In the hands of Becky Gast, age 5, an ordinary baton is nothing less than a lethal weapon.
The blonde sprite with big brown eyes whips the metal rod around like a baseball bat, accidentally whacking her 7-year-old sister Mandy on the head. When she tosses the baton in the air for a big finish, her fellow twirlers dive for cover.
It can be a dangerous job teaching youngsters to twirl a baton, and nobody knows that better than Lou Greenleaf. For 40 years, the Laguna Hills resident has been taking girls with fumble fingers and turning them into world-champion baton twirlers.
Her students, most of whom are Orange County residents ranging in age from 5 to 20, typically capture a pile of trophies at state, regional, national and world competitions.
"If I put 15 girls in a state meet, we'll bring home 70 awards and trophies. That's a lot," Greenleaf says.
In August, Greenleaf and two students--Veena Goel, 7, and Cassie Montelius, 8, both of Laguna Hills--returned home from the National Baton Twirling Assn.'s world meet in Indiana with 20 more trophies to add to their collections.
Goel won 15 trophies, including a first place for solo baton in the advanced division, and Montelius won five trophies, including a first place for flag baton and third place for solo baton in the beginners' division.
Still, anyone familiar with Greenleaf's methods knows she cares less about bringing home trophies than she does about building character.
"The girls learn to win and lose. They learn to struggle and achieve. It makes them better people," she explains.
In Greenleaf's classes, which meet at parks and schools in South Orange County, the children learn as much about the power of positive thinking as they do about twirling.
Greenleaf stands before half a dozen 5- to 8-year-olds from her beginners' class in the courtyard of La Paz Intermediate School in Mission Viejo on a recent Wednesday afternoon. She absent-mindedly spins her baton around like a propeller as she addresses the students.
"We're going to learn a new trick today," she says. "It's a hard one. Can we do this twirl?"
"Yes," comes the chorus.
"Because it's humanly possible," they chant, reciting one of Greenleaf's favorite homilies.
Greenleaf balances the baton on her raised elbow. The girls attempt to imitate her. A couple of the batons tumble to the ground. Greenleaf patiently readjusts the batons, pausing now and then to tweak a nose and pat a head.
"Keep your arm up, sweet pea," she says to one girl.
Step by step, she leads them through the maneuver, rotating the baton around with her elbows and catching it behind her back. One girl spins and catches the baton on her second try.
"What does it mean if somebody does something before you?" Greenleaf asks.
"Nothing!" shout the girls.
"Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise won the race because he kept trying. I ask God for lots of tortoises. Now, which are we going to be?"
"The hare?" volunteers one tot who has missed the moral of the story.
"The tortoise!" Greenleaf says.
Greenleaf motivates her young charges through a combination of cajoling, encouragement and blatant bribery. Younger students get candy or money if they meet the lofty goals that Greenleaf sets for them.
Her teen-age students observe all of this with bemusement. They know all of Greenleaf's methods and mottos by heart.
"She has all these little tricks," says Cyndee Frazzetta, 20, of Silverado Canyon. Frazzetta has studied with Greenleaf since she was 9.
"She'll tell me, 'If you do this trick five out of six times, you can have all the hot fudge sundaes you can eat.' Or, 'If you catch the baton five times in a row, you get a stuffed animal.' It will seem impossible. But I can't even tell you how many stuffed animals I have."
She also has a lot of trophies. Frazzetta has won state, regional, national and world competitions. Three years ago, she twirled for students in Japan on a cultural exchange sponsored by the U.S. government, and early this year she twirled at the Miss Arizona contest, where she was fourth runner-up.
Although Greenleaf can be a demanding teacher, she says she does not want twirling to become an all-consuming pastime for her students.
"I don't want a kid to give up being a kid," she says. "There should be a time for playing with jacks and climbing trees."
"I've been to competitions and seen some kids leave the floor crying," says Andy Carlson, 14, of Laguna Hills. Carlson has won state and regional competitions and placed ninth in the 1984 world meet.
"A lot of girls say, 'Oh, my coach will kill me if I don't do well.' We're not like that. Lou has no problem with anyone winning or losing. Her attitude is, 'If you win, great. If you don't, we practice harder.' "
Greenleaf herself spent many hours as a child with baton in hand. The 54-year-old Santa Ana native began twirling at age 9.
"My father took me to a parade in Santa Ana and I saw a group of baton twirlers. I said to myself, 'You know, I bet I could twirl one of those.' "