Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mia Michaels: Dance From Your Soul

Final Run of Mia's Master Class

“You don’t love me because of my choreography. You love me because I puke my soul out to you.” - Mia Michaels

It was a long, exciting, anxious two days of competition. Saturday prelims had passed and Sunday dawned to early morning wake up calls (some as early as 430am) for all the day’s performers. It was a day full of show after amazing show of hard working teams putting their all out on the floor in the last Regional Finals of the season. But, scores had been announced almost an hour ago and the arena was still full of people. The stands were filled with only a few dozen spectators, but the floor was covered with about 275 dancers of all ages in rehearsal clothing ready to listen, soak in, and obey. Everyone had that very tired “it was a long 2 day regional” look on their face, but there was a under-lying thrill too. Everyone was stretching to be ready for her, showing off their flexibility like they do on the preview clips at So You Think You Can Dance. There was loud laughter and excitement all around me. From the staff members corner of the floor, we watched the youthful spirits, the young performers show off their skills. And I sat on the floor with the older crowd, stretching my second, among the many waiting, watching. After all, the great Mia Michaels was coming for a Master Class at UCF Arena after the WGI Southeastern Power Regional.

I was immediately transported back to WGI World Finals 2008. The rumor was Mia Michaels was somewhere in the building watching World Finals that night and she was a big supporter of our activity. That year, I was marching with Fahrenheit World and we were 13th going into Finals. I was so excited cause somewhere SHE was here...watching me…and I was going to impress her!! We went through body warm up and had been moved into equipment holding. It was this cute little hallway between the two warm-ups that you stood or stretched in for about 5 or 6 minutes before moving on. I remember stretching my ponche arabesque on the wall because it was in my show and hearing…“oh, my GOD- it’s her!” I immediately dropped my leg from the wall and stood up and saw this short lovely blonde woman being escorted by several security officers through the group and through a door as quickly as possible. My heart stopped…Whoa. She. It took several minutes to pull myself out of the giddy euphoria of watching a Great cross my path. As I took the floor for Finals, I remember looking up at the crowd, breathing them in, then at the glass windows that held the skybox and wondered if she was looking down on me right at this moment. 

The sudden movement of everyone standing up and clapping took me out of my flashback and I jumped to my feet too. I joined in the clapping and watched my students strain their necks to catch a glimpse of her. She waved to us and it took her about 10 minutes to get on the stage. I smiled as the crowd around me held the same giddiness that I had felt 5 years prior. I felt a quiet awe, but more deeply, a respect I didn’t understand then, but did now. She held her arms to the group and welcomed us. She was so honored that we stayed to see her and that she survived the mini hurricane/thunderstorm outside. I caught myself thinking, “Of course, we stayed! You are Mia Michaels!” She spoke of how much she loved coming to see us and the enthusiasm we have in our sport. It seemed she was in awed by us as much as we were of her. After introducing us to her assistant Danny and asking if we were already stretched, we began the class.

As we went through the learning process and showed off in groups, she stopped us periodically and spoke. She gave us wonderful uplifting quips. In no particular order, and by no means in her exact words, these stories/phrases stuck in my mind:

* Everyone is built different. Not everyone can be that 10% that can take their legs up here. (She waves her arms above her head) Not everyone has the ability to take their legs and wrap them over your head and tie them under your chin in a bow. You have to make the movement yours. If you own it and truly embrace the movement, you will shine no matter where your leg ends up.

*Make the movement yours. If you have to adjust the choreography to fit your body and embrace it, do so. You know what your body will and won’t do. Don‘t be upset that your leg isn‘t up here. Just love what you do and put all your passion into it. 


*She said something about not looking like everyone else. Being true to yourself. If you want to dye your hair half blue and half purple. Do it. If you want to wear crazy clothing, do it. If you want to change the choreography and make it your own, do it. Be truly you. This was an odd thing to say to a room full of guard members. In the color guard world, it is all about looking exactly the same and immediately I go in my instructor head “NO! NO! I work so hard to get you all to look the same” but in my performer mode, I say “I do that every chance I get.” So did she. Do it.

* “I’m not angry at you but…” I did laugh out loud the 3 or 4 times she said this. I couldn’t imagine this woman being angry at anyone. But then again, I wasn’t one of her professionals. They might know differently. I personally wouldn’t want her mad at me.

*She said how much she loved working with the Winterguard community. How fearless we are and grateful. She told us how dancers can get a bit snotty and stand with their arms crossed just watching then doing it after but how she loved our enthusiam and wilingness. She said how can you be scared of a head stand when you throw things into the air and catch them? She loved coming to work with us...Well, we love her too.  

*At one point, she asked us to do improv after our written choreography. I was in group 1 at the time. She stopped us after a little bit into the improv and asked why 2/3 of the young dancers were just standing there, not doing anything. They stared at her silently. She asked if they were nervous to dance in front of her and some answered yes and some just stared at her silently. She smiled at the crowd in front of her then she told us this story of her dad who was her first dance instructor and how she was thankful for him because even at a very young age of 6 or 8, he allowed her freedom and she was able to change the choreography in the classes she took from him. That was how she became a choreographer. She took risks- to try something new. To experiment. She allowed herself the ability to just be and create. She encouraged us all to just be and create. Don’t be afraid. If you don’t try, you will never know. Then made group 1 do it again. It was a much different experience.

*She spoke about Beyonce. Beyonce wasn’t born amazing, she said. She told us how Beyonce NEVER mocked through anything. It was always full out at rehearsal and how she sung on the treadmill to build her lungs and to push herself harder and harder. She spoke of the hard work she did and that made her amazing. It made her great. Mia encouraged us to work hard and be amazing. To be great.

As we reached the end of the est. 2 hours class with her, she pulled us all out for one last ensemble dance and improv. She told us this wonderful phrase.

“You don’t love me because of my choreography. You love me because I puke my soul out to you.”

I had to think about that for a moment and recall what it was like to be a performer again and why part of me still missed it so. It wasn’t just the shows, cute costumes, makeup, or choreography. It was the crowd- the people. It was the moments when people had come up to me and said “Oh my gosh, you were amazing!“, “I couldn’t stop watching you”, “I love your show”, or “I watch you every time!”. I knew I had touched them. They had saw into my soul just a little. Just a few hours earlier, one of my students looked at me as we stood at the Paradigm table and our finals performace from WGI 2005 was on our television. She said to me in awed by our floor feature, “I wished you still performed. I wish I had had a chance to watch you on the floor.“ I smiled brightly.

Then my mind flipped over to the past and all the students whose lives that I had touched and how so many of them had taught me things. They had thanked me at the end of the season for what I have given them and I returned the thanks for what they had gave to me. I had to hope that what Mia was telling us was what I gave to my students, how they felt. I looked back at the girls I had with me on the floor and smiled….These were my current students, my shining stars. Again, I hoped that I give them just a drop of what Mia gives to the world.

The last run of the choreography wasn’t my best run because I was so caught up in her words for a few moments I forgot the dance. I was surrounded by the energy of all that could and all that will and all that might. It was the first time I was able to dance on the floor with certain other amazing people - performers and choreographers - and I was just wrapped in that feeling.

As we continued to improv, I took the risk to dance towards other people. Some I knew and some were strangers in this guard world I didn’t know, but yet -we are all a big guard family right? So, I danced with them. I touched hands with them and felt their energy around me. Mia requested that we all end in a position that best explained how our hearts and bodies felt about dance and to close our eyes.


So here I stood in the middle of a crowd of dancers with my arms wide open, eyes closed, and a fullness in my heart as I listened to her speak of greatness in ourselves and in our sport and the values of dancing.

I wished someone would of video taped her speeches. I would watch them again and again. Mia really is as lovely and passionate in person as she is on TV. I honestly got caught up a couple times watching the awe in the crowd, the pure attentiveness of the people in that room, that I know I missed quite a few things she said. If I could go back, I would make sure that I paid more attention.

At the end of the session, she thanked us greatly but really, it was our honor. Most of the crowd rushed over to take a picture and shake her hand. The other half too tired to do anything but grab their things and go home shower then to bed. I too wanted to be part of that crowd that rushed up to her, to shake her hand and thank her for coming, but I allowed the masses to surround her instead. I was content to stand in her energy for a few more minutes and be grateful of just that. I did however manage to take a great picture of her joy in being in the guard world: a sport of the arts and of passion. 

As I grabbed my bag and watched as they whisked her out of the arena and back towards the airport off to who knows where with who knows who, I knew that I was glad to have been there. I felt sad for my friends and fellow performers who decided not to take this experience and I was hopeful that another opportunity to take her class again comes soon. 

So I share this with you all….Dance from your soul. Shine from within. Never take a moment for granted. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

And Thank you, Mia Michaels and Danny. Thank you.

Photo: Waiting for Mia Michaels

Monday, March 18, 2013

Do It Again...A Shout-Out For Every Tech Out There

Oh we oh we ohh oh!

"Let me see count one again."
"...and again."
"Where are your shoulders?" 
"Where are your hips?"
"Fix your angle."
"Do it again for Becky."
"Do it until it is dropless."

I was once told by my now good friend Richard Horton, that he felt that his life in March was to please the Wicked Witch of the West (which was me), and whenever I said the phrase, "Take it back and do it again," he wanted to start chanting the Wizard of Oz soldier chant, "Oh we oh...we ohhh oh." It is almost April and for most everyone it has come down to the details; a matter of tenths. It has come down to the angle of the foot and a breath taken in the middle of the phrase. Every effort change matters and every characterization given up could mean the difference between dressing for finals or buying a ticket. Want a medal? You better be able to handle the pressure. 

It has always been my belief that one of the most difficult tasks in the pageantry activity is the one of the tech before nationals. The tech...the mother of repetition...the queen of detail...the bad guy! We can try to sugarcoat it all day long, but there is someone with every program who has to say the phrase, "Do it again and do it until it is consistent and correct."  There are times (enter sarcasm please) when we even say, "We will do it until your arms fall off." 

A good tech knows a few things. They know that the pressure of nationals regardless of class, is one that cannot be approached in a lackadaisical manner. They know that in Dayton there is very little sleep to be had and the performers cannot function on mental auto-pilot. They know that the judges have a big job to do and that job is to get the right 15 guards into finals. The good tech knows that it's more than just counts and the equipment going around together. They have to merge all 4 captions into one cleaning session and be able to build muscle memory, while at the same time talking about emotion and character. They know that effort changes can't be cleaned out of a phrase, but cleaned as the primary focus of the phrase. The tech has just a few rehearsals left and they are counting the hours they have left to get it right. They are seeing drops and it freaks them out. Wrong shoulder angles irritate them to no end. They have to make a decision whether to water the phrase or let it stand and take the chance. For some techs...they have a designer coming in behind them saying the words that sends chills down their spines, "You know I was thinking..." That sentence doesn't even have to be finished, because a good tech knows that once that phrase is uttered, the clock just started ticking a lot faster.

 I wish I had a picture of the face of every tech when they hear from a designer that there is a major change coming right before nationals. Since those pics don't exist...I found this picture of what I believe is an amalgam of all techs after they hear that change is in the air.

I write this today, because sometimes the techs are often ignored when the accolades are handed out. They rise to the occasion and clean the show in parking lots, in the dark, in the wind, and sometimes in the rain. Sometimes they are given just minutes to get the phrase right. Many of them are put under immense pressure of time while design takes precedent over training and cleaning. Many of them are asked to clean brand new flag features just hours before a show. (Please see the link below for proof of that statement).

A performer often times (in fact most times) has no idea what goes on behind the scenes. They don't realize the pressure the staff is under to make sure every detail is considered and poured over. The performer see's the world from the perspective of the floor with sore muscles, beat up equipment, and a low bank account. They don't truly grasp what the end product is meant to be. They don't go to critique and have to sit with judges who may not like the product or  who love the product, but want just a little more. The staff are critiqued as much as the performers and sometimes more. They are fighting for every tenth. They are under serious pressure to make sure the Dayton experience isn't just memorable, but that the competitive goals are met. In many gyms around the country in late March, it is the techs job to make sure not one piece of equipment hits the ground and the flag feature is flawless. They clean a phrase from the floor, while their mind cleans it from up top in the Dayton arena. The tech has dissected every hand position, foot position, body angle, pitch, speed change and weight shift and the entire time is making sure they are not changing the intent of the design. (Which is harder than anyone can imagine). 

In my years as a tech I've been told that I don't have a reflection when I look at myself in the mirror and that my phone number begins with 666. I have watched performers huff and puff, roll their eyes, cry, fake injuries, and threaten to quit. I have been called the bad guy more times than I care to admit and have been left in the gym to clean a difficult phrase, while the rest of the staff went on ahead to dinner. I loved it, though...every single minute. I loved toiling over the shows and analyzing the musicality of the phrases. I loved being left alone in the gym to say, "Again." There is nothing like knowing that what you are doing could be the difference in hearing the roar of the crowd or the deflating, "OHHHH."

I encourage every performer out there to give the staff a break as you head to championships. Trust them. Know that you are all on the same team. You are all tired and broke. You are all together as we come to this emotional end. Most of your staff worked this season for little to no money.  Many of them were the designer, the tech, and the director all wrapped into one super human. Go and thank the person who made sure you could throw your equipment not just as an individual, but also as an ensemble. Thank the person who worked tirelessly for you to experience the roar of the crowd and your moment to shine. Thank the tech who made sure the flag feature with its odd hand to hand changes, over the top wrist releases, and final toss that comes out of nowhere is so clean the crowd sits speechless and in awe.

Thank all of them, but most importantly you must never forget this important lesson. Always and I mean ALWAYS...throw the last flag toss of the show because if you don't, the tech who cleaned the flag feature to its highest level of perfection, will most certainly throw themselves from the top of the arena.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Exhaustion of March: The Push To The End

You can do it. You the performer, the instructor, the judge, the parent, the tabulator, the announcer, the  board member. We are almost there. It's almost the end. There is an exhaustion that fills the air as the weekend draws near and the time ticks toward April. This journey started at different times for different people, but for most all of us it started somewhere back in the fall. Many of us have worn multiple hats and have become experts at mulit-tasking and juggling life. We have drug flag bags to the gym and suitcases to the airport and most of us are so sleep deprived that holding a thought in our heads for longer than 5 seconds would be a gift.

The Board member has been planning, budgeting, debating, and stressing over details such as how much money can be spent on recorders and if we can have a curtain this year at Championships. The board member has been fielding emails, phone calls, and negotiating contracts. They have been meeting to make sure every show comes off without a hitch.

The chief judge started in September looking at shows, connecting with judges, and creating schedules...all to create the perfect panel for some show in March, when there weren't even any units registered for the show. They tried to schedule judges for multiple shows all while trying to plan for their own judging schedule.

The judge started looking at his or her schedule and tried to find the perfect balance of travel and local flavor. They started in October trying to plan for a flight that doesn't take off for 5 months. The judge was creating a calendar that would take them to the airport every Friday starting in January and hoping that flight isn't delayed. They have  read old criteria and learned new criteria. They learned to not say the word "expression" anymore, but  "dynamic," instead. The judge worked to make sure they knew their information, because putting that number down is very personal to them and they want to get it right.

The parent has been paying dues, chauffeuring children to and from practices, and watching their child go through emotions they can't possibly understand. The parent; our unsung hero, is making sure our performers are ready to go on show day. They make sure no flag or sabre is left behind. They pack lunches, chaperone trips and even change their work schedules to accommodate random time changes in the rehearsal schedule. They are fundraising like mad! They are working the concession stand and sewing flags.

The instructor. They are the designers, technicians, creative flow of our sport. The show has gone from the mind to the storyboard to the performer to the judge and audience. It is March and this is what they know. They know whether it was a good idea or not. They have had multiple viewings and multiple people give them feedback. Sometimes they have heard from a stall in the bathroom when no one knew they were listening, "What was that!" They put their passion and ego's on the line. It is March and their passion and ego's have taken a beating. It doesn't matter the competitive success, because in March these people have toiled and fretted and celebrated their craft for months and it's all about to come to fruition. The instructor has been managing performers and parents and judges and school administrators.

The performer. What about those young people who have given up hours of free time while their friends went to concerts, parties, and dates? The performer gave up study time, but still managed to get the grade. They learned valuable life lessons such as how to get along with a person they had to spend an entire year with. They have been practicing with the same people since the summer. They learned how to budget time and budget money. The performer learned that when they practice they get better and when they don't...there are consequences. The performer stood on a floor in a costume they may not have liked and put it all on the line in front of people they have never met before. The performer, gave it their all for their craft and took a chance! They learned a lesson that Christopher Robin taught to Winnie the Pooh, "You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

We are almost done and as time marches toward the end, we should reflect on a journey that started months ago with many people synergistically working together, across the miles and without even knowing each other's part in the big picture. The synergy that started months ago in the gyms, homes, board rooms, and in cyberspace is coming to the emotional end. Many people had a hand in the big picture and when we see those young people step on the floor for the last time, let's reflect on the work of the many that connected us all to that one performer throwing her solo toss, catching it, and the crowd cheering for her accomplishments all while her smile speaks of year filled with passion.

I say let's welcome the exhaustion, because it's the exhaustion that connects us all to the passion we call pageantry.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Twenty Five Years Later...Perspectives On A Day In Winterguard: Lessons For Us All

"I remember our last show at the WGI Mid-East Regional. It was a show we didn't know would be our last, but it was the show of a lifetime."

“Take a plain piece of white paper and lay it flat on the table.  Right now that piece of paper is perfect.  It sits there unscathed as it is void of holes, staples, eraser marks, and scribblings of any kind.  It is in essence perfect.  It can be anything that it wants to be.  It can become the start of a novel or a child’s paper airplane.  It can be used as art or used as the next top secret document.   Now, take that same piece of paper and start to poke holes in it.  It doesn't matter the size.  They can be little holes or big ones.  Take an eraser and aggressively mark it from one corner to the other, tearing the paper from end to end.  This piece of paper is now tattered and unable to be used.  At best, it can be crumpled and thrown in the trash. This paper is human. It is you and it is me and our lives are made up of those holes that are made by the events in our lives. For every hole made, creates a new piece of paper…it creates a new person. It creates the story that we call our lives.”

Perspectives On A Day

It was March 13, 1988.
It was a Sunday.
There were 3 vans.
There were 19 students.
It was a school related event.
We were returning from a Winter Guard International regional competition in Ohio.
There were 2 dead.
There was an accident.
I was 18.
We were a winterguard.
Our last show was on March 12th and we had no idea that would be the finale'.
We were McGavock High School
We were kids. We were young. We were innocent. 
In one moment in time we grew up and we were never the same again.
These statements are fact. The rest of the story is perception. It is my perception.

Somehow it should have been me.
I can't screw life up.
It must have been my fault, because after all I'm bad luck.
I feel guilty. I feel sad. I feel my life must mean something.
Don't screw it up!

What happened on the side of the road that day? It is a multitude of perspectives and a multitude of lives.

Who died? Who lived? It's all a matter of perspective, as life and death is also just a matter of perspective. Not everyone who lives is really alive and those that die, the ones we love with our very soul, live in our hearts and minds forever. It's all perspective and that day on March 13, 1988, my perspective changed forever. My life changed forever.

One day can change your life forever. One moment in time, a split second decision, or luck of the draw; it can change your very fiber and you will never see it coming. For most of us, the impact of random moments in time aren't really understood until years later and for some there are no answers except to say that life is random and to prepare for the unexpected. Everyone has them. Everyone has “moments in time,” that force us to literally stop and take assessment of our life in the here and in the now. Those moments force us into the present.

My perspective of March 13, 1988 is a day that I spent years trying to hold on to. Why did it happen? Why wasn't it me? Why was it me? “Hold on to this memory Shelba. Never forget. You  lived they didn't Shelba. You have to be a good person. You have to be a great person. If you aren't  then it should have been you.” Hold on to it. Hold on to it! Never forget!  When a random act of death occurs, you spend a lifetime trying to figure out why. Why us? Why me? Why them? Why? Why? Why?!!

The perspectives are many. There were three vans filled with kids and adults; parents and teachers. Being in the first van meant you saw nothing. The back van meant you saw it all. The middle, well the middle was a matter of life and death; injury and breath. For every event of our lives there are perspectives. You are a participant or an observer…oftentimes you are both. On March 13th, I was both. We all were. What we saw and how we responded made our perspectives and created new lives for us all. I didn't realize it then, but for the first time in my life I felt alive, because life in all its absurdity comes with passion and emotion no matter how horrifying those emotions are. I will never forget my first thought as it was told to me that two girls in the guard were dead because of a random, senseless highway accident. The thought haunted me for years, because it’s a selfish thought. For years I thought that I deserved everything bad that happened to me because of that one thought in that one brief second. So that thought was, “So are we not going to get to go to nationals now?” HOW AWFUL!  Who thinks up something like that? What self centered person actually thinks about a national competition, when two girls lay dead on the side of the road? Who?  On that day my mind raced with thoughts at lightning speed. "This isn't real." "Is this real?" "What is happening?" "Is this a dream?"  I remember staring silently out the window of the front seat of the van as my mind kept asking these questions. Finally a question was asked of me. "Shelba...are you o.k.?" I started crying. I wasn't o.k. and I wouldn't be for a very long time. In the midst of tragedy, your mind will take you anywhere, but to where the reality really lies. Your thoughts become bizarre. That moment helped me understand that grief, our perceptions and the human condition is unique and personal. Knowing this helped me develop...


In my perspective, I sit here writing today because I randomly chose one van over the other. Some call it fate. Some would call it the hand of God. I just call it life. Life hands you gifts wrapped in boxes you would never expect or realize as it’s happening. For example, the week following the wreck was one of tears, hugs, confusion, funerals, burials, and music. Yes music. Both funerals had very deliberately selected soundtracks. The music for the funerals was scripted much like music for a movie. I remember the music like it was yesterday. “Somewhere,” by Barbara Streisand, “Friends,” by Michael W. Smith, music from the movie “Out of Africa," and “Send in the Clowns.” I remember the song on the radio when the accident happened. It was "Father Figure," by George Michael. Because of the wreck on March 13th, fate handed me the gift of music. I already had an intense and deeply felt love for music. After March 13th however, I understood music. I understood emotion. When I listen to music now,  I hear the words as if they were written by Shakespeare. I hear the feeling of the musicians as each note is played. I hear their joy and their pain. I’m incredibly mindful of music on the radio, in a restaurant, in an elevator, and even the street musician asking for change. My awareness of music is palpable. I couldn't live without it and I can’t deny the randomness of that gift on March 13th.

Because of March 13th, I feel an intense connection to anyone involved in an incident that gains media attention. I feel a connection to the families of children who die young. Mostly though, I feel connected to people who see life through the eyes of death. They are living, because they know that time will always be the victor. They know that every beginning leads to an end and that end may not be when we had hoped.

Every winterguard season begins and every winterguard season will end. How are you using your time as a performer, instructor or judge?

I can remember March 13, 1988 like it was yesterday. Twenty five years later and I can still smell the flowers at the funerals. I can still feel the lame’ flag that was used in our last show and that was handed to me as I laid it on top of her body before they closed the casket. I remember her casket and I remember the last time I saw her before they closed it. I remember her in her uniform. I can picture my classmates and I remember every emotion I felt from the moment of shock, to the moment of anger at the media who couldn't get the story right. I remember sitting at WGI when the announcement was made for a moment of silence. I remember trying to hold back the tears.  I remember mostly though, the survivor guilt. “Why them?” I remember the moment when I knew that life would never be the same again. I remember trying to be stronger than I was and I remember the moment when I first saw life as this clock constantly moving forward and how I couldn't stop that clock no matter how hard I tried. I can remember the moments where all I wanted was to be that tattered piece of paper thrown in the trash.

I remember our last show at the WGI Mid-East Regional. It was a show we didn't know would be our last, but it was the show of a lifetime.

After I graduated I went on to perform in other programs. I've taught numerous guards. March 13th, gave me a gift of what I like to call, "Remember this moment. It will never come again." Every show I performed in after March 13th, was like the performance of a lifetime. I never took it for granted. Every guard I taught I tried desperately to get the performers to understand this simple concept. Someday this will all be just a memory. You will never get this moment back."  It's a simple fact of life. You never know when the hands of fate will hand you change and adversity. You never know that your last rehearsal or last show could be today. When I judge, I'm very mindful of the performers and their hard work. From a mile away I can spot a young person who doesn't give it their all or the kid beating themselves up for not being good enough; even though they are just fine. So many times I desperately want to yell from the top of my lungs, as loud as I can from behind the recorder, "DON'T YOU GET IT! THIS IS SO COOL AND  LIFE DOESN'T GIVE YOU THESE CHANCES OFTEN!"

In this world we live in, horrors enter our lives through our televisions, computers, and cell phones on a daily basis. We no longer live in a time where our connections to our fellow man is relegated to just word of mouth. We are intertwined in the lives of people who live thousands of miles away from us. Every day we hear about lives torn apart and lives changed forever. With every mass shooting, natural disaster or senseless act of violence, we are connected. March 13th connected an entire activity and made us all take a good look at the value of this art we call pageantry.

March 13th was real to me. It was real to every performer, every parent, every teacher, and every life that was touched on that day.  In my perspective, I realized that the clean white paper that was once me became a tattered rag that would transform into someone who sees life three dimensionally and  spherically. It took me years to understand that. It took me years to understand that the holes in my soul inflicted by the faceless hand of fate was not a death sentence, but the opening to a life of new adventures. With all the guilt and all the pain, I learned that I could never go through life desensitized and unaware of the beauty around me.

We all have holes in our soul. We are all a tattered piece of paper that has been aged and worn. We are a book and many of our chapters end and begin with the random act of death. The random act of violence. The random act of life. It's how we respond to it and it's how we respond to each other is what allows us to live in peace.

In the 25 years since the accident I have tried to forget it and I have tried to hold on to it.  I've tried to run from it. I've tried to run toward it. I've tried to stay with it and on cold nights and use it as a blanket called self pity to wrap myself in. There have even been times when I tried to run away from me; flaws and all. In 25 years though, I've learned that life IS March 13th and everyone has their own March 13th. It doesn't make me special, but my March 13th makes me unique and human. Your March 13th might be the day you were diagnosed with a disease or the day you lost a parent. It might be the loss of your pet or a grand scale event that connected us all such as 9/11 or Sandy Hook. It's a moment to moment connection to every soul around us and to be mindful of that which allows us to live, even when that moment involves death. Life is a gift. Every second to breathe is a chance to be alive and a chance to become a better person. It's a chance to give back and chance to empathize with your fellow man. It's a chance to say, "Today is a new day and it is a day to change the world. Today I will make it better than the last. Today I will try to walk in the shoes of my fellow man." We can do this because we live. 

The take away is this.  Over time, our soul which starts as this clean white sheet of paper will
become filled with holes and will look tattered. You cannot repair this paper. It wasn't meant to be repaired. It was meant to be cherished, because our holes are what makes us who we are and it makes us uniquely human. What we must learn, is that the paper of our souls is not trash and not meant to be thrown away; not by us and not by others. If we can see one another by the holes in our soul, then we can finally start to see a road to peace and finally, we will start living. I encourage all performers, instructors, judges and parents to see each show as a special moment that cannot return, but a moment to connect us all into the beauty we call pageantry. In the end, every season begins as a clean piece of paper; free of holes and markings of any kind.

By Championships the performers, the staff, and the show is tattered and worn by the stresses of time and the opinions of others. Those holes however is what makes the beauty of your art and ultimately the beauty of you.

*It is hard to appropriately tribute such an event and one that occurred 25 years ago. This post is dedicated to all of those performers, staff members, and parents who created their own perspective that day. It's dedicated as a memory to our friendship and an affirmation of living life the way it should be lived...spherically and in three dimensional form. It is my hope that through this post I served the memory of March 13th with dignity and love.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why You Will Never Forget The First Independent World Guard You Ever Saw


I will never forget it. It's been over 25 years and I still remember the first time I ever saw my first Independent World Guard, except then they were Open Class and then, there were only a handful of independent programs around. I think for me that's why I will never forget it. There was a time when the choices for performers to march an independent guard weren't as vast as they are now. A region would have at best one and possibly two independent guards to watch and choose from. Travelling and moving was a necessity for many of us if you wanted to march in a good and established independent guard. There was a time, when you as a high school performer grew up in the activity falling in love with one guard, because they were the one guard in your circuit that was going to represent your community in Dayton. You dreamed of performing with them. You knew the performers names, you got their autographs, and you fell in love with them. For me, it was the Pride of Cincinnati. I will never forget the first time I saw them. It was an SCGC show. It was 1987. The show was about a fun house...and they were larger than life!

The story is the same whether it was 1977, 1987, or 2013. You are in a high school guard and your hardest skill is a quad with maybe an assemble on the catch. You are struggling to just roll on the ground while holding the sabre and get up without looking like you need a walker. They...are throwing that same quad, but rolling on the ground under it and standing up just in time to catch it, while doing a saute', assemble, and turn around on the catch (or at least that's what you think you saw). You move from set to set while holding your equipment in a static position. They move from set to set while manipulating the equipment under their legs and around their body; using points in space you never knew existed. They are older than you. They are more experienced.

They look like rock stars!

When I saw Pride for the first time, I was completely unprepared for the grandeur of it all. You see, I was doing a show about a dandelion. I was portraying the life cycle of the dandelion to be exact. I loved it, but didn't know there was life beyond seeds, bees, umbrellas, and pollination. The sophistication of their soundtrack, the costuming, "the hot guys" (yes I know now...) and the skill. They had so much skill! I couldn't take my eyes off the rifle line and all I could think was, "I'm hooked." Most of us see our first independent world team in a small gym at a circuit show. This makes them seem even greater, because you can get so close you can almost touch them.

In my first year of the activity, the Pride of Cincinnati hung the moon for me. There was no one like them...until Pensacola. In 1987, the Pensacola Regional was almost like a mini-nationals and I was there to see it. Pride, Odyssey, Millers, Sac...they were there. Nouveau, Thunderbolts, and Alliance. Heaven and Hell. Funhouse. Colors. Square Root. Circle, Cycle, Cycle, Circle. I was 17 and couldn't for the life of me grasp what I was witnessing, but knew that after Prelims, I would be front and center for finals. I remember watching Odyssey and in my 17 year old mind thinking, "What was that!" I asked my staff about a dozen times, "What does it mean?" I remember watching Nouveau and going outside trying to throw a rifle while making the square root sign under it. (I still can't do it) I remember when the gym came alive with colors and I remember Heaven and Hell. I was floored. I'm not sure I even took a breath for about 5 minutes when State Street  performed. The rifle line was spectacular. Their sabre line took my breath away. Their performance made you feel the heat of hell and the wonder of Heaven. When prelims was done and we were waiting for finals (my guard wasn't in finals as we were dandelions and you don't traditionally see a lot of flowers in finals at regionals), I walked around and watched warm up. I made a point to find State Street and Pride. I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve spying to try to get just one glimpse of Santa.

The intensity in their warm ups was palpable. I could feel the energy of an ensemble ready to destroy their competitor. I wanted to be them. From that night on, I knew I had to be a part of that much energy and that much passion.

During finals I sat on the front row with my best friend. The performers allowed me into their worlds of fun houses, colors, the brass ring, and Hell. State Street however, was the guard I fell in love with that night. They brought a world that I couldn't ever imagine to life and to this day I can still see them on the floor. I even got some of their autographs. One of those autographs was a person who eventually became a co-instructor, roommate, and close friend...Ron Comfort. I didn't know it then, but I was watching some of the activity greats that night. I can name someone in every one of those guards who went on to create some of the best shows of our time and people who eventually became some of my closest friends and mentors.

1987 was a great year for a teenager to start winterguard with and it was a great year for independent guards. Every guard had a personality and had a way to excite even the most inexperienced member of the activity. In 1987, we didn't have social media sharing sites such as YouTube. All we had was word of mouth, which made the anticipation of seeing the guards even greater. I remember my first year of winterguard like it was yesterday. I didn't have a clue what I was getting into and in my wildest dreams would have never imagined doing it past high school, much less a lifetime. I don't know why I have stayed in it for so long, but I do believe  it has something to do with those independent guards and the energy they gave me that night in Pensacola.

Because of the Pride of Cincinnati's, State Street Review's, and Miller's Blackhawk's of the world, I practiced a lot. I was going to be in one of those guards one day. I wanted to be a part of something that was the best in the world. THE BEST IN THE WORLD! Can you imagine that? When you watch an Independent World guard you are watching some of the best performers in the world spin a sabre, rifle, flag, ...while bringing a story to life...while dancing...while performing.

For anyone over the age of 40, we think of those days with a sense of nostalgia. One day though, every one of you will look at the Onyx's, Cypress Independents, Fantasia's, Braddock's, First Flight's, Sac's, and Zydeco's of the world with the same sense of awe I had with Pride and State Street. For some it was The Alliance of Miami or The Company. Some say it was San Jose and their "Good Morning Vietnam," show. For others it was Escapade with, "The End of the World,"  or Royal Guardsmen and that girl who caught a sabre on the the hilt out of a multiple turn around...bringing the house to their feet. (OMG What was that!!) If you were from Tennessee it might have been Chimeras or in Portland... it was Everybody with their "Peacocks." Maybe it was Pride and "Alcatraz." If you were from Florida it might have been Northeast Independent. What about Northern Light's and two very high sabre tosses being thrown perfectly in the air in the back corner of the floor? What about Emerald Marquis and a Celtic jig?

It doesn't matter what guard it is, because we all have one and we will never forget the first time we saw them.  Some of you just saw your first world guard this season and I will guarantee that you thought the same thing I did. "OMG...what was that?" "They are amazing!" "I could never do that!!" Even if you never perform after this season and even if you never see these guards again, I guarantee that you will never forget them.

I love pageantry. I love the people it has brought together, but mostly...I love the shows. I love Independent World Class and I love the passion they bring to the stage with their creativity, skill, and wonder. I adore watching a 14 year old freshman fall in love for the first time with the world guard of their generation and fantasizing of the possibilities and then getting on the bus, chatting incessantly about what they just saw.

We have a month to go. Which world guard will it be for you? Someone out there is the next great. Someone out there is marching only once, because they wanted to know what it was like to walk on the floor Saturday night to an arena full of thousands of people and be challenged beyond imagination. Every one of those performers in those world guards at one time was you and wondered if they would ever get their chance to bring the crowd to their feet. Most of them thought, "I could never do that."  Regardless of what they thought when they saw their first world guard, I guarantee all of them wanted that one chance to live how Federico Fellini described as, "spherically and in many directions," which is exactly what performing world class is all about.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

All the World's A Stage

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts -- William Shakespeare

Every morning, we wake up and start our opening act. We put on our “costumes” and (most of us) our make up. We put on our happy faces and go about our day. We fake a smile when we fight with our friends, have troubles at work, and stressed about our life. We pretend sympathy when we listen to emotional issues from colleagues that we really don‘t empathize with. We agree with friends when they are angry about something when most times we don‘t always understand why they are angry. We see people being dramatic as they are telling a story about some great event - and you know you are always interested in eavesdropping to that ONE story by that ONE person who is frantically waving their arms and laughing so hard they can barely get the tale out.

If all the world’s a stage and practically all teenagers in the US want to be movie stars, why is it so hard to get them to perform at rehearsal or a show???

We say smile and we get frowns. We say jump and they barely raise onto their toes. We say run and they walk slower. BUT give them a water break and it was like we gave them a sip of an energy drink or a bolt of electricity to the brain and they are hyper, expressive, and dynamic. We call them back- And we can hear the a death march music as they trudge back to their sets.

And staff sits there staring at their students, shocked and dumbfounded, clearly fighting the urge to repeatedly smack their own foreheads with the palms of their hands over and over pondering…WHY?? WHY???…

Examples of great performing are all around us. We get captivated by media in every second of every day. Books with insanely popular characters are discussed at length and favorite scenes reenacted in animated discussions. Movies sell millions of dollars in ticket sales daily. American children and teens watch on average 4.5 hours of television a day and I am sure that adults would be right there with them if we didn’t have to go to work. There are few things in life that captivate us so completely as a skilled actor/actress.

So when we have a room full of prospective teen performers…why? We ask. Why is it so hard to get them to perform?


Just like any other skill, it has to trained and explained. Not everyone comes out from the womb talented at expressing themselves in the art of acting/performing (except maybe George Clooney.)

Actors and actresses take extensive amounts of effort and time to create their memorable characters…well, maybe except for Bella from Twilight. No one seems to think Kristen Stewart had to stretch much acting muscle for that role.

You hear all the time of actor/actresses taking themselves off into strange or unusual places to find their characters. Heath Ledger for the role of “the Joker” spent a month locked in a hotel room developing his voice, manners,  and mentality. Adrian Brody in, “The Pianist,” an award winning Holocaust movie, was reported giving up everything, including his long time girlfriend to embrace the role. It was his way to make sure when he cried on screen, he was really crying. Just recently, Hugh Jackman was reported dehydrating himself for the first scene in his recent leading role in Les Miserables to create the sunken hollow look of a long time prisoner.


However, we can learn from these greats that it takes training and something from inside to make their performances amazing. In rehearsals, staffs need to help train their students to perform. It's no different than flag block and rifle basics, but there is a lot of training you can do on your own.

Here are some help hints in becoming a great performers:

~Make up a history or create an emotional example for the character of your show.
                *If you have a happy show about friends, imagine you are a Disney performer and you are best friends with Mickey Mouse and you live in the Magic Kingdom and all day long all you have to do is sit on the Space Mountain ride and laugh.
                *If you are doing a radio tune, imagine you are auditioning for the music video and every time the song plays, you have to be larger than life so that way you get the spot up front and center stage of the video and not the back up dancer in the far left corner.
                *If you have a sad show about losing a loved one, think about what it will feel like when the season ends and how sad it will be to leave your friends or a time a pet has left us or when you had to move away and start over.
                 *If you are in an angry show, think about when your parents tell you to clean your room and you don’t want to or when a staff member tells you to do that feature for the 100th time and you don’t want to but have to do it anyways.

~Watch movies about your theme. If you are doing a show about Bollywood  look up “So You Think You Can Dance,” Bollywood clips. If you are doing a show about death, watch Meet Joe Black or Six Feet Under. If you are doing a show about clowns, watch a circus movie. If you are doing angry shows, watch WWE wresting. They are great athletic actors! Find your favorite film that relates to your show and practice your favorite quotes from it. Watch the expression the actors/actresses use. Try to copy them.

~ Talk to your staff about what character they want you to portray. The staff knows exactly want they want to see and it will help both of you out to be on the same page. They will give you great examples or words to embrace and express on the floor. Ask them what the music means to them. Why this show? Why now?

~Don’t be afraid to make faces in the mirror. What? That sounds silly, you say? Come on! We all have put on our favorite songs and sang into our hairbrushes like rock stars  Just make faces. Put on your show music and be ridiculously over the top! Cry, grin like a crazy person, or flirt with your reflection! The more you feel comfortable doing it alone knowing how you look and feel, you won’t feel embarrassed or think you look silly in public. You are just perfecting the expression! It’s an art form!

~Make the right choices! Choose to be a performer in the gym and leave the worries of non-guard life at the door. You can pick them up when you leave again. Because, let’s be honest. The judges don’t care if you: just broke up with your girlfriend/boyfriend, are on your period, fought with your parents, had a disagreement with your best friend, broke a nail in warm up, have to finish that English essay, or are missing the newest episode of Walking Dead or Once Upon A Time.

The judges care only about the product you present on the floor and how well it is done. Same for professionals. Do you go to the movies or a Broadway show and it's really bad and say… "Oh, they must be having a bad day. Its o.k. their performance is rough. I feel for them."

NOPE! J Audience members nationwide will be talking about how bad it was and watch how quickly the bad movie gets nominated for the famous Razzie awards. (By the way - Twilight Breaking Dawn Pt. 2 - Huge nominee for the Razzies, in every category!)

Guard shows are mini movies. They all create a theatrical event for you to engage your entire being on. Staff members hope that their innovation, their show design, will be the most memorable, thought provoking, or fan favorite show out there, but it doesn't matter how great the show is if the performers don’t create the magic behind it. After all, we all want to be remembered as great.

Some of the most memorable shows weren't all medalist at WGI. Some of them come from local gyms at local shows. They were remembered because of the performers! It's those amazing people who bring the story to life and cause people to run into the gym when their show is about to go on.

Be that show. Be that performer.