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Let’s Give It a Twirl

Beverly Johnson gets frustrated when she hears sarcastic comments about baton twirling, “making fun as if it was something that’s so very easy to do.”

And she’s tired of the misconception that baton twirling is just an excuse for lithe young women to prance around in skimpy costumes. “We suffer from an image problem, that’s for certain,” she says.

Baton twirling is about competition, hard work, dedication and development of special athletic and artistic skills, says Johnson of Huntington Beach, a 1961 national baton-twirling champion who is now an internationally recognized coach.

Twirling is her life’s work and that’s why she helped organize the 15th All West Regional Baton Twirling Competition scheduled for today and Sunday at Christ College in Irvine.

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More than 300 twirlers from California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Hawaii will compete for a chance to qualify for the National Baton Twirling Assn. championships at the University of Notre Dame in July.

“Baton twirling is really an art. It’s an art/sport,” says Johnson.

Twirling requires gymnastic and balletic skills, stamina, strength, manual dexterity “and a great deal of training,” she says.

“In essence, it’s very, very difficult.”

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Johnson, who teaches 15 baton-twirling students ranging from 6 to 20 years old, says twirling competition “teaches children an awful lot about life. Any competition does. It teaches them how to win, how to lose . . . how to be flexible and adjust to all kinds of situations, to adjust to all kinds of people. It’s just such a life experience.”

The regional competition this weekend will include novice, beginning, intermediate and advanced twirlers, who are divided into the age groups of tiny tot, juvenile, junior and senior.

Today’s morning competition will be in “strutting,” which requires body movements performed to musical beat in a specific floor pattern. There is no twirling here, but the baton is held gracefully and competitors are rated on showmanship and grace. Dance twirl teams will compete at 3 p.m.

On Sunday, solo competition will include single-baton and two-baton twirling. Contestants will be rated on releasing the baton; twirling a baton in the fingers; aerials (tossing the baton), and rolling the baton over wrists and arms. The finals for advanced twirlers will begin at 3 p.m.

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Advanced contestants will toss batons high in the air and execute gymnastic maneuvers underneath, such as making six continuous spins on one foot or doing a “walkover"--a forward cartwheel as hands touch the floor--before catching the baton.

Johnson says competition is the main outlet for twirling because few high school bands have twirlers anymore. In Johnson’s era, most high school marching bands had majorettes and/or flashy drum majors who were actually male twirlers.

However, when bands adopted a drum-and-bugle-corps style of performance, tall-flag and rifle groups replaced baton twirlers.

Some colleges, she said, still have twirlers, including several that offer highly sought-after twirling scholarships. And a few, including the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, still have drum majors.

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Johnson, then known as Beverly Miller, marched with the Lakewood High School Band, the Long Beach Junior Concert Band and the band at California State Long Beach. She has executed routines with flaming batons during halftime shows at football games.

There were plenty of men in twirling in Johnson’s heyday, she says, but only a few are in it now. Three males will participate in this weekend’s competition. There are, however, men like Donald Garcia, who along with four women twirlers, entertain during Los Angeles Rams football games in Anaheim.

“Donald is so adept, such a showman,” Johnson says. “I see people watch Donald rather than the football game.”

Twirling today requires more technical skill than it did when Johnson won her senior division NBTA championship in 1961 at age 17. Competitions now focus more on being able to execute difficult moves than on personal style.

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“I would say many years ago that styles were more important,” she says. “Each twirler having her own different style. . . . I don’t find that to be as significant as it was then.”

She says the types of movements, such as body rolls, have become more intricate. Wrist and arm strength and athletic ability have also become more important because of intricate maneuvers. Aerials also have more emphasis in competition routines.

In fact, things have changed so much that she says her students would laugh if they saw the twirling pictures in her scrapbook. Her poses and costumes are so dated, she says, that they are almost an embarrassment.

But over the years, Johnson’s renown as a coach has grown. She serves on the board of directors of the NBTA and has made several trips to Europe in the last few years to hold seminars for instructors and judges as the popularity of the sport has caught on there.

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In April, she will travel to Amsterdam, Holland, for the first world twirling championships, for which she has helped accredit judges.

In the United State, she says, “twirling was at its pinnacle about 10 years ago, when it was the second largest girls’ organization in the country.” (Girl Scouts came in first.) She attributes the decline in interest to the growth of other sports for young women, permitting more choices for athletic competition.

“It’s not as prevalent as we wish it would be,” Johnson says. “It requires so much time . . . there’s not the financial reward maybe later that there would be perhaps in another sport.”

Johnson hopes twirling will enjoy a resurgence because “everything goes in cycles.” Meanwhile, she continues passing on her expertise.

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“It’s just so satisfying to make a child feel good about herself,” she says.

“I get a real satisfaction from knowing I’m doing it right . . . and hopefully passing on my knowledge, so maybe they’ll teach baton twirling some day.”

15th All West Regional Baton Twirling Competition, today 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m-6 p.m., in the gymnasium at Christ College, 1530 Concordia , Irvine. Free. To reach Christ College, take the 405 Freeway south, exit at Culver Drive an turn right, turn left on Campus Drive, left on Turtle Rock Drive and left on Concordia. For information, call (714) 968-8582.


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