Athletic Art

40th Winter Guard International Competition takes over Dayton

By Joyell Nevins

 

Color guard—that’s just that “twirling thing,” right?

Dayton, you must be trippin’.

Combine gymnastics and dance, throw in a wooden rifle or sabre, add a set design made to travel (including a performance floor), and don’t forget the giant flag. Make sure you’re all in sync—now you might have an idea of what it takes to be a guard member.

“It takes the athleticism of any Olympic event combined with the artistry of a theatrical production,” explains Bart Woodley, director of operations for Winter Guard International: Sport of the Arts (WGI). He began in an independent guard (not associated with a school) during college and has worked with WGI for the past 16 years.

WGI is a nonprofit youth organization that produces indoor color guard, percussion, and winds competitions. It hosts about 60 regional and power regional events throughout the year. And in April, 13,000 performers will descend upon this city for the 40th Winter Guard International Competition, bringing what the Dayton Chamber and Visitors’ Bureau estimates is a $15 million economic impact. Between the regional and international events, the spectator numbers top 160,000.

While some extra-curricular groups have been fighting to maintain relevancy and hang on to membership with today’s youth, WGI is growing.

“It’s a ridiculous increase,” Woodley says.

The numbers speak for themselves:

The first competition was held in 1977 with 34 color guard teams. At the 25-year mark, in 2002, 286 color guard teams competed. This year, WGI is hosting 338 teams from all over the United States, Canada, Thailand, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Since the competition began 40 years ago, 31 have been held in the Gem City. Woodley says that they’ve tried other locations, but there are not a lot of cities with the level of quality arenas the competition requires.

Percussion was added to the WGI lineup in 1993. It started with nine groups. This year brings 235 drumlines to the international competition. The indoor percussion ensemble, or indoor drumline, makes up the marching percussion, called the battery.  The front ensemble, called pit, consists of a marching band or drum corps.

WGI added winds to the competitive lineup in 2014. They are not limited to the standard winds instruments, such as flute, piccolo, and oboe, but can include any instrumentation found in a concert band or orchestra, as well as color guard and percussion performers all in one group. Thirty-five competing teams have registered at this point, and Woodley and his staff are prepared for those numbers to multiply as well.

When West meets East

Color guard has its roots in the military. According to a web project by the University of Florida, the term comes from the Civil War. A band would accompany soldiers on the battlefield, and one of those members would carry the “colors,” referring to the American flag. The flag was carried with precision and presented at different angles, such as right and left shoulder or front and back present.

Since then, the guard has morphed from a battle group to being a more ceremonial one. Color guards and drill teams are still an important part of military divisions and observances. Rifles and sabres are also used in military routines to demonstrate skill. (Remember the opening scene from “A Few Good Men” featuring the Texas A&M Drill Team?)

In the mid 1960s, though, a woman named Peggy Twiggs unintentionally opened up a whole new arena for guard. At that time females were limited to carrying a sabre, rifle, or flag in the drum corps.

“Well, I didn’t have the ‘looks’ to be a sabre, and I was never a very good rifle, so flag it was for me,” Twiggs tells WGI in a commemorative interview.

Twiggs notes that at that time there were no flag routines to as there were with the rifles and sabres, so flags marched, and marched, and marched.

“Those long Sunday rehearsals were killers because we never got a break from marching,” Twiggs says.

So she took the poles they used for flags and tried to spin it like a rifle. Due to the size of the pole and the flag material used, Twiggs had to use two hands to bring the pole around. Her drill instructor noticed what she was doing and asked Twiggs to put together a “trick flag” line.

“The rest is history, as they say,” Twiggs says. “We went from doing practically nothing to spins and tosses, overheads, all kinds of moves.”

The double-time spin of a flag is still referred to as a “Peggy-spin” in honor of Twiggs.

“When I see guards still use that spin, I smile and think of how it all came about,” she says. “What a thrill to know that something I did so long ago is still used today in an activity that has grown and developed so much over the years. It’s a thrill and an honor!”

Artistry and dance have also been increasingly incorporated into the guard routines, working from the West Coast eastward. That was one of the goals of WGI founders—to create a legitimate space for guards to compete out from under the umbrella of the drum and bugle corps (prior to WGI, guard competition once took place in a barn with low lighting and only six rows of bleachers) and bring teams together from across the country to appreciate and learn from each other.

The six founders, color guard leaders Marie Czapinski, Don Angelica, Shirlee Whitcomb, Stanley Knaub, Bryan Johnston, and Linda Chambers, collaborated in the late ’70s to create an organization with one set of governing rules that allowed for multiple styles.

Czapinski noted that groups from the West Coast were “very Hollywood and flashy” with a penchant for dance, costumes, and theatrical expression, while the East Coast groups were more military and drill-oriented with advanced equipment technique and precision.

“Those East Coast children had sabres in their hand from the time they were born,” she jokes in a WGI interview.

Whitcomb points to the friendship between Knaub, who spearheaded the more theatrical West Coast style, and George Singali, known as a color guard genius from the East Coast style, as pivotal in the development of color guard in its current form.

When the first championships, known as the WGI Olympics, were held, the result was everything the founders hoped it would be.

“When it all came together, it was mind-boggling,” Czapinski says.

The teams are judged in several categories: first, equipment, which can include flags, sabres, and rifles. Movement evaluates the dance element. Design analysis evaluates how everything is put together—each team brings its own flooring, which can be painted or printed on—the way all elements including costumes and makeup convey the theme. Two judges score for general effect—the overall emotional, intellectual, and/or aesthetic result of the piece.

The judges are talking the entire time into a recorder. The teams are able to hear the commentary afterward through a Dropbox link. At the smaller regional and local competitions, teams can sign up for a sit-down critique with the judges after the competition.

The sport is still evolving and growing in skill and difficulty. Many of the high school or college teams work with feeder groups—teams in elementary and middle school that feed into the next level.

“By the time they get to high school, they are well versed in equipment, tossing and dance,” Diane Martinez says. She first served as a booster parent for eight years while her daughter, Tamika, was in color guard and her son, Landon, competed in drumline for Countryside High School. Although they live in Clearwater, Florida, most of those years included trips to Ohio for the WGI competition. After her children graduated, Martinez stayed on as a volunteer tabulator for WGI and is now one of the competition staff.

She and Woodley have both seen the how the ability level, demonstrated by the teams, continues to increase. “The skills kids are demonstrating are so much more difficult on every level,” Woodley says.

But just as in the beginning, WGI corporate isn’t the force upping the ante—it comes from the teams themselves, from the ground up.

“One group will do a move at competition and you think, ‘oh wow, nobody’s doing that,’” Woodley says. “People clap for it, it’s acknowledged and becomes a thing people want to do. Next year, you’ll see multiple students [from other schools] do the same move.”

One of the latest examples of this is a combination of gymnastics and tossing—the students throw the rifle in the air, do a walkover somersault, and catch the rifle on its way back down.

“It’s truly amazing how the craft is kind of passed on from student to student,” Woodley says.

The sport has also evolved to a more balanced gender ratio. There’s always been a predominance of women, but over the past couple of decades, more men have joined the ranks.

“The band programs have opened the door and explored the possibility [of men in guard],” Woodley says.

It takes a village

Martinez notes that it’s no small feat to get an entire team to Dayton for the competition. Not only are the team members and chaperones traveling, but all of the equipment, design elements, and flooring must be transported.

Often, one of the fathers of a guard member will take a trailer and bring the equipment, even if the team members are flying. The competition can last for three days from preliminary to finals.

“It’s a big deal—a major ordeal for these schools,” Martinez says.

It’s also a major ordeal for WGI. The staff work with hundreds of volunteers to do everything from meeting kids at the bus, checking them in, setting a warm-up timeline, and helping them get through to one of five competition sites.  For this year’s competition, there are three sites in Dayton—University of Dayton Arena, Wright State University Nutter Center, the Dayton Convention Center—and others at University of Miami and Northern Kentucky University.

“It definitely takes a village,” Woodley says. “There’ re a lot of working parts.”

Martinez, who volunteered for seven years before joining the staff, laughs, “Without the volunteers, forget it! [WGI] would never be able to pull it off.”

Competition starts at 9 a.m., which means some volunteers are on site by 6 a.m., and the days often don’t end until midnight. That doesn’t include all the prep work ahead of time. So the volunteers and staff are spending a lot of time together.

“We spend so much time together, most people call it a family,” Woodley says with a smile.

So why do it? Why bother with the effort to travel to competition or the behind-the-scenes work to put it on?

“It’s for the kids—it’s all about the kids,” Martinez declares. “It’s having that experience. They pour their heart and soul and mind and strength into it. It’s definitely a sport of the arts! It takes practice, energy, discipline, and strength.”

Those life skills and lessons have helped do more than keep a guard member active.

“We have heard from countless kids that this has completely changed their lives,” Woodley says. “It’s a formative experience. It teaches discipline, team work, life skills that make you the person you are.”

Plus, it forges relationships that can last a lifetime. More than 25 years later, Woodley is still friends with and sometimes sees, at WGI events, guard mates from when he was a competitor. To him, the camaraderie he experienced was one of the best parts about being on the team.

Although guard sometimes is still trying to “earn a seat at the table” in the sporting realm, as Woodley puts it, it’s clear that these dedicated members, ensembles, staff and volunteers aren’t going anywhere.

In fact, they’re just getting started.

WGI Color Guard Competition holds preliminaries Thursday, April 6, semi-finals Friday, April 7, and finals Saturday, April 8 at the various venues. Saturday events often sell out beforehand. Percussion competition follows the same timeline from April 20–22. Winds competition is held April 22–23.  Tickets can be ordered online or by calling 866.589.7161, Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, please visit WGI.org.

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Joyell Nevins
Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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