Friday, October 4, 2019

Dropping Your Way Through Life

I heard a phrase yesterday. A co-worker was talking to me about her life as a gymnast. To be honest, I don't really remember what she was saying. What I remember is this phrase, "You spend your life falling off the beam and getting up and falling off the beam again." That resonated with me. This idea that we use sports metaphors to describe life isn't anything new, but this one hit home.

I've been missing my guard world lately. For the first time in decades I'm not teaching or a part of a design team. I'm just me. I'm doing me. I'm being the me I've waited a lifetime to be. When you finally reach that point, you start to look at what you have in this amazing way. And when you do that, you find a sense of loneliness. You long for times when you seemed more free or times when you felt more confident. The funny thing about life, is that the more you get what you want, the more you start to lose your confidence. People want and expect more. People don't have empathy for you. People are out to destroy you. So with the expectations, makes me want to be cocooned inside a gym, wrapped in a flag, awaiting for it to open. And when it opens, I want my friends on the other side with a cocktail. I want those people we performed with and taught with to be standing there with my double vodka madras in hand to say, "Hey Girl! What cha doin?"

I've spent a year in the gymnastics world working on safety for the athletes. I've learned a lot and with the learning...comes the drops. I was wondering when that co-worker was talking about falling off the beam, how many times I've dropped a rifle or sabre. I wonder how many thousands of drops I've witnessed as an instructor. Thousands! Thousands of opportunities for me to beat myself up or a performer I taught to look to me for the next, "Do it again." When an athletes days are over as a performer or gymnast or baseball player or football player, I wonder how many realize that every one of those drops and falls would eventually turn them into a person that would find that life is just a series of drops, falls, fumbles, and strikeouts.

When I performed with the Pride of Cincinnati, I hated rifle quads. I don't know why. For some reason I couldn't get the rotation right. I could get triples and fives, but those damn quads. On the finals video you can see this one performer off in the distance throw a lopsided 4ish, maybe fiveish? It's a terrible Shelba moment. I don't know how many people see it on the video, but I know it's there. I caught it, though.  I caught that bitch out of the air and kept moving. It's not a pretty toss and it's not a drop. But I kept moving.

Well holy crap! Isn't that just the epitome for life. "Not quite great, but not a tragedy."

Recently, I've had a rough time. Single mom. Career that is in the public eye. A system that is being built, while we are expected to already have it built. Money. God I hate money. And then there's the ever present...SEX LIFE. Where the hell did that go? Oh right. I got old.

But lately, I've just been thinking about the drops. I've been thinking about every time I dropped and picked it up again and simply, "Did it again." I was never a good rifle. I was a great sabre, but rifle? I was moderate to not so moderate. I tolerated it as necessary equipment of the sport. When I was in gymnastics I hated the vault. But there it was, every meet I was expected to perform. Rifle is life to me right now. I know it's there and I have to get through it. I'm going to pick it up every day, because I have to get better at it. Sitting in the corner however, is the sabre. The sabre is my love. It's light in my hands and rotates around my body like a flower dancing in the wind. It's getting a little old, but it's still there. It's my self esteem and my identity. I've lost the sabre for the moment, but I'm hoping to soon find it ready to dance in my hands, with the beauty of rainbow that surprises us on a hot summer day.

Then there's the flag. The flag is my core. It's my soul. It's been with me all along and was the first to call to me. It was the first to be spun and is able to change it's beauty just by changing the fabric. It changes with my mood. In my life, the flag is my friends. They are always there. They have always been there. They are the ones who I call late at night and don't worry if I wake them up. They are the ones that know me and have always known me. They are the ones that know my passwords. They are the people who know my bullshit and put up with it, until it's time to not put up with it anymore. They are my tough love. They are my history. They are blood.

It's interesting when you classify people as your blood, as they are the ones who have seen you cry and give up on yourself. They are the ones that literally say, "Stop your bullshit. You're better than this." It's the flag. It's your friends who have seen you drop and fall and get back up and say, "Bitch, do it again."

Lately, as I've spent a year in another sport, I've learned how much I love the one I come from. I see the people. I hear the music. I remember the fun times and the outright shenanigans. There were arguments and drama. But it was there. It was all a part of my amalgam of an equipment drop that helped me pick up and try again. The best thing we have as an activity is the ability to drop. I would say the same for any other person that's spends a lifetime throwing the football, swinging at the baseball, or trying for that perfect foul shot.

Recently, I was beating myself up. It doesn't matter why, but let's just say that the negative Shelba had taken over the positive Shelba and beat her to a bloody pulp. The positive Shelba gave up and said things like, "I'm nothing. I've always been nothing." She forgot where she came from and the rifle that had given her the tough times, the sabre that showed her how confident and great she really is, and the flag that was her base and her friends. I forgot it all. I forgot about the many drops and the outright failures. I forgot how many times I walked into critique expecting to be told how much we sucked, and instead heard, "Wow." I forgot about the friends who had always stood by my side and would do anything for me. I forgot about our collective history of WGI's and DCI's of late night laughter and tears through alcohol strewn Marriotts.

Dropping our rifle is important. We have to fail. We have to beat ourselves up. We have to hear the phrase, "Do it again." For every time a David Baker tells you to do it again, is a time in life you'll need to stand up strong, whether it's in the office at work as you fight for your ideas, with your child's teacher as you fight for their rights, or with your partner when you just simply need to leave it all behind. All of those "Pick it up and do it agains," will be your savior.

You know, I've said this a lot over the years. We are so lucky. We have been given this gift of art and friendship. We've also been given the reality of failure and with that failure, we learn to pick the damn thing up and keep going. The drill is moving at a tempo of 178. You are on the move and there goes your rifle. It went to the left. You went to the right, but you still got it. Your recovered and threw the next toss...on time. Some people saw your error. You might even get yelled at for it later, but you kept going. You dropped and recovered. This is life's metaphor. This is our metaphor for those of us who chose the pageantry arts as life's art. Sometimes, I believe it chose us. It chose us so one day we would know that it was with us all along. It's like the angel on your shoulder telling you it's ok. "It's o.k. to pick it up and try again."

Lately I've been dropping. But let me tell you, "My recovery is one count or less and girl...I'm a diva."

And so are you.
Thank you for dropping. It makes us all better.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

...But Music Was His Life

"Mr. Martin Tanner, Baritone, of Dayton, Ohio made his town hall debut last night. 
He came well prepared, but unfortunately his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards.
His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it consistently interesting.

Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order."

I first heard those words in 1990, Buffalo. It was WGI and I was 20. I had never hear of Harry Chapin, but after that weekend, I would never forget him. For most people, the Blessed Sac show revered the most is 1989, Gordon Lightfoot. Don't get me wrong. I adore that show and understand its absolute place in our activity. If You Could Read My Mind, set us on a path that would change everything we did. However, it was 1990 that would stay with me forever. I don't know if it was the lyrics of the song or the performance of the guard, maybe it was a combination of the two, but when I watched the show in prelims I knew I was changed. When WGI 1990 was over, I found myself actually buying Harry Chapin's greatest hits. This song that was released in 1973, would stay with me forever. I would spend the next three decades listening to it and analyzing it. Over time, I found that it mirrored a little of who I was and the activity I loved so much. 

Sometime in early January of this winter guard season, someone had told me that Avon HIgh School was redoing Mr. Tanner. My first thought was simple. "Oh my God." I spent all season avoiding the show on Facebook, avoiding conversations, and avoided every performance on FloMarching. I wanted to see it live, because I wanted to experience it like I experienced the first one. I wanted to experience it the way art should be person. There was a time in our activity when we didn't have the means to share shows through social media and to be honest, there are times when I really miss those days. Back in my day, you would hear of a really cool show and have to wait until you saw it in person to know what it was people were talking about. You didn't go into Dayton knowing the nuances of the design or most of the equipment book. You just watched it as a brand new experience, in an arena filled with lovers of the same passion as you. 

"But music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
He did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole."

Mr. Tanner speaks to me, because I'm guilty of trying to suppress what it is about me that makes me whole. And in the song, Mr. Tanner did just that after he was told that he should find another endeavor. I've always been a tech and when you're a tech, you spend your time in the marching arts behind the scenes of genius and that can become lonely. That loneliness has often turned to self doubt as I've surrounded myself by these artists who have talent I'll never realize. My own critic, the internal one that tells me I'm not good enough, silences my passion, just like the critics silenced Mr. Tanner. 

When you spend all weekend clapping through counts, there are times when you are lost in a world that doesn't seem real. You reach Monday morning and actually question where real life begins and where it ends. That's how we all feel after a weekend in Dayton. We get back to Monday and look around and can't believe there are people who don't understand that feeling of passion, of art, and of friendship. I always get back to work on Monday after Dayton and it doesn't matter how I explain it, I can't seem to get people to understand the history. 

Ron Comfort, one of my best friends in the world, always asks at the end of WGI weekend, "How was your Dayton?"  A long time ago we realized that we can all be in the same city or same arena, and have completely different experiences. Dayton is different every year and I can never understand how someone could have a bad time. Even when my guards tanked I managed to find my joy, whether is was in the arena on Saturday night or in a hug of a friend I haven't seen in years. This year I had a completely different experience. It was prefaced by the fact that I have a new job where I work around people who believe their sport is the best. They believe in their activity and the life it has given them. They talk about it all the time. My job is one where passion meets the soul of the sport as they (we) literally fight everyday for its survival. I have found that the conversations of gymnastics is no different than the ones I have about color guard and drum corps. Passion is passion. We just all find it in different places. So this year, I was at work during prelims and watched much of it on FloMarching between meetings. I broke my rule and watched Avon, but I also shared it. I brought co-workers around my computer to watch what it was that I loved. These people who have watched Simone and Aly compete at the Olympics, watched Avon High School with me. Their reaction? Well...let's just say it was what I was hoping. Jaws dropped open and admiration from one sport to the other. "This is a high school?" They asked question after question.  I shared the love of color guard and it made me happy.I made it to Dayton by Thursday night and just in time to see some good friends and a few Independent A guards in Cincinnati. As the weekend continued I made sure to see as many guards I could...A, Open, World. I saw every class at some point during the weekend, admiring the art and the hard work. I enjoyed being a full time audience member for a change, because it allowed perspective. I was able to see friends and have a drink or two (or three or four), without anything holding me back from the experience. I never even acknowledged the scores or placements as I spoke to friends. I just wanted to enjoy their presence. I wanted to hang on to the moment.

"He came home to Dayton and was questioned by his friends.
Then he smiled and just said nothing and he never sang again,
Excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed.
He sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes."

Over the many years I took guards to Dayton, some seasons were better than others, as we have all experienced. There were times that what I thought was art, others thought was trash. I've said the phrase, "I'm done," more times than I care to count. For a little over three years now, I've been trying to find my way back. There were times I guess, I was looking to find my way out. There are many reasons for the soul searching, that included words such as discouragement, disbelief, skepticism, and exhaustion. Some of what I felt was a longing for the return to a time when we were a bit smaller as an activity and when I knew less. Some of it was my own personal need to expand my own horizons. The reasons aren't important. What's important is that somewhere alone with my thoughts, I sang softly to myself as I sorted through the clothes and within that song, I found my way back. 

"And it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul."

And as for Avon? I didn't clap. I didn't cheer. I simply sat in awe. It was as if I was looking at a painting I had longed to see my entire life. It was flawless and what made it such, was the weekend that led up to that performance. Guard after guard came to win. The craft that so many have toiled over led to standing ovation after standing ovation in Dayton. Watching Avon allowed me to visit the past and the craftsmanship of 40 years of imagination and art. Through Avon I saw every designer, technician, choreographer, and performer that came before. When they were done, a simple tear fell down my face. I knew I had found my way back. When an activity such as this gives us all so much, it's important to have a moment where it all just flows over you. No analyzation. Just peace and reflection. 

To all the performers, designers, technicians, and choreographers of 2019. Thank you. 

To the Avon performers. You helped build a bridge where the past merged with the present and led us to the future. You will never be forgotten. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Soul Searching In A World of Sexual Abuse

It's been a long time since I've written anything. To be honest, I haven't known what to write because inspiration has been hard to come by. It seemed to me after the presidential election of 2016, a massive women's march, #Metoo, mass shootings, take a knee, and basic mothering...the marching arts needed to take a back seat. I've been busy, though. After the last election I knew I needed to get involved. I needed to fight for what I believed in and I needed to fight for women. With advocacy comes soul searching...a lot of soul searching. What do I believe in? How can I fight for those beliefs? How can I use my voice for the betterment of those things I hold close to my heart? The reality is that I've been speaking out for years and trying to bring awareness to issues related to women and children. I've been screaming at the top of my lungs about women in the marching arts being offered more prominent roles and creating better awareness for accountability in our own programs and at the national level.

However, I didn't go far enough. I should have been more direct and more blunt on how I felt about the sexual abuse and sexual assaults that have been whispered about for years in the marching arts. I have been working professionally in youth based mental health for over two decades and know the absolute damage that sexual abuse does to children. I knew. We as an activity have been whispering for years. I use to wonder who would be the first to speak out and who would be the first to fall. Your head is buried in the sand if this has never crossed your mind. This year there seemed to be a dark cloud hanging around the conversations at WGI. The world championships happened just one week after the scandal involving George Hopkins and the Cadets and of course, that was probably the biggest topic discussed with cocktail in hand and after the annual hugs from friends we hadn't seen in a year. People told stories. We sat in each others rooms listening as old friends mentioned "rumors" from when they marched drum corps and winter guard. The phrase, "I wonder who will be next," was frequently stated less as a question and more as an absolute. Three people mentioned to me instructors that had fondled them in showers, groomed them for sexual relations, and threatened them with leadership positions in their corps or guard. I have received three different emails from victims since January from people asking for my advice, which I always just say, "I'm not a lawyer, just someone who cares about ending this culture of silence." I advise the best way I can, with a note of apology that I can't do more.

It was as if the veil had been lifted on fear. There were no more jokes. There were no more innuendos. Many of us went back in our own minds and wondered what we missed and what we knew...or what we had heard. Personally, I have gone back and questioned every single moment of my guard career from my high school, drum corps, and teaching years. I have looked back with regret of my teaching style back in the 90's. I cringe when I think about the whispered abuses that occurred when I was a performer. Things I heard, but couldn't prove. I'm not even sure what I would have done if I could have proved it. We have never had a place to report what we think we heard or thought we knew. We never discussed sexual assault between members. No one ever talked about it. We still have trouble talking about it.

I think the season of 2018 and even the marching band season of 2017, will be the year we say that the world found us. We realized that we weren't this cute little activity that is immune from the ills of the world anymore. One day, we'll look back and see that we spent decades exploring the world through the themes of our shows...always looking out. 2017/2018 will be the year that we had to look within. If you think about it, the marching arts was impacted by the Take A Knee movement as stories of kids in marching bands took knees during the National Anthem at local football games. The Contest of Champions; a long time state championship in Tennessee was cancelled due to a Nazi rally in the same city as the competition. In February, a school shooting stopped us all in our tracks and then to close out the year, the #MeToo movement found us. It would have been silly to think it wouldn't find us, because we are not immune. We are not so special that the world can't find us. I mean, if we are too big to not avoid copyright law, then of course sexual abuse and assault would find us. It has literally found just about everyone else in the world. When you create rock stars without checks and balances, then yes...the world will surely find us.

So what do we do now? We ask ourselves one simple question.  How can I make sure no one else is harmed through unchecked power and control?

We speak out.

We demand that anyone we work with, anyone who works for any organization that serves youth in the pageantry arts, and all gatekeepers of the activity create checks and balances that allow for safe reporting of abuse.

We demand that staff who are fired from programs for abuse...stay fired from all programs and to do that, we become diligent at checking references.

We demand that ALL staff, judges, and volunteers are background checked before walking on any school property for rehearsals and shows.

We demand dialog that goes beyond the "who" of creativity.

We bring bring back the idea of conferences and conventions where we discuss recognizing abuse, proper teaching techniques, and creating safe rehearsal environments.

Finally, we create a culture where excellence is not just a phrase we use on the back of a judging sheet to describe the creative and technical process, but a word to describe how our programs are run and taught. If I've learned anything in my profession working in the industry of youth services for 25 years, is that not everyone is in it for the kids. Often times people are in it for ego. Many are in it for money and when you put those two together unchecked, well that's a recipe for abuse. Just look at all the recent scandals of top sports and youth organizations. Keep looking, because in this new world of #Metoo, we are going to see more and if we don't start addressing this now in an open and honest way, then we might not have an activity to protect as schools will refuse use of their facilities and parents refuse to allow participation. We aren't immune.

We change the culture and we start now.

Monday, May 1, 2017

5 Reasons Why You Need To Go To Your Local Circuit Meeting This Spring

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It's spring. It's post season. It's pre-marching band season. It's whatever time of year you want to call it, but the reality is that if your winter guard performed in a local circuit this past winter, then that annual circuit meeting is coming up sometime in the next few weeks and you know what, you have a responsibility to the color guard you are paid to teach to attend that circuit meeting. Chances are the meeting is within driving distance and chances are the meeting will only takes a few hours of your time, but that few hours say it bluntly...your responsibility to attend. 

Did you have a complaint this past season that you feel went unheard? Do you have an idea that could save the circuit money? Do you know who the board is? Do you know how judges are evaluated? Do you know why certain decisions were made that impact your color guard such as promotions, entry fees, or championship seeding? All of this and more can be and is often addressed at the end of season meeting and unfortunately, most circuits face a dearth of interest in attending that meeting. Let me be clear about something. I have served on a local circuit board for several years and in my 28 years of teaching, I have rarely missed the end of season meeting and because of that, I have little patience when instructors complain. If you as an instructor don't engage in the voting process, especially when each unit of a circuit gets one vote in most decisions, then what right do you have to complain when things don't go your way? There are many things that you can get out of attending a circuit meeting, but I've listed five that I believe are crucial to the success of your unit.

Knowing the Board of Directors

Do you know who is on the board of directors? Do you know how long they have been on the board or what their area of focus is? Do they have affiliations and if so, what are they? At the end of year circuit meeting, the membership (which is usually the paying units), gets an opportunity to vote for who will serve on the board of directors the following year. Some circuits have stipulations that you are voting a person in for a term of 1 to 3 years and others put each seat up for a vote annually. Regardless, you need to be there to vote. Those people make decisions that impact a lot of things that include money, judges, unit promotions, show schedules, staffing, show locations, unit education, and so much more. They are responsible for whether or not the circuit will flourish or flounder. They are the ones that advocate for you as a body at the national level. So the question is this. Do you know who they are and do you trust them? If not, then you need to get to that meeting and vote. If you think the circuit is doing great and you fully trust the board, then you still need to go to the meeting and vote. It's important to see if there are others who offer fresh ideas or who have different level of expertise. If for nothing else, you need to go to the meeting to see if the board even has a general respect for each other and respect for the people in which they serve. 


You, or I should say your guard, is a paying member of the circuit and you have the right to see how the money is spent. All circuits should submit a financial statement to their membership and give that membership a chance to ask questions. When you pay your $500 to join a circuit, then you are buying a product and that product is what helps you put your guard on the floor and offers them a chance at success. And let me be clear. When the membership doesn't engage, then the board doesn't have oversight and when the board doesn't have oversight, then they can do pretty much anything they want. Do they do whatever they want? Most likely no. Most people are ethical and on the up and up. However, it doesn't mean that the money is spent wisely and some nonprofit boards are simply apathetic. Some are poorly trained in the nuances of financial sophistication. Some have done illegal things. This is where you come in. You need to ask questions. 

How much money do we have in the bank?
Have we made money, lost money, or stayed the same over the past three to five years?
Have there been any capital expenses this year?
How much money is spent on non performance based line items vs. other items that are non performance related? Meaning, are there frivolous costs and if so, were those costs warranted?
Is there waste?
Has there been an independent audit of the financials in the past year?
What are the line items?


Do you know how the judges are chosen each season? Do you know how they are evaluated? What is the process for lodging a complaint? How do you know if the judging is getting better each season? How are local judges recruited and trained? How much is spent on judge travel? Here's the thing about judging. Most circuits, if not all of them, have a judging coordinator. That coordinator in many cases must answer to the board. Sometimes that position is a paid position. It's your right to know who that person is and that person needs to be able to answer these questions. 


What educational opportunities are offered to the member units? How are the instructors approached in terms of educational opportunities? Is there education offered to instructors at different levels? How much money is spent on education? I'll tell you right now and pretty confidently, that education comes up in every circuit I'm associated with and some circuits do nothing, while others are going out of their way to find different avenues to reach the different types of units they serve. The key to it all starts at your spring meeting. Who is responsible for unit education and do they have a budget for outreach and the different modalities required to educate Novice through World Class?

Class Structure and Unit Promotion

This is a big one. Huge! The way the classes are set up should change every few years as the circuit grows in number and/or skill level. The way the classes are structured and the way the guards are promoted directly impacts how judges evaluate your color guard. If your guard is in the wrong class, then you won't get the information you need to get better. Your circuit needs to have a process in place to evaluate the guards as they move up and down the local class structure. Do you know what that process is? The Regional A Classes for instance have a local flavor. The make up of the units that are judged on the Regional A sheet can impact your score. It is in your absolute interest to pay attention to the class structure, the make up of the classes, and how those guards are moved. This one gets under my skin, because during the season every has an opinion on promotion and class, but when the season is over, very few people use their voice for the good of the general membership if they use it at all.


When you go to your circuit meeting you need to come prepared. You need to have read your by-laws, which SHOULD be available to you on demand. You need to have an awareness of parliamentary procedure. You need to know what proposals are on the table to be voted on and speak only when the procedure allows for conversation. It helps if you know which proposals impact the by-laws and which impact policies. By-laws govern the association and are much like a Constitution. They are harder to change and should require longer and more thoughtful discussion. Policy can often be changed without a vote, but with thoughtful conversation and consideration. The two are very different and require different types of votes based on circuit rules. Try to find out the history of the issue you have before speaking on it if possible. Be professional and speak without emotion. Personally, I loathe comments that are out of order, off topic, and clearly emotional in nature. Make sure you speak for the good of the order and not for your individual unit when making a point. No one wants to listen to you bitch about your season, but if you can show that your concern is for, let's say an entire class, then chances are you will make your point and move people in your direction. Be inquisitive and be challenging, but please don't be catty and rude. Use data. Oh I just love data. Numbers don't lie, so if you can make a point through numbers then do it. 

"Last season we had 76 guards on the Regional A sheet, which made up 56% of competing units in the circuit. Two years ago we had 46% and our membership numbers haven't changed. Can anyone speak to why our units aren't moving up?"

"This past year we only had 10 units attend nationals. Only 3 of them made finals. We usually average 50% of our competing units in finals and our numbers of those in attendance at regionals and nationals have been declining for the past five years. Can we put together a committee to find out the reasons as to why we are losing our national presence?"

More than anything. You must show respect to those that are serving in a current board or staff position. You may not like them. You may feel as if they have steered the ship in the wrong direction, but you may not disrespect them. Most all circuit boards are volunteer run and the people who run them are doing their best. The purpose of the meeting should always be to help the board make better decisions based on the current needs of the membership. It is not a bitch session and should not be allowed to be treated as such. These meetings are just that...a meeting. If you really want to create change then run for a seat on the board. If you can't do that, then at the very least...go to the meeting and use your voice to advocate for your guard as well as your competitors.

Shelba is a board development specialist and youth development expert. She can be contacted at 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Images of Broken Arm Bands, WGI Signs, and Oranges

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"Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realized. We were sad of getting old it made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song. When we were young."--Adele

Dayton 2017 was my 29th year at WGI. I guess with 29 years I've probably attended more than most, but not enough to be in that first generation of trail blazers. I found myself somewhat sad and maybe less celebratory than those around me. I tried to figure out why and it finally came to me in a late Friday night cocktail sitting in the kitchen with friends, as I snapped the arm band off my wrist preparing for the finals arm band yet to come. 

Image may contain: 1 person, table and indoorDayton can be an unforgiving mix of ill timed tosses, a misplaced tenth, and people who always seem a little bit happier and a little bit more successful than you. Usually none of that bothers me, but this year was different. As my broken arm band lay sitting on the table, I saw my life and the story it told through the tan left over pieces of another season coming to an end. As I sat and pondered my life, I realized what it was that was making me sad. WGI and the winter guard activity as a whole is moving on into the future, but through the process of change is a systemic loss to who we are at our core and I believe we are being reckless with our past. When the announcement came down that there would be no more videos even for educational purposes, I thought that once again, we've lost a piece of ourselves. This isn't about blame. It's just a simple fact and with every change, we become a little more lost to time. Earlier this season someone asked where I marched and I said what I always say. "I marched Pride the kite year." Their response? "I don't think I know that show." Think about that statement for a moment, because I did. Think about being 6th place in World Class without anyone remembering what you did. Once my generation is gone, so is my show. I guess that's life isn't it. I can't even find a video of it and for that I am heartbroken.

While standing at the top of the tunnel waiting for my guard to make the decent to the floor, it was mentioned to me that equipment warm up use to be held in the tunnel. I didn't know that. Then there was a time when warm up was held in the tent and you prayed to not hit those beams with your rifle. The tent. Remember when most of the vendors were guards selling their tee shirts and buttons? History. In our activity we use words without explanation. The tent. The tunnel. Headquarters. Butter Jesus. Depending on when you marched depends on what those words mean to you. Will a current A class performer ever use the word "tunnel" one day? I remember when the Butter Jesus burned down and we all made light of it, but the Butter Jesus was when those of us coming from the south realized that we were truly in Ohio. Headquarters has been updated and it's different. Gone are the days of sitting on those old brown bar stools waiting for some friend you haven't seen in a year. Al is still there. Al is the bartender at headquarters and every year he gives me a hug and makes me feel welcome. Jesus is still there, but he no longer looks like a strange butter statue.

Many of us fear we are losing the Dayton experience with the A Class not getting a shot at the tunnel and finals shows that go on back to back in different arenas. Shows are being missed. Dayton is an experience and the experience my friends is changing with its commercials between shows and congratulatory sponsorships. Then there are the things that have gone to the past that some day, no one will remember. Triple Finals. Sunday finals. Buffalo. Bump Score. Open Class...the old Open Class. 

There was a part of me that hoped when I got to Dayton, the arenas would be filled with large posters of performers of the past and there would be a dedicated ballroom for those of us wanting to take a trip down memory lane with old shows playing on a large screen tv, recaps spread out on tables, and uniforms of guards long gone. As I went from arena to arena, I realized that outside of the visual reminder of signs that said, "40," there really wasn't much that connected us to our history. As video's played of guards of the past in the arena during world finals, it made me think of all of the wonderful shows that weren't featured and that didn't win. It made me think of the guards that gave us a memory and live in the conscious mind of those who were in attendance on any special night in April. What I learned this weekend is that life is meant to be lived in the here and now, because there might not be a tomorrow. Some remember Pride the kite show and those are the people that I'm most connected to, because we shared a moment. Performer to judge. Audience to performer.  

We get caught in a loop in our activity with the same names and same guards recycling themselves in our discussions year after year. With those discussions, we leave out people and shows that also made an impact and also gave us memories to last a lifetime, but might not have received a winning score. I think that's what makes those of us who are old a little sad at times, because all we want is to be remembered for our time and our contribution. I guess that's what makes us human and maybe that's what keeps us coming back year after year, to hopefully see a glimpse of ourselves from a time gone by.

There are guards that live in my personal memory and I want to give them a shout out, because they are everything to me. They are of my time and they keep me warm on nights when life gets rough. 

Forte' and Odyssey. Before Onyx did Bizarre and no one knew what to do with them was Forte' 1995, and no one knowing what to do with them, and before Forte' was Odyssey 1987, and no one knowing what the hell that all meant.

Everybody. Before Northern Lights stood on top of the world with Road to Perdition, was Everybody and their off the wall costumes that took the phrase production value to a completely different level. One year they were peacocks and another year they were also taking off clothes to the song King of Pain. 

Shaktai. I taught Shaktai and for six years we graced the World Class with five times in finals and with Aquarius, we saw fifth place and an undertone of the ending of the Renaissance of the activity. 

Millers Blackhawks. Will anyone ever really grasp the impact they had on the activity? They were the guard that high school kids wanted to perform at. Well this high schooler anyway.

Royal Guardsmen. Before Aimachi brought the house down, a little rainstorm made the Dayton arena shake with a roar that is rarely even heard anymore on the night of finals. 

Northview. Dr. Seuss. That is all. 

Northmont. Somewhere. It was beautiful. 

There have been others. 

Studio One. Thunderbolts. Chesapeake Cavaliers. Anthron. St. Ann's. Chimeras. Suburbanettes. San Marino Academy. Alliance of Miami. Escapade. The Knights. Northeast Independent. The Study.

Lest we forget our wonderful high school programs.

Chaperrals. Crestwood. Northview. Choctaw. Kaleidoscope. Overton. Coast One.

Standing in the tunnel on Thursday morning I just wanted to stop for one moment and take a picture, but as I once heard in Six Feet Under, "You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone." One day, the guards of 2017 will be only a memory to be only thought of by those in attendance. One day, 2017 will be 2037 and WGI will be celebrating 60 years. Many of us will be gone and it will be up to those left behind to tell the story of Aimachi's standing ovation and Onyx's Bizarre, Bizarre. How will the story be told? Will they be lost to grainy YouTube videos without explanation or discussion? How will history capture Onyx and something so unusual that not many could wrap their heads around? Will we remember the discussion? Will we remember how the entire audience leaned forward in their seats while they tried to process what it was they were seeing? 

I've been to 29 years of WGI World Championship finals and they are all like an old movie to me that runs in silence with the click, click, click of the projector, as I sit in the dark with only the light of the movie to illuminate my memory. With WGI signs torn off the wall, props thrown in dumpsters, and broken arm bands, I realize that some things never change. Every year when I make the final drive past the arena to I-75, I want so desperately to hold on to what it is I experienced that weekend. I want to hold on to my friends and hold on to the guards. There are dear friends I spend special moments with that only I know about and that I call Same Time Next Year moments. I always morbidly wonder who won't be with us next year. I think of my moment in the Dayton arena with my dropless sabre run. Every year I make sure to eat an orange at prelims and that my performers do the same. It's the only thing that hasn't changed. It's the only constant from arena to arena. The oranges are the level playing field and one of the most important aspects of our history and yet, I don't even know why we do it. All I know is that you have to eat an orange. It's tradition. It's history. 

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Independent Guards and the Problem with Dues

This post is a look at independent guard funding that comes from  21 years as a staff member with independent programs. It is a collection of conversations I have had with numerous directors regarding finances that plague guards all over the country. This is not directed at any program I work with as I work with many and it isn't directed at any one person or any one color guard. Additionally, this post is not intended to address the financial issues that plague high school programs, as those issues which may be similar at times is not the same and function under a different set of rules often governed by a school board or band booster program. 

I am not a director of an independent color guard. I have never been the director of an independent color guard and this post is the reason why. However, when I sign on to an independent guard I sign on for one, the long haul and two, to help in any way I can. When I'm on staff I absorb the financial pain that is faced by the programs through watching the directors fret and stress over every dime that comes in and goes out. With that, I try to not forcibly violate the unwritten code of the activity by asking for obnoxious amounts of money or making the program pay for expenses that I can easily incur. When I am on staff, I am budget conscious. With that being said, being budget conscious and giving up income to teach allows me to be a stakeholder in the program. This basically means that I actually give a crap if the performers pay their dues. 

I started teaching independent color guard when I was 26 at the Shaktai Performance Company. It wasn't until I was about 36 though while teaching at Paradigm, that I started to really grasp what the directors of independent guards endure to keep the program afloat. I have taught at the Alliance of Miami and Fahrenheit and I remain in forever awe of the work that went on behind the scenes that allowed these guards to survive for as long as they did. I'm going to try to describe a directors life in the most accurate words I can possibly find.

An independent guard is run by volunteers who spend their days stressing over every dime spent. Their goal is to give the program they are working for the best opportunity for success by often times fronting money to cover the best staff, show, and accommodations they can find.  They listen to a crazy design ideas and then try to figure out how to build a prop that is reminiscent of the Titanic, while at the same time trying to figure out how to transport it and get it into a standard size gym while the design team says, "Yeah, but it will look great in Dayton!" They serve as vendor negotiators, cooks, prop builders, seamstresses, nurses, drivers, accountants, and collection agents. It's the last task I want to spend this time discussing. We have a problem in this activity and I would love to place blame squarely on one group, but I can't. There is quite a bit of blame to go around and the problem I'm talking about is one that the kids are not paying their dues in a timely manner, if they pay at all. 

The interesting part of the last statement is that at independent programs we aren't dealing with kids. We are dealing with adults. They are young adults, but nonetheless they are still adults as understood by the law and as adults, they sign a contract and are expected to live up to that contract. Where we go wrong as an activity is when we don't hold them responsible for that contract. If the contract states that by December you are to make a set of payments that total $500, then it means that by December you need to make enough payments that total $500. It doesn't mean that you blow off your financial responsibilities, because you (now pick one of the many excuses below):

  • Are waiting on your student loan check
  • Lost your job
  • Mom lost her job
  • Dad refused to pay
  • You can't find a job that makes you look cool
  • Have other bills that are more important
  • Can't get a job, because school is taking all of your time
  • Your drum corps payments are coming due
  • Your car broke down
  • Your hours were cut at the restaurant 
I've heard it all. The below list is the more honest ones that we all know happens:

  • The new iPhone was released 
  • Marijuana gives you a great high on Sunday night after a long camp of technique
  • Cocktails at the club tasted oh so good
  • Macy's had a sale
  • Star Wars was better in Imax than in the normal theater the rest of us went to
It doesn't matter if the excuse comes from the first list or the second list, because the reality is that a contract was signed indicating the responsibility is on the person that signed it. Independent programs barely survive even when the kids pay their dues in full. Rehearsal facilities is most likely the number one driver that kills an independent guard. Gyms are not cheap and very difficult to come by. Independent guards struggle with survival because of the lack of booster support that many high schools have, so fundraising is very difficult. An independent program usually cannot work a concession stand at a sporting event, because those events require a minimum amount of volunteers and most of the kids do not come from the community the guard exists in. Selling candles, candy, wrapping paper, or fruit is also difficult, because the nature of fundraising exists in a little known thing called a Rolodex. People fundraise by leveraging the dollars of the people they know. Who do broke young people know? Other broke young people. So needless to say, finding ways to get money that cuts down on the dues is a constant and full time job for directors that have other full time jobs. 

However, we still come back to this little problem. The people that audition for an independent guard do so with an understanding that they will have to pay a set fee and within that will sign a contract stating that they will be responsible for that set fee. I am a fierce advocate for kids marching color high school. I am not a fierce advocate for adults marching independent programs when they can't afford it or refuse to do the work necessary to live up to their responsibilities. It is not my job as a member of the pageantry instructional community to fund the dreams of a performer unless I actively seek out an individual who has done the work. I have more than once met a kid half way with their dues, but they had to meet me half way before a check was ever written and that check always went to the organization. 

The activity is expensive and I can't fix that. I can't fix the fact that to march drum corps will cost several thousand dollars a summer and I can't and will not ask an independent guard I teach to let a performer off the hook for dues, just because they happen to make a top 12 drum corps. If a performer wants to march drum corps and winter guard in a singular fiscal year, it will most likely cost them anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 depending on where they go...and that is just in dues. That doesn't include other costs such as travel, team jackets, flag bags, and other things that usually come with marching in these programs. How many college kids do we know that have that kind of money? This is problem number one. Choices. They need to make a choice and we need to encourage them to make that choice responsibly. Additionally, we need to bring those costs down. Period. Do they really need a flag bag? Does the staff really need a retreat in Las Vegas to discuss show design? 

Problem number two. We are in a system that these young people are taking advantage of and we need to stop it. The drum corps and winter guards need to collectively say that we will not allow a member to abuse another program in the summer or winter just so our program can flourish. If we do, then what lessons are we teaching these people and if they do it to one, you better know that chances are they will try to do it to another. 

Problem number three. Not red flagging the performers that are behind early in the year. In independent guards, it's usually December that you can start to see the pattern. Once the pattern is identified the design staff needs to be aware, because that kid or those kids need to know that their days are numbered if a significant payment doesn't come in and soon. Red flagging allows the staff to look at how they stage that performer if the day does come that they will be cut for failure to pay. This part is where we often break down, because by the time the finances become critical, it's usually too late to change the show without significant rewrites. Sometimes it is our compassionate side that doesn't want to cut a kid and sometimes it's our ego. How many people have marched a program and failed to pay knowing they are the most talented in the guard? It's our ego that keeps that kid in that star role, and the reality is that we are doing that young person a disservice, because once he/she leaves the gym there isn't one single creditor out there that gives a rats ass that they can throw an 8 on rifle. 

Problem number four. The excuse that the activity is more expensive now than it was back in the day. Yes, I realize that middle class income has declined in the last 20 years and no, I couldn't have marched winter guard or drum corps at a cost of $4,000 for the summer and $2,000 for the winter. However, I can't fix that and I understand that there is privilege that comes with marching color guard. I understand that for many the dream of marching on the field in Indy and the court in Dayton is a big one and it's a worthy one, but just like all dreams it is up to the individual who has the dream to figure out a way to fund it. If they think they can do it with a GoFund me account then have at it. If it means they need to drop out of school for a semester so they can work then do it. A performers dream however does not give them the right to abuse a color guard by failing to live up to their responsibilities. I have had two life long dreams. The first is to write a novel and the second is to spend an extended amount of time in Spain. I ask no one to fund my dreams or give me a leg up. They will both happen one day, but it will be after a lot of hard work and years of saving money. In my time as an independent instructor I have heard amazing stories of sacrifice by performers to fund their pageantry experience. I've taught kids who were late night phone operators, McDonalds managers, dog walkers, web designers, lawn workers, and day laborers. I have even had those that stripped. Yes...stripped. I don't like to see that, but they took their responsibility seriously and paid their dues. I have had kids that have chosen to not march in one singular season so they can save money for the following season. I know numerous kids that had to choose between college and guard. Some, many in fact only get to do one season. On the other side of the spectrum I've known some that use the activity to hide out in and don't have as my grandmother would say, "A pot to piss in." It's about choices and planning properly for those choices. 

Problem number five. Just plain financial irresponsibility. I don't know how to fix the situation that there are kids paying their dues with student loans and putting them on credit cards with an interest rate of 27%. What is let's say $1,500 in dues, can become thousands when it is still being paid off years down the road. I believe that we have a responsibility to financially educate our performers on the danger of writing a dues check on the back of high interest based loans. We say all the time that the activity is here to help kids become responsible young adults. Well are we or aren't we? Because in that same breath you hear someone say how important the activity is in growing responsible young adults, is the follow up comment that we aren't here to raise kids. In the next comment you will hear the same instructor call the guard members "their kids" when referring to the performers in their program. Sometimes raising responsible adults is telling a performer to come back next year when they have gotten their shit together. If they are truly our kids, then we need to treat the with the same tough love a good parent does.

The problem we are facing with dues in the activity stems from ego and entitlement. No one is entitled to their dreams on the back of others and those that believe that has an ego that needs to be brought down by about ten notches. My son is 10 years old and in his short life he has participated in karate, gymnastics, baseball, and cub scouts. Not one of those activities has been free and not once have I been allowed to miss a payment and in fact, most private club payments are automatic. I don't have a choice in whether I write a check or not, because the payment is automatically withdrawn. In a recent Facebook post where I brought this up, I was able to calculate that there was over $75,000 in outstanding dues owed to only 7 independent guards. That's absurd. If you take the number of all the guards headed to Dayton (128) and just took a guess that only half of those guards had performers that haven't paid and put the number  at a modest outstanding amount of $2,000 per guard by the time we get to Dayton, that's approximately $130,000 in outstanding dues performing on the floor. However, I strongly believe that number is very conservative. Personally I don't care if it's $1 or $500 owed. If you have a guard where most performers have paid their dues in full by Dayton and a couple that have failed at their responsibilities, then the guard has then created somewhat of a welfare system where a person is being funded on the backs of the hard work of others. Except in this welfare state we are not talking about extreme poverty, homelessness, or meals on wheels. We are talking about color guard and as much as I love this activity, there isn't a reason I can find where color guard is a life or death scenario.

We always say that kids today are entitled and spoiled. Well then we need to stop feeding that entitlement. Life is hard. It has been extremely hard on me at times. I've had creditors harass me. I've faced layoffs and disappointment, but not once have I placed that blame at the feet of others. Do I think the system sucks? Yes ma'am I do. I lost my home during the recession and I didn't do anything wrong. In fact, I never missed a payment. Nonetheless, I lost that home anyway. It was a dream come true when I became a home owner and just four short years later I was no longer a homeowner. I learned yet again, that life doesn't offer guarantees even when I desperately want them. My kid has a learning disability and he learns most things backwards and slowly. If he chooses to perform in a drum corps or winter guard one day, learning choreography will be very difficult for him.  Life is hard. I have a friend whose daughter has severe autism. She'll most likely never get the privilege of spinning a flag. Life is hard. I believe that there are kids out there that deserve their one shot at the floor in Dayton as some people simply need to have hope and hope is what the activity gives us. However, when we put it all into context, the majority of the world goes through their day to day lives with struggles and they deal with those struggles by realizing that none of us are special and maybe that's the best lesson we can teach the performers of our activity. These young people need to pay their dues and we need to figure out how to bring those dues down so we truly can let kids live out their dreams, but we also need to know when it's time to play mama bird and push them out of the nest and say, "Go. It's time to fly on your own."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Hope. It's What We Are Given

Have you ever wondered what sustains this activity of ours? Think about this for a minute. Color guard is an activity that when you step out of the gym and enter the light of the world, no one really understands what we do. To us, we are the activity that backed up Lady Ga Ga at the Super Bowl with lighted air rifles. To us, we are the reason people tune in to the Macy's parade every year. To us, we are the reason football players have something to do on Friday nights. To us, we are the reason the world turns. 

Let's be honest, though. With the many advances we have made as an activity, the reality is that outside of the gym we are simply just flags in a gym. Do you remember that phrase? I remember the first time I ever heard it. I was judging a local show when a guard instructor had a virtual meltdown in critique when he realized that his show was not going to be the work of art he had hoped it would be. He cried. He pouted. He even begged for more points. And in the not so distant distance, a GE judge said, "I understand that you are upset, but try to remember that it's just flags in a gym." Flags in a gym. That's all it really is when you think about it. Flags in a gym. Usually rifles. Usually sabres. Sometimes something really strange, but in all reality at the end of the day, it's just flags in a gym. But my friend, we know that it's oh so much more than that. Our little flags in a gym is really the way we as a tribe express hope.

Inside the flag that spins and the snap of the rifle catch is the reason we sustain ourselves and the reason we've been around since someone looked at a flag waving on pole and thought, "I wonder what would happen if I spun that?" Hope is what moves us from the football field to the gym; season after season. It is hope that brings us back in January after a defeating April and then allows us to focus on a field of silk during the crushing hot summer days of band camp. 

Hope is who we are and can be a lesson for those lost in life not knowing where to turn. If you watch Disney movies like I do, you see that there is a common thread that runs through all of them and sometimes that thread is painfully obvious, but other times there are hidden gems that make you hope for this two dimensional cartoon of a character to survive and find their way in the darkness of the world. Take Dori for example. Dori only wants to find her parents. She goes through great lengths to reunite, but the true hope comes when you see that her parents left seashells along the ocean floor to guide Dori back home. Their hope guided her home. Hope is the indescribable feeling that tomorrow will be better; that there is something out there that exceeds this moment that which you are experiencing right now. They say that it is when we give up hope is when our soul decides to die. When my grandmother was about 80, she met a man at church and formed a friendship to the point where she called this man her boyfriend. When he passed away, I could see hope leave my grandmother and it was then I realized that even the elderly need that hope of love that sustains our very essence of being. 

Hope is what pushes us during the pressure of March to get to the championships floor in April. No matter how bad things have gone, there is a hope that something at championships will go better than it has gone so far. That dream of what to come propels us to push harder and go beyond what we could have ever imagined. With hope, we stand up, stand proud, and look into the eyes of the judges and say, "Watch this."

When life goes awry and the skies turn dark on our lives, it's color guard that keeps us going. Among death, disease, sadness, and despair; it is hope that takes up back to the gym, because it is in the gym where we feel safe. We are among friends and those friends are who we call our family. Desmond Tutu, the great South African social rights activist once said of hope that there is a light despite of the darkness and hope lets us see that light. When our jobs aren't going well we have the gym. When our marriages fall apart, we have the gym. When we lose our faith in humanity, we still have the gym. 

We always have the gym. I write this today, because being in the gym makes me lose my sense of desperation happening in the world. Never in my lifetime have I seen such sadness and anger that embodies the country the way it does right now. I have worked in human services my entire adult life and have seen despair in the eyes of the homeless mother and fear in the kids sentenced to prison for minor drug offenses, but never have I felt so lost among my fellow man as it is a feeling we all seem to share right now. I'm afraid for our future and I'm afraid for my son. Will he ever have to go to fight an unjust war, because our leaders are preaching fear and lies? Will he have health insurance? Will he be properly educated? In the midst of the anger that builds up inside of me is hope that sits inside a gymnasium of kids waiting to be taught and waiting to be judged. They pour their hearts out while their hands sweat through worn tattered gloves. My hope stems from a new generation of instructors who just want to make their mark on the activity and I feel such joy watching them bring their show ideas to life. When I'm in the gym I lose all sense of reality of the outside world. I can go through an entire weekend from wheels up to wheels down and never once think about the hatred spewing out of Washington, because the gym is my oasis. On any given Saturday in March, I can feel like I have always felt with good friends and good times, because our pageantry activity is timeless. With the after rehearsal cocktail and long night chats about how to make the activity better, we lose ourselves with each others creativity and absolute passion. Over time, some friends have passed on and others we just simply moved on, but the memory is there and with that memory is those of us who won't give up creating until our time to pass has come. 

Generation after generation have taken the floor to have their one moment in front of the audience and later, when life's horrors knock on their door they use that moment to say, "No thank you. I think I'll spin my flag." That flag, whether it is the one that sits in the corner of their childhood bedroom or whether it's just the memory of the flag, will always be what moves us forward. The friendship. The tears. The sweat. The love. The anger. The stress. It is always a part of us and it is through those days on the floor that allows to keep moving on.

It's like that song.

To every thing
There is a season
And a time to every purpose under Heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
A time of love, a time of hate
A time to win, a time to lose
A time for peace, I swear it's not to late.

When we are in the gym, it is our purpose and it is our time. It's our time to forget about the news of the day and to remember about hard work with good people. We have our fights, but we always have our love. We have hope. 

We have hope that the show will get better each night. We have hope that our score will go up at the next show. We have hope we will make finals. We hope that the kids will have a good run through. We have hope that we will win. We have hope the kids will come back next year. We have hope that next year will be better. We hope to make new friends in a gym we visit just once while we are helping out a good friend. We have hope. The entire activity is built around hope and that is our greatest gift that is rarely acknowledged in Facebook posts celebrating the end of a Saturday night full of youth filled performances.

In my life, in all of our lives, we have had challenges. I have had challenges. It was a cold day many years ago in March where my little color guard teenage world came crashing down around me. I remember thinking, "...but all I want to do is perform." And so I did. I eventually found my way back to the gym and after every life challenge through work, relationships, and parenting; I always found my way back. I have threatened to quit, but I have always made it back. Each year has landed me in gyms and on football fields around the country and in the end it has always been hope that kept me bringing me back for more. I am very grateful for the winter guard season I am having. I have made new friends and reunited with some very dear ones that go back decades. It was hope that brought old back together and it was the belief that there were people we have yet to meet that brought new friends together for the first time. It's always hope and my hope is that the rest of your season is one of friendship and love and that next year we will find each other again in a gym somewhere and share a hug, a laugh, and kind word.

Good luck as you push to the end.