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Remember Batons? The Art Is Still in Good Hands

Once the darlings of halftime shows, twirlers are few but dedicated.

January 21, 2002|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nine-year-old Allison Fleming has a few tips for aspiring baton twirlers: "Don't give up even when you can't do something. Try not to be too rowdy. Don't be too calm because you need energy to do stuff. And here's some other advice: Don't wear tight skirts or shoes that can slip off. Like a gymnastics outfit would be good."

To demonstrate the tight skirt point, Fleming, in jeans, sneakers, tie-dye T-shirt and a light dusting of facial glitter, performs a high kick, passing her baton under one leg. Then she feigns a tight skirt and tries to repeat the move. It ain't happening. Point taken.

The fourth-grader is one of about half a dozen girls in Lisa Taylor's eight-week-long intermediate baton twirling class, offered through the city of Santa Monica. Her 6-year-old sister, Lesli, is also in the class, which takes place once a week in the craft room of Santa Monica's Joslyn Park. There was supposed to be a second class for beginners. But not enough kids signed up, which isn't entirely surprising. After all, baton twirling's popularity peaked around 1960.

"Then there were about a million kids," recalls Don Sartell, president of the National Baton Twirling Assn. in Janesville, Wis., which he founded in 1941. "There were about 20,000 school bands in America and all had twirlers or drum majors." (The sport in fact traces its roots to late 19th century U.S. military drum majors--all men--who walked in front of the band, carrying large batons with which they set the cadence.)

"Everything was sailing along fine," Sartell says. "Then came Title IX in the '70s, which mandated that every school give equal opportunity to girls for sports. So many girls who were involved in pompom, cheerleading and baton twirling got into [other] sports. High level twirling dropped by 150,000 to 200,000 [participants]."

Today, most high school bands don't even feature twirlers, Sartell laments. "Band leaders have resorted to a girl carrying a flag or a plastic or wood rifle or a pompom. In three or four weeks, they can teach them what it takes [to master the flag, rifle or pompom]. To put on a proficient team of baton twirlers takes many months of training."

Perhaps Sartell would be heartened if he could see the routine of the girls practicing in Santa Monica. Casually known as the Taylor's Twirlers, the girls perform to the Backstreet Boys' high energy song "The Call." Over the course of class, the girls repeat the routine half a dozen or so times. While they aren't quite ready for a halftime show, they're awfully cute and entertaining. Instructor Taylor, in her late 30s, who was the featured twirler at her alma mater, the University of Central Florida, and a state twirling champion, assists with such cues as "figure eight," "roll," "pinwheel up and down" and "leg trap." The routine ends with optional splits.

Then there's marching to John Phillips Sousa's Semper Fidelis. "This is practice for those 3-mile parades," says Taylor, a database consultant who lives in Culver City. The girls are giddy at the parade prospect. She leads, knees high, prancing like a horse, as her students follow her around the circumference of the room, clinging to their batons. "Left-right, left-right," she calls out. "Try to be in step. Get your feet up. Point your toes." After one lap, things get more complicated. Now the challenge is to walk and twirl at the same time. "Ow," cries out Lila Seeley, 8. "I bumped my funny bone."

There is in fact a fair amount of bumping. The girls don't quite have the spacing thing down. At one point, Taylor entreats, "Spread out so you don't kill each other." There are also quite a few batons crashing into the ceiling and sailing across the floor. But everyone seems to be having fun, including the parents hovering in the doorway.

"I loved it as a child, which is why I wanted my daughters to experience it," Georgiana Fleming says. "It's a good, wholesome activity." Adds Sammy Rae's mom, Kelley Scarborough: "It teaches discipline. And it's something different that none of the other kids know how to do. It makes her feel special." There's another draw as well, says Scarborough, who points out that the twirling is far less expensive than ice skating or basketball.

As for the future of twirling, Sartell is enthusiastic. "It's great. Obviously twirlers would like to see it in the Olympics one day. But until we can get enough countries in the world up to our level, it would be brutal. Our twirlers are still way ahead of the rest of the world."

Despite his optimistic outlook, Sartell can't help looking back to a particularly bright moment in the history of sport: A movie about baton twirling that aired on NBC in 1981. "Believe it or not," he says, "Heather Locklear was in it, Lisa Whelchel from the 'Facts of Life,' and Erin Moran. It was called 'Twirl.' It was movie of the week."

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