendors selling T-shirts, hats, trophies and stage costumes. The regionals are divided into two days: preliminaries on Saturday, March 22, and finals on March 23. On Sunday, roughly half of the venue’s 5,000 seats are occupied by fans who have paid $20 to take in the spectacle.

One of the more unlikely fans is David Byrne. The former frontman for the band Talking Heads is producing “Contemporary Color,” a musical performance that will be held at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on June 22 and 23 and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on June 27 and 28. The production pairs artists and producers, including National Public Radio’s Ira Glass, Nelly Furtado, “Money” Mark Nishita and Adam Horovitz, with one of 10 winter-guard teams for which they will compose music. Like Byrne, Nishita and Horovitz are at the regionals to meet their teams. Not surprisingly, Horovitz, the former Beastie Boy, had no idea what winter guard was until a few weeks before the regionals. (“They don’t have that in New York,” he says with a smile.) But he’s excited about “Contemporary Color.” “It’s going to be super crazy. [Nishita and I] are gonna make some weird music and play it live with these kids, and it’s gonna be really cool.”

Slideshow: On Competition Days, a Long Time Till Sunset

  • Laura Bielicki and Julia Coe do their makeup before their first performance at regionals. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Cassie Hess sits in the hallway as she and the rest of the team get ready before the performance. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The team walks to the bus that will take them to Monmouth University where the competition is held. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The girls prepare for the two-and-a-half hour ride. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Lexi Klubek and Kayla Murray laugh together just before they go on to perform. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Morgan McPartland waits for her flag to descend after throwing it as the team warms up for their first performance at regionals. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The Trumbull teammates in position as their routine begins on the first night of regionals. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The Trumbull team midway through the routine. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The crowd cheers after a performance. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Field of View, from West Chester, Pennsylvania, performs its routine "Lunatic" on the competition's first day. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Members of the winter guard team Emanon, from Hackettstown, New Jersey, during a performance on the first day of regionals. (Click to enlarge images)
  • The Somerville High School winter guard team performs during the last day of regionals. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Teams practice their routines at the John Bennett Indoor Sports Complex in Toms River, New Jersey, in advance of their performance at regionals later that night. (Click to enlarge images)

The competitors are dressed in a kaleidoscope of colors and styles. There are sparkly unitards, downtown chic straitjackets, flapper dresses, top hats and tails, space-alien customes, flamenco-dancer outfits and smart sweater sets with A-line skirts. Trumbull’s costumes, deep-blue velvet one-pieces, are lightly sprinkled with crystals that represent the cosmos.

If there are long-standing rivalries at the regionals, it’s hard to tell. The 27 teams spend much of their time cheering on others.

Backstage, the flow of activity is as precisely executed as a saber catch. The teams are methodically ushered through the hall by their respective staff and WGI volunteers, including a few of the color-guard moms, who help move them down to the rehearsal rooms, where they are allotted exactly 10 minutes to warm up. From there Trumbull’s team members gather in a stairwell for a brief pep talk. Reminding them that they are winners Forte urges the girls to “show people who you really are,” leading his team in a brief breathing exercise to calm any lingering nerves. From there the girls are shepherded through a corridor to pick up their equipment and the customized mats on which they perform. Each group is responsible for not only carrying the heavy mats on and off the floor but all of the equipment and any staging, too. Rare is the show whose participants do double duty as stagehands.

If the members of Trumbull’s team are nervous, they do a good job of not showing it. “It’s always exciting to line up,” says Abi Holmes, although she admits that sometimes the anticipation can be stressful. Once she and her teammates hit the floor, though, the adrenaline kicks in and time races by. Holmes says she knows if the team has nailed the routine: “I get chills. I feel the energy.”

When the teams hit the stage, the thematic range is a marvel. Shenendehowa High School, from Clifton Park, New York, presents a twisted tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, complete with screeching birds, bloodstained shower curtains and the director’s disembodied voice. With outfits created by Jay McCarroll of “Project Runway” fame, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Field of View team delivers a wildly demented, hilarious peek into an insane asylum set to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Philadelphia’s Light Brigade team serves up a bawdy shout-out to the end of Prohibition. As for Trumbull’s competitors, their show goes off without a hitch, their purple and sky-blue ombre flags deepening “Pale Blue Dot’s” emotional pull.

Musician David Byrne meets Les Eclipses, the winter guard team he will be working with. Byrne has organized the color guard-inspired show "Contemporary Color," in which musicians collaborate with color guard teams to produce a performance. It debuts this summer. (Click to enlarge images)

In three hours, it’s all over. The judges tally up the scores, the event’s master of ceremonies announces the winners, and trophies are presented. Trumbull High School places third in the world category — their same ranking as last year — and 12th overall.

In the weeks leading up to the finals in Dayton, Trumbull’s competitors will go back to the gymnasium, as they have done all year, and run through their routine until those in the audience can feel the impact of two elements of the universe colliding.

And if they don’t win in Dayton? Trumbull High School’s teammates know that not only do they have each other’s back but so do their coaches and families. “So at the end of the season,” Kasiewicz says, “when we get our final place, our final rank, they’re proud of what we’ve done. They’re happy we celebrate. We’re not going home sad. We’re happy that we just went there, did our thing and got to this place.”

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