Dance! Twirl! March?

While the majority of marching bands perform with color guards, other auxiliary groups such as twirlers and dance teams have experienced mixed reception from band programs. Some bands wholeheartedly embrace these visual additions while others give flat-out rejections. Why?

Photo courtesy of Southern Illinois University

Color guard has become such a staple of field shows that it’s hard to imagine a marching band succeeding in a major competitive circuit without one. Yet the Stephen F. Austin High School Marching Band from Sugar Land, Texas, performs only with the Angels Dance Team and frequently makes finals at Bands of America (BOA) Grand Nationals and wins the BOA Houston Regional.

“We are usually the only dance team at contests that we go to,” says Angels’ coach and alum Lilian Mason. “The area we are in is very rich in dance studios, and there are a lot of talented dancers in the area.”

The Angels Dance Team formed when the school opened in 1995 and began performing with the band a few years later. Due to the skill level and size of the group (approximately 80 members), the school saw no need to start a color guard.

Most of the band’s field shows incorporate a character story arc, and the Angels Dance Team performs fully integrated drill around the field unlike some dance or drill teams that just come out for a feature.

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., intentionally started a dance team. Dr. George Brozak, director of athletic bands, started the Dazzlers drill and dance team just five years ago when he became director even though there was (and still is) another dance team that operated through the athletic department.

“It was important to me to have a dance team with the band doing drill moves as well,” Brozak says. “I didn’t want the team that just does its own thing and comes on the field and leaves. That’s what the other dance team wanted to do, but I didn’t want that, so I started my own. And I’ve been very pleased to have those girls with the band.”

And if there’s one place where dancers performing with marching bands is the norm, it’s at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as the high schools that emulate them. At HBCUs the dance lines have just as much, if not more, of a following as the band. While some HBCU schools also have a flag line/color guard and/or twirlers, dance lines are the most common and well-known auxiliary group.

“They are really considered to be the face, the pretty faces actually, of the band,” says Keelia Brown, co-founder of HBCU Dance Corporation, a not-for-profit organization and social media outlet providing sponsorships and scholarships to young ladies who perform (and aspire to perform) in HBCU dance groups. “People come to games to see the dancers. They perform in the stands with the band; they dance and do stand routines; and they’re featured during the field show.”

Choreography and Costuming

In general dance teams can add visual appeal as well as visual challenges. “It sets us apart and gives the judges something different to look at,” Mason says. “It’s new and intriguing, but at the same time, our visual scores are always in the back of our minds.”

Without flags or equipment, Stephen F. Austin must work harder to make a visual impact that will play well with color guard and visual judges.

“Sometimes that’s difficult, as dancers and choreographers, to work around that kind of different audience,” Mason says. “Our visuals have to be so much more incorporated and thought out because we don’t have flags, rifles and sabers to come with choreography. It’s fun to try and come up with different ways to use just the human body.”

Since they don’t compete, college and university bands have much more freedom when it comes to show design, drill, visuals and auxiliary groups. In addition to the Dazzlers, the Southern Illinois marching band includes a color guard and two feature twirlers.

“They’re all very visually exciting with what we’re doing,” Brozak says. “The benefit is that there’s just a lot for the eyes. No matter where you’re looking, there’s a lot to see of these auxiliary groups.”

Brozak gives the twirlers free reign to decide where to be on the field. The color guard usually frames the band, and they also have permission to adjust the drill as needed due to their equipment. The Dazzlers typically march amongst the band or dance in the front quadrant of the field.

“They’re usually carrying pom poms and do arm routines during the drill movement, and then if there’s a place that I can plant them when the band has 32 counts to stand and play, that’s a great time for the dance team to do some dance moves,” Brozak says. “They’re really very multifaceted. They’re doing pom routines, and the poms are very visual. They’re doing drill moves with what the band is doing, and they’re doing dance routines in hip hop, ballet, jazz or whatever fits the style. They’re very versatile young ladies.”

According to HBCU Dance Corporation, the unique and exciting style of HBCU dance has become more wellknown in recent years, inspiring choreography such as Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video. HBCU Dance Corporation recently coordinated the Albany State University Golden Passionettes and the Alabama State University Stingettes to film Robin Thicke’s music video for “Give It 2 U.” They also appeared with him at the MTV Video Music Awards.

“I know people are becoming more aware of how exciting the dance style is,” Brown says.

Costuming choices and large skirts help dancers stand out on the field. “We tend to use a lot of fabric; skirts are really effective, and we incorporate the skirt into the choreography,” Mason says. “Visually we do things like ripple effects or different groupings. The skirt or dresses are one of the most visually stunning manipulated things that we work with.”

One challenge of having so many auxiliary performers is the cost of uniforms. At Southern Illinois, the color guard and Dazzlers get new uniforms every two years. Twirlers get four costumes their first year and a new one every year after that. The guard also gets three or four new flags per year.

“I’m not only interested in what they’re doing on the field, but I think they need to be wearing something that’s changing,” Brozak says. “It is a financial commitment, and I’ve made that commitment to all of them.”

All in the Family

All the auxiliary groups are considered a part of the band. At Southern Illinois sometimes instrumentalists may audition and switch to auxiliary, or girls switch from guard to Dazzlers.

And at Stephen F. Austin, the dance team even learns marching basics, making it better incorporated with the band.

“It’s a very close-knit family as we do everything together in the fall,” Mason says. “They go out and learn marching fundamentals in the fall. It’s one big organization. We really do stay a band and Angels family because we are together so much, and that family will just cheer you on the rest of your life.”

And while dance teams performing with marching bands may be less common around the country, the programs at HBCUs are in no danger of going away any time soon.

“There are quite a few girls that chose the HBCU school they want to go to based on the type of dance line and how well they perform,” Brooks says. “It is a main attraction for schools and for them to get new students into the music program and the school itself. It is a big part of the tradition for the HBCU schools. If they lost HBCU dance teams, they would lose a part of history and some of the students, so I don’t think they could afford to lose it because it’s such a huge part of the tradition.”

Majorettes With Major Challenges

On the other hand, baton twirlers—also called majorettes—have become more and more rare in marching bands and are virtually unheard of in high school field show competition.

“Back in my day, every high school had a twirler,” says Yolanda Higman, twirling instructor and coach of Elite Twirlers, offering training and team competition in the San Gabriel Valley, Calif.-area. “And now it seems like they always want you to be a part of the color guard or winter guard, so it has changed a little bit. Other schools won’t allow or don’t want a twirler at all.”

Twirler Kelsey Miller had performed with her middle school marching band for three years and assumed she would have no problem twirling for her high school when she moved up. But when she and her mother reached out to the band director, they had a rude awakening.

“He said flat-out, ‘No,’ and directed me towards color guard or told me to change schools,” Miller says.

Despite a Facebook campaign and attention from local media, Miller’s plea was unsuccessful, and she ended up transferring to Monrovia (Calif.) High School just one week before the fall semester.

“I feel like it was their loss because it greatly adds to a school’s support,” Miller says. “Even just twirling at football games, twirlers make the crowd go crazy. I wasn’t looking for a spotlight. I was just looking for a place to be added in to make something better.”

Part of the Guard?

At Monrovia, band director Daniel Magallanes gave Miller the same opportunity he offered to his three existing twirlers. “I’d be happy to have them twirl for any parade, any pep band function, any football game and any halftime show that is not the competition field show,” Magallanes says. “The place we go back and forth on is that they have to become members of the color guard, meaning they had to perform with our competition field show and winter guard because it’s 80 percent of the curriculum.”

Initially, the twirlers asked why they couldn’t twirl batons in the competition field show.

“I do have a very good reason why,” Magallanes says. “The entire point of a twirler is to get everyone to look at them. In a competition field show, as show designers we want to be able to control where the audience is looking, and it’s not always going to be at the girl in sequins.”

A former high school band director, Brozak spoke about some reasons that high school bands may not want twirlers. “The theory is that visually it might take away, but also twirlers drop, and band directors feel that they may bring the auxiliary score down,” Brozak says. “I think these young ladies and gentlemen who twirl can really bring a lot to bands. I hate to see them not being brought in and being part of the groups.”

Because twirling and guard have similar skill sets, twirlers adapt quickly to color guard; some of them immediately jump to weapons line, and others have served as co-captains. The guard instructors and choreographers have also incorporated some of their special skills into the shows.

“I’m glad to have had them; they’re some of the best members of my guard,” Magallanes says.

As a regional, state and national twirling champion, Miller’s participation in color guard does place a strain on scheduling baton practices.

“It’s definitely been a setback; I do like it, but there are some issues,” Miller says. “It’s definitely very time-consuming, and with my crazy schedule for school, there’s not as much time for baton anymore.”

For Miller and many others, twirling with a university band (where majorettes are much more common) is their ultimate goal. Storied positions such as the Purdue Golden Girl and Penn State Feature Twirler give hope to twirlers that don’t have the opportunity to take part in their high school bands.

“My plan is to keep competing [as a twirler], and my goal is to twirl for my college because that’s every twirler’s dream, to have the honor to twirl for a college,” Miller says. “It’s a very big honor.”

In the end, whether a color guard member, twirler or dance team member, being a part of a larger ensemble provides added personal benefits. “Being a part of the band is a family you belong to that is really wonderful,” Higman says.

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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