Fabric on the Field and Floor

A photo of Anesidora Independent Regional A Winter Guard.
A photo of Otsego High School Marching Band.Guards often use silks beyond flags to create unique visual effects although these alternative types of equipment can be tricky to handle.

While designing their 2019 show, “A View from Above,” the staff members of Anesidora Winter Guard’s newly formed Independent Regional A (IRA) group from Arvada, Colorado, wanted to take the audience on a skydiving trip over part of their home state.

“We decided to use a parachute to represent the landing from our skydiving adventure,” says Scot McGiveron, Anesidora’s co-founder and IRA director.

When explaining color guard, most people generally mention the flag first. As the activity has evolved, designers have found other ways to use fabric to bring color and texture to the marching field and the winter guard floor.

“It’s all about the impression you’re trying to make,” says Andy Pickett, a general effect and design analysis adjudicator. “Different types of equipment—even different types of silks, or silks used in different ways—can have a big impact on the mood or texture of a performance.”

Visual Variety

The choice to use something besides a standard flag sometimes comes from a desire to create a specific visual—as with Anesidora’s parachute.

“We wanted the parachute to open,” McGiveron says. “Then the members are able to come out from underneath, revealing the ending flag.”

Flyovers such as this example are often used to conceal large groups or even an entire ensemble.

For the Otsego (Michigan) High School Marching Band’s “The Magic Show” in 2014, the guard used streamers—long, narrow strips of fabric attached to smaller poles with a swivel on the end.

“We used them for the part of the show that used music from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies,” says Issa Lewis, the group’s color guard caption head. “We choreographed movements that we thought might look like using a magic wand.”

Both Lewis and McGiveron have also used chain flags—a flag silk with chain instead of a pole running through the sleeve. One of the unique characteristics of chain flags is the ability to conceal them in props.

Guard performers in the Monarch High School Marching Band in Louisville, Colorado, where McGiveron also teaches, pulled theirs out of pillows in their 2018 “Enchanted Tapestries” show for a surprise reveal.

In their 2017 show, “March Off the Earth,” Lewis’ students concealed their chain flags in boxes, which they danced with around the field, before pulling them out for a sudden pop of color.

“[They] carry much the same visual weight as a regular flag, so that made a nice impact moment when they are revealed,” Lewis says.

Words of Caution

Using different equipment and props can provide quite a challenge to designers and instructors. Failure to fully understand the material being used—as well as failure to pass on that understanding to performers—can cause the desired impact to fall flat.

“It’s possible to get out of sync where musically, or through drill and form, you are trying to convey one idea, but the visual choice isn’t supporting it,” Pickett cautions.

Because of their size, flyovers can cause problems by being too visible. Pickett has seen this issue while adjudicating. “[Flyovers] can help build up to that high point, but you also have to remember that a giant piece of cloth is going to make a big visual statement far before you even get to that musical hit, so you better make sure the soundtrack is supporting that,” he says.

Lewis ran into the exact opposite problem when Otsego got its streamers on the field. “They didn’t end up being as visually impactful as I had hoped, and they were really hard to clean and create a uniform look,” she explains. “I think we were moderately effective in overcoming [challenges], but if we had to do it over again, we might not have used the streamers and done strictly movement as we could have done more dynamic choreography.”

Lewis also notes that her fabric choice—lightweight gold lamé—caused an issue. “We did gold because it fit our color theme for the show, but it didn’t show up well [against the turf],” she says. “A less shiny material would probably work best.”

With both the streamers and chain flags, Lewis encountered difficulties in regard to choreography as well.

“Choreography with both is somewhat limited,” she says. “It’s hard not to feel repetitive, and tossing isn’t really an option, so you have to find other ways to reflect the musicality of the phrase.”

Music tempo and therefore movement speed can be a challenge with streamers and chain flags.

“Because of the velocity needed, it’s hard to do long, slow movements,” Lewis notes. “While you think they’d be good for ballads, they’re actually harder to use at slow tempos. Thankfully, both times our tempos were moderate to slightly up-tempo, so it wasn’t too much of an issue for us.”

McGiveron’s students struggled with their chain flags in a different way. “The most difficult aspect of this silk effect was pulling the silk out of the pillow,” he says. “The band boosters had also sewn pockets in one corner of the pillow, so the silk would come out easier.”

Trial, Error, and Training

Working with different equipment can require trial, error, and learning from mistakes.

“[Anesidora] went through several attempts figuring out how to have the parachute open and be the most effective,” McGiveron says. “We had the members try all sorts of different methods of speed and hand positioning to create different effects.”

Repetition was also key to Monarch High School’s use of chain flags. Because of the difficulty with the silk reveals, “this was one of those sections that was rehearsed over and over and over,” McGiveron says.

Lewis took the lessons she learned working with streamers and applied them to teaching her students to use the chain flags.

“I had a better trained group, and I was able to clean the flags and the body underneath,” she says.

Even though she could apply past experiences to teaching chain flags, some of her students didn’t apply those lessons right away. “We learned the hard way that not observing the fact that chain flags need constant motion led to people getting their heads bonked by the weight at the end!” she says.

As with regular equipment, training is the key to getting the biggest impact out of unique props.

“It’s not really that different,” Lewis says. “You still have to talk about checkpoints, the relationship of the equipment to your body, and so forth.”

Tips and Tricks

While training her students, Lewis realized something that may seem surprising. “Perhaps more like weapons than standard flags, we had to talk a lot more about wrist strength, flexibility, and affectation or avoiding it,” she says. “The tendency is for the performer to use the elbow rather than the wrist, but that creates obvious differences in how the equipment moves.

For designers and instructors looking to use streamers, Lewis has some words of warning. “Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend streamers,” she says.

But if groups definitely want streamers, consider color carefully. “Unless you are able to do it as a large ensemble, then pick a color that is going to show up well against turf and grass,” Lewis adds.

Pickett says that streamers have their place in performance.

“Streamers have come in and out of favor, but you can add more texture to a moment than even perhaps a sabre—a typical go-to for more delicate work—can,” Pickett says.

This option does have the added benefit of not having to purchase or train students on sabre as well.

When it comes to chain flags, choosing a silk is similar to choosing one for a flag, but there are some tricks to working with them.

“They are limiting in terms of choreography,” Lewis cautions. “I would save them for shorter impact points when you need a quick reveal.”

For performers, Lewis offers some tips for success as well.

“Think less about the equipment and more about the body under it,” she advises. “These types of equipment are more like extensions of the body than additions, so think of them that way.”

In general, Pickett advises designers to carefully consider the equipment choices they make.

“I would say that we all know that costuming, equipment choices, and even the dots have a huge impact on the visual effect package, but I think that equipment choice is a bigger factor than many realize,” he says.

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