Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Indubitable Force of the Smallest Colorguards

They wore backless dresses, with a plunging neckline. The dresses were the color slate; a mix between blue and grey. They had just one piece of equipment and it was a simple white flag, with a lame' purple circle to accent it. The floor was grey. Their placement was 8th place in Independent World, with a score of 88.55. It was 1992 and the music was Adagio for Strings. There were 9 performers on the floor and their simple essence filled an arena of thousands. Their name was San Marino Academy and they were beautiful. They were elegant and they were unforgettable.

It’s a numbers game. Sometime in the fall, guards all over the country host auditions in the hopes of a successful winter season. Success as we all know cannot be measured in scores alone and in fact, anyone who has taught in this activity any length of time will say that scores are usually the last measure of success. Any good program measures their success in a number of ways that can include the overall satisfaction of the performers to effectively balancing the budget. Any good guard director worth their weight in proverbial gold will create a budget at the beginning of every year of what they would consider their perfect scenario.

“If we have 30, then we can add one more show to the schedule and have a little left over to pay the staff.”

“I have this great show in mind, but it would really take about 18 performers to pull it off.”

“With all the props needed for my show idea, we would need a big guard to set it all up.”

It’s rare to hear a director talk about the desire to have a smaller guard. In fact, I’m not sure I've actually heard anyone say before an audition, “OMG I certainly hope we only have nine on the floor this year. I’m taking the nine most talented and cutting everyone else.” It doesn't happen and if it does, it’s very rare. We want the numbers. The more performers on the floor is usually a strong indicator of the amount of money that flows into the program. The more performers on the floor often times gives a program staff an over inflated sense of self importance of how young people see their program from the outside. “Wow…they have 30. This must be a program that other kids love to go to.” As a spectator we often catch ourselves counting the performers on the floor. I’ve done it. We all do at some point each season. “Dear God, how many kids are out there anyway? It looks like there are 50 kids on that floor,” you often hear yourself or a friend exclaim. In World Class, a program can be represented by 40 different performers. That’s 40 kids to fill the huge arena in Dayton. That’s 40 kids to pay dues. That’s 40 kids who are able to take a show concept and each take on a role and bring a complex story to life. That’s 40 kids, 10 extra than any other class and 10 extra pulling from the A and Open Class community. (I don't really have an opinion on that rule...wink.) Numbers are important and we all know it.

Large colorguards have a strong advantage…at least that’s what we have all been made to believe. When a guard has 25 to 30 members, they can fill a small gym at a local show in massive amounts of fabric and tosses. Their fans have the potential to outnumber every other guard in the gym that day to create a higher sense of crowd response. If one performer quits or misses a show, it isn't the end of the world. As a designer, when you teach a large colorguard you can play the “hiding game,” with a lot more finesse than you can with a guard with only 8 or 9 performers.  What is the hiding game? Oh my friend, we all know how that game is played.

28 performers are on the floor in the midst of a massive ending flag feature. It’s the big ending. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of a fantastically written book. It’s beautiful, except for one thing. Five of the 28 can’t throw the final toss. OMG! What is a designer to do?  “I know…Why don’t we turn all the performers in different directions on the toss, with the five who can’t throw it turning to the back 45?” the designer says.  "I have another suggestion," as the brilliant tech speaks up. “If we go back two sets, we can move those five people to the back corners and get them off the center.” “BRILLIANT!” The judges will never know. (ummm…ok, because scanning and sampling dictates that we only stay on the center five kids)

As an audience member there tends to be a tendency to react and respond to the numbers game. When a guard with 25 members attempts a rifle feature with all 25 of its members, with intricacies of layered movement and multiple tosses, then we all cheer.  We all cheer even when 5 out of the 25 catch the tosses on the half and we cheer even when on the final quad, someone drops, 3 people move to the side, 4 people plie’ on the catch, and the free hands were addressed as an afterthought. It happens every year and it’s a trap that even I as an audience member have fallen for, even when I should know better. They are games of the design and they are meant to fool you. As a staff member, I have taught guards that have done considerable rifle features when over half of those rifles never should have picked up a rifle to begin with, much less spin it in a world class show, but it was there and the crowd ate it well as some of the judges.

Having large numbers on the floor is addicting for a number of reasons and I have taught both. I've taught the guard with 30 and I've taught the guard with 9. Both have been successful and both have failed. I’m here today to make the case for the 9 or the 10 or the 11, because those guards capture the performance arena in a way that is unique and lovely.

The guards I’m talking about here have less than 10 members on the floor and sometimes the random 11. You see them more at the local level then you do at the national level. At the local level and especially in the less experienced classes such as B or Novice, those guards are often pieced together by the last eight guard members to survive the marching band season. Some are made up of nine kids who half are from the band and the others are the lasting veterans of a school that was rezoned. Some of those guards are taught by the guard captain, because they don’t have the funds to afford a staff. Some are small simply because the student body of the school is small in comparison to its competitor across town. 

Then there are your independent guards; the small independent guards attempting to survive in a sea of 20, 30, and 40.  Some are from states such as Ohio, where the Independent World Class flourishes or Florida, where in any given season 18 to 25 independent units can be seen making the trek to Dayton. It’s a numbers game and in the course of two seasons a guard’s numbers can fluctuate from 20 to 10 in just a blink and all the analyzing of “why” will never increase those numbers, no matter how successful you are. So what do you do? How do you reconcile a limited budget and performers who have the weight of a program balanced upon their shoulders? What about designing for smaller numbers when your show idea entailed at least 16? We all grapple with it at some point during our guard careers and the response is an interesting study in resilience and creativity.

So who are they? Who are the ones that set the standard for the brilliance and eloquence of the small and mighty?

They go by the name of the 27th Lancers…an icon. It’s 1988 and there are only 9 on the floor. They are aggressive. They are fierce and Mary…they have a rifle line that would rival some of the best world class guards today.  Nine performers who don’t shrink the challenge of captivating and audience of thousands with their skill and drill that doesn’t stop for five minutes, before a break is given to any one performer. The book includes body wraps, level changes, and the use of space that is often difficult for some of the larger teams. It is 1988 and they are in a class with the State Street Review, Cavaliers, and Blessed Sacrament. They competed against guards with male rifle lines who were able to get the crowd to yell just for being hot. They were up against guards that could create effect just by rotating a block, because that block was so massive. These 9 women competed in an era of mass and left the arena as rock stars.

They are a high school guard with a rich history. With reasons unknown to me, they came to Dayton with just 11 girls. Their name is Carroll High School and they were nothing short of brilliant. It is 1995 and a very competitive year for Scholastic World. It was a class to be reckoned with. It was the infamous year that landed Bishop Kearney in the history books with their interpretation of Sybil. Miamisburg was one of the cleanest colorguards to ever seen in any scholastic class. Northmont and McGavock were beautiful as they interpreted classics. It was Carroll though, that left an audience in true wonderment as 11 girls moved from prop to prop without stopping and without ever giving the audience a chance to count how few were actually performing on the floor. They left the arena that night with a medal around their neck, while making a statement that a few young women can prove to themselves and the world, that they can take on anybody.

To design for a small colorguard is a skill. It takes imagination, resourcefulness, and the ability to throw all former ideas out the window. It takes a special group of performers to know that every moment on the floor is their moment. There is no hiding in a nine person colorguard. Technically, they must be superb. Catching on the half is more of a no/no than in the world of the guards of 25 and 30. Each effect in contingent on all 8 or 9 or 10 executing their role flawlessly. Now, I know what the argument is. “Well, catching on the half is a no/no in any guard. No one should think it’s o.k.” True, but I ask you to think about this. In the process 16 count phrase that ends with a sabre five, how fast can your eye scan the entire floor of let’s say 20 performers spinning sabre vs. 8? Do you catch all 20 like you can all 8? In a flawless phrase, which guard is forgiven more for a drop at the end, the guard of 20 or the guard of 9? Before you respond, think about the crowd response when one piece of equipment hits the floor when there are 25 spinning vs.10? Think about the number of vignettes a guard of 30 can create during any phrase vs. the amount of vignettes in a guard of 9, knowing that vignettes are a wonderful distraction when the kids just don’t have the chops to pull off a phrase from start to finish. Think about a maybe "less than" experienced judge whose ability to sample is not at the level of their more experienced counterpart?

When researching this article I watched a lot of colorguards. I looked and I listened. I took notice of the intimacy. Intimacy: "a close association with or deep understanding of subject or place." A guard that lets you inside their world and really dig into their emotion, their character, and their skill is a rare one. You don’t see them often. It is a risk. “What if I put my 9 girls out there and just one of them doesn't live up to the role they have been given? I can’t hide her. I can’t cut her.” The beauty, the true magnificence of a small colorguard is their ability to let you into their world. You get to know the performers as if you could reach out and touch them. Their faces are real and aren't hidden. You become familiar with them as they open the door to their character and over time, they risk letting you know them and judge them as not a colorguard, but as who they are on the inside. That nine person ensemble knows that they are vulnerable in ways 30 and 40 are not and that’s the true secret and the true gift to the audience. 

Teaching a guard of any size is a challenge. Each size guard has their special challenges. Some say they would rather have a small guard over a large any day, because the drama is less. The numbers game is a scary one. When you have too many performers you risk clutter and you risk running out of time to proficiently train. A small guard may risk the words most of us loathe to hear from any judge, "thin." An injury of just one performer in a guard of 8 can devastate their season. All the kids and all the guards bring something to the table to value, but often times we overlook the complexities of the smallest of them. 

In the opening of this post I described one of my favorites, San Marino Academy of Dramatic Colorguard. I remember them like it was yesterday. I remember one flag and one fishtail that started in the back 45 corner of the floor and flowed from one performer to the next. I remember the pause as the last girl subtlety grabbed the flag, finished the final fishtail and just paused long enough for the audience to see a 9 person perfect turn out of the foot. They allowed us to absorb the intricacy of breath in that one moment. It was lovely and left us all breathless. 

There have been many of those guards, too many actually to mention here, but they don't always get the credit they deserve and aren't always remembered. A personal favorite from Florida was "Beyond" and I use to love to sit in the stands and watch as 9 girls brought Tracy Chapman's, "Fast Car," to life weekend after weekend. By the end of the season we knew them. We could feel their energy, because those 9 performers allowed the audience to explore who they were and with a road painted on the floor and no props to hide behind, we fell in love with them and watched them dominate in Dayton.

As we start a new season and start a new numbers game, I encourage directors and performers, judges and audience members to embrace those guards of 8 or 9 or 10, because you never know. You never know if you might just end up designing for, judging, or watching the next 1988 27th Lancers. 

Winterguard: Beyond Friendship, Beyond Family

When the staff sat around the planning table last year and discussed the course of action we were to take to bring Paradigm back out, many questions were discussed. All programs go through the planning and problem solving to-do list which usually includes how to find a consistent rehearsal site, a set schedule, work on the budget, discuss possible show concepts, how to attract membership, how to choose the right staff, etc. but one question in particular stuck out in my mind. It was the question we knew both members and parents were going to ask when discussing their choices:

“Why would I choose Paradigm? What make them different?
Why with all the performance options would I choose this program?”

Well, for me, this was the easiest question of all to answer.

It is well known that I am one of the longest committed members to Paradigm. I dedicated 9 years to the program and would of easily given more had it been available to me. One of my “Favorite Things” that I am famous or infamous (however you prefer) for was the 1999 butterfly hair nightmare. (Oh, butterflies…) I think that innocent mistake will haunt me ‘til my final days. 2000 was my first year in IA Finals which was “Cool”.

  I partied in to the top 5 in IA with “Birdland” in 2001. I wasn’t a “Wayfaring Stranger” as I earned my 2002 IA Silver Medal and I still sing the praises of “Fleetwood Mac” who lead the way to my 2003 IO Bronze Medal. I proudly have the WGI medals shadowboxed in honor of those great accomplishments.

Entering into my IW years, I growled and managed to escape the cage in 2004 “A Look Inside“. I was a part of the most amazing flag features ever created in 2005 which was no “Typical Situation“. 2006 was an emotional roller coaster as I discovered Mitch Albrom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and the movies Philadelphia and Meet Joe Black. And as I recovered from my car accident in November 2006, I joined in March, the end of the season, to sing ‘One Love’ into a microphone in 2007.

When I walked into the gym in Lake City, Florida with my sister, Jamie, back in the September of 1998, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in to nor what was going to be accomplished in the time I was there. I was 15, a Junior in high school, and surrounded by a lot of college students who knew more and could spin better than I could. All I knew was that I wanted to march and my high school no longer had a winter guard program. What I did know was we were going to audition for Paradigm Independent and the people there were really nice. When the weekend was over, I was tired and sore but I made some great new friends. I became the youngest person on the team that year and 1 of only 2 high schoolers that made it. It was the first steps towards a near decade of family and commitment

There is an old clique that goes something like - you make your closest friends in college. I completely disagree. I met them in the guard community. I met them at Paradigm. Paradigm is second Family. I have been around long enough to know there is nothing like the bond between marching members. There is nothing greater than that continued bond over years of teamwork and commitment. There is nothing like the instant connection when we haven’t seen each other in a while and it is immediately like we saw each other yesterday. I know I could call almost anyone of my former teammates and if possible, someway, somehow, they would support me if I really needed it. And while I am close with my coworkers and I feel like I spend just as much or more time with them as I do my guard family, its by no means the same. They don’t understand why I keep giving up my days off to teach at clinics or tech some flags or fix some feet. They have never been to Dayton and been on the floor feeling the connective energy of the people giving their all while thousands of eyes watch and applaud. They haven’t felt the bond off walking on the floor in pure joy or pure exhaustion. They have never felt the sense of accomplishment when a group you have taught achieves that one perfect moment in that one perfect run. When I request off work, I put ‘family event’ because that is what it is to me.

9 years. Don’t they go by in a blink? I went through SO much in that time. High school graduation, college graduation, relationships, friendships, disappointments, successes, my car accident, and so much more. I grew up in Paradigm. I can honestly say marching at Paradigm made me the person I am today. I can watch the videos and see my growth as a performer and a person. I look back at the obstacles I had to hurdle over to make it to the next season and see the people next to me encouraging me to go forth. I know the people I helped and what I gave back, which is why I love to teach.

So when asked this question directly to me - how would I talk to others about why Paradigm? My response was this:

Winterguard teaches not just drop spins and tosses; it teaches Life. It teaches dedication to your team and commitment to those around you. It teaches about friendship with no conditions. It teaches how to really trust in people that you depend on and find those who are depending on you. It teaches financial obligation to your dues and personal life sacrifices. It teaches how to make the right choices and learn from the wrong ones. It teaches hygiene, hair, and makeup 101. It teaching nutrition and body awareness. It teaches you the grace of winning and the dignity of losing. It teaches you that hard work pays off and when you think about giving up, you still have a little bit more to give.

All these “life” things were never taught in any of my college classes. There were taught at right shoulder in a gym with Paradigm. After I stopped marching, I looked for something else that was as great. I found a few groups and activities that came close or atleast had moments of it but “IT” wasn’t there. Maybe because I didn’t stay that long or the staff didn’t focus on teaching these things or I knew where Home was. But I missed Paradigm.

I would choose Paradigm because this is my Family, my second home. These people are who I have to depend on and trust to be there and to do their jobs. I have cried with these people. I’ve laughed, have been exhausted, overjoyed, overwhelmed, bruised, brokenhearted, and a million other emotions. 

I am thrilled and honored to be a part of the staff at Paradigm this year and I look forward to what this season and the many after it will bring.

If you have a ‘Home’, I can’t wait to see you on the floor and good luck to you this season! But if you don’t have a ‘Home’ yet and still are looking for that special place to go, please by all means come join us for a weekend. I have no doubt that once you meet my Family, you will want to be a part of it too.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Paradigm, Pageantry, and 30 Seconds in Dayton

"It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it that we can explain light to the blind." T.S. Eliot 

In life, if we are one of the lucky few, we have the ability to experience a moment while we are in it and be able to say, "This is it. This is my moment and I'm living it fully and mindfully. I know what is happening and I'm going to allow every emotion to roll over me. I see every person and hear every sound. This is it. This is the moment that will change me forever."

In 2005, the Paradigm Performance Ensemble set out to do something no one to date had never done. We wanted to create a moment that took the world of pageantry to a level that not yet been explored. Before I go forward with this post, I must state that this will not be about a flag feature. I'm going to attempt to define an activity to those who don't understand it and for those who have spent a lifetime trying to.

In the simplest terms and the only way I can explain it...The Pageantry Arts is a lifestyle choice that encompasses every emotion that can be felt through the human soul and is felt within seconds of each other, day in and day out and season by season. The pageantry activity encompasses a range of the arts from dance to marching band, to drum corps, to winterguard. This however, is the two dimensional definition. The three dimensional definition in winterguard is where my love lies, and it is winterguard that has brought me a life of joy, a life of tears, a life of elation, and a life of sorrow....sometimes all in the same weekend or even in the same five minute moment in front of 10,000 people. It is winterguard that has brought me to my knees and it is winterguard that has been the one that has helped me explore the depths of friendship and spirituality. It is winterguard that brought me to one 30 second moment where I could answer "YES!" In bold letters with an exclamation mark to the questions Pink asked.  "Have you ever wished for an endless night? Lassoed the moon and the stars and pulled that rope tight? Have you ever held your breath and asked yourself will it ever get better than tonight?" This to me is pageantry. It is Paradigm. It is art and it is passion. It is me and it is a part of my soul that is here to stay.

When Paradigm set out to spin with our feet, a flag feature that I'm not afraid to say is still one of the best ever written, we didn't decide it flippantly and in isolation. It was a decision that was worked on and discussed for over a year. It was a decision that was decided on by a group of people in many different ways and in many different places. The original idea was born in a gay bar (surprise, surprise) over a conversation that started with, "What has never been done before?" Every idea crazy and insane was thrown out on the table. Someone asked the question, "Has anyone ever done a show where the entire book was written in the horizontal plane?" With that question, a group of friends decided to spend a year exploring an idea. A year later, after many bruises, after many discussions (and even a few fights) we found ourselves at an audition teaching a bunch of 20 somethings to use their feet for more than just to look cute in shoes.

Over the course of time, the idea of spinning with our feet took on a life of its own. Discussions out of practice involved the "what if." We realized the importance of a team. We realized that creativity doesn't exist in a bubble and if it does, then it doesn't exist in its purest form. Spinning with our feet consumed our thoughts. What more can we do? If we can do this then what else? Conversations entered into the bizarre. Does spinning a flag only have to happen with the body? Wouldn't it be cool if? What would happen if we tried...?" "I want to do a show about anti-gravity."

We asked these questions of each other not because we thought we would find an answer or that they were even realistic, but because the conversations were so incredibly rich in dialog and because we hungered for each other's ideas, time and friendship  We were adults who went  to work in the day, in the average American workforce, devoid of passion and inspiration, but came home on the weekends to a world of creativity that exists only for the lucky few. When we realized that we could spin with our feet, we realized that the possibilities were endless and I'm not just talking about colorguard. I'm talking about life.

It seems absurd. How can a flag feature garner such emotion? It's just flags in a gym. Pageantry is about passion. I can't find anything out there like it. When a person thinks of passion they think of it in a two dimensional form that the media says we are supposed to believe it is. When I think of passion I think of a life filled with all the emotions the universe gave us and not suppressing them because of what it will look like or because we fear the idea of living fully in the moment. There is nothing like it on earth when you find yourself on a gym floor late at night with just you and your friends dancing to a piece of music just out of the blue and just because someone said, "What do you think about this?"

The people in this activity have gravitated to it because when we were born the universe said to us, "Now this is your time to feel life in its purest form. Don't hold back." It's not about flags in a gym. It's not about the staff or the performers. It's not about the judges or the scores. It's not about the audience or the applause. It's about the synergy of it all when it all comes together in one moment and in one gym. I've tried to explain it to others and get a lot of support from the people in the "real world," but as hard as I try, the only people who truly understand it are the people who have experienced it.

In 2005, when Paradigm spun with their feet we knew that we wanted one thing. We wanted to stand together at the top of an arena and watch a group of young people bring our creativity to life. Our creativity speaks for itself in the form of friendship and those friendships I have no doubt are the friendships that soul mates are made of.

In the song, "Glitter In the Air," Pink asks a series of questions. I would like to answer these questions by using a 30 second moment that took over a year and a half to create. In that 30 seconds I knew anything was possible and I knew my life had changed forever, because once you are open up to the possibilities, then all fear becomes nothing but white noise.

Question:  Have you ever closed your eyes and trusted, just trusted?

Answer: Yes I have. In the 16 counts before they spun with their feet I closed my eyes and trusted that everything was right.

Question: Have you ever been touched so gently you had to cry?

Answer: Yes I have. During the flag feature Mikey was standing behind me and put his arms around me. I knew at that moment that I was with a group of friends that were with me for life. I cried.

Question: Have you ever invited a stranger to come inside?

Answer: Yes I have. I have invited over 10,000 people into my soul to judge me, to love me, to hate me, but mostly to share in my moment of joy.

Question: Have you ever wished for an endless night? Lassoed the moon and the stars and pulled that rope tight?
Have you ever held your breath and asked yourself will it ever get better than tonight?

Answer: Yes I have wished for an endless night, knowing full well that night could not last. I lived fully in the moment letting all the emotion consume me. Yes I have held my breath and wondered if life could get any better than the perfection of friends who have the ability to accomplish a goal with passionate  abandonment. That Saturday night in Dayton I walked down the stands as Ron Comfort said in my ear, "This is a moment we will remember for the rest of our lives."

Later that night when we talked to the performers, with tears streaming down their faces and ours, Joe Flynn said something I'll never forget. He said, "Don't you wish the rest of the world could experience life like this?"

So for anyone who ever questions why you do colorguard or drum corps or marching band you tell them it is because you want to live life fully and you want to explore every level of passion the universe will allow you to have.

This post is dedicated to my wonderful Paradigm family both past and present, but mostly to anyone who ever had the guts to create something with their own passion and invited others in to explore it with you. This is dedicated to the thousands of kids who have stepped on a gym floor with a flag in their hands wondering what in the hell they signed themselves up for. This is dedicated to every person that ever stood in front of a group of kids with the hopes of a great 30 second moment. It's dedicated to the judges, to the contest staff and all volunteers who work for a flawless show day. Mostly, it is dedicated to the people who watched as we as instructors and performers succeeded and failed. You were there to share our passion. You were there to share our pain and our joy. You were there. You helped create the synergy and for that I thank you.