Monday, April 11, 2016

What I Learned As A WGI Finalist

When I was a little girl, I was intrigued by my father's world of band and music, but I was enthralled with dance. I had searched for my place among many groups vowing to make me a pretty and well-trained dancer, including a pom squad in jr. high and a special jazz dance ensemble in college that I'm still a part of today. But when I was in the fourth grade, I discovered the other part of my dad's occupation: the part he didn't work with, the part that rehearsed separately, the part that was uniquely and undeniably captivating.

Color guard; half a sport and half an art form, called for the athleticism of dancers along with the presence of actors. It wasn't good enough just to dance. You had to dance, spin, toss, catch, and perform. You had to learn staging. You had to learn how to fold and transport a tarp. You had to learn what a tarp even was. You had to become a makeup artist overnight, and learn how to get your hair to poof as high as Dolly Parton. And you discovered a glorious invention you never knew how you lived without: the power of glitter. On your face. In your hair. Everywhere. Guard called for costume fittings, endless rehearsals, and stamina beyond compare. It called for money too; for equipment and team jackets and fees to cover everything that wasn't sponsored. I knew it would be hard work, but I was ready.

When I was in seventh grade, I discovered the difference between color guard and winterguard. Color guard was hot and sweaty. It was done on a football field with an often less-than-appreciative audience who was only there for football. They would go get hot dogs when you took the field to show them what you'd been working on. But winterguard was its own little world, where everyone who had witnessed it once found it unique, entrancing, and humbly impressive. The best of the best were sent to Dayton, OH to perform at WGI World Championships along with hundreds of others. The top 15 of those best of the best would be sent to finals. Those dancers were more than dancers. They were performers. They were undeniably talented. And they were stunning. I wished to be just like them.

So I worked. I trained. I got too many bruises and I let too many things hit the floor. I would sweat. I would cry. But above all, I would practice, only to make an open class winterguard and realize that all my hard work could never be enough on its own.

A winterguard show isn't impressive when one person is amazing. It's impressive when everyone is amazing. When all the flags spin together. When everyone catches a toss behind their back. And in that moment, I realized that everything I'd dreamed of and worked for wasn't really about me at all.

When I walked into our rehearsal space on the first day of the Pride of Missouri State staging camp, I had no way of knowing how the season would end. All I knew is that I had a few friends on the team, and our show was about love. But over the course of the season, I came to realize our show was about so much more than that. It wasn't about a love that was meant to be, it was about an experience that was unparalleled. I watched everyone else on our team work just as hard. I watched everyone spin together and everyone catch those tosses. I watched some drops, too, but then watched as we picked the equipment right back up again. And we kept going. Kept pushing. Kept fighting. And when we loaded the bus to Dayton on Tuesday in the middle of the night, it was far from over.

It was only beginning really. Our show was completed. There was no more choreography to memorize. No more staging to learn. The tricks had been ironed out and our show was all wrapped up and topped with a bow. But our goal was to show our art, our work, and our sacrifice to as many people as possible. That would require three runs: one in prelims, one in semis, and one in finals. Yes, finals. Where only 15 of the best of the best perform in UD Arena.

We performed in prelims and then had another rehearsal. We advanced to semis, and rehearsed some more. Every spare moment was spent spinning, stretching, and mentally running through our show. We were not giving up. I didn't make finals. We made finals. All of us. And when I walked through the tunnel, kissed the traditional UD wall for good luck, and set my equipment under the lights of UD Arena, I felt invincible. I felt talented. And I felt stunning.

It's amazing how relying on others can make you feel better than you'd feel if you'd done it all yourself.

I'm sure everyone on that floor felt stunning and talented and wonderful. So many dreams for little guard girls came true that day. But every individual walked out with tears in their eyes and pride in their soul, knowing they had worked and sacrificed and contributed to something that had been recognized by judges, performers, and fans. The best of the best. We were among the top 15 of the best of the best in our class.

I will never forget that moment. It's what I'd dreamed of since a little girl, of course. But more than that moment, I will remember everything I learned along the way. Not just about dance technique and the correct way to spin a rifle, but the things that are never said. The things that are never included in a lecture or a pep talk. The things that you just learn, merely by being a part of something greater.

So, to all my friends who think guard is just about slinging around a flag during a football game's halftime show, here's everything that happens within Dayton week that guard members experience. Here's everything the band, and especially the audience members, know nothing about.

1) You will be busy. 
Wake up. Eat breakfast. Get dressed. Check out the performance arena. Come back. Change. Drive. Unload. Rehearse. Change. Load. Drive. Hair. Makeup. Uniform. Drive. Load. Stretch. Drive. Unload. Warm up. Perform. Load. Drive. Change. Unload. Rehearse. Load. Drive. Announcements. Shower. Change. Bed. And you gotta eat three times a day in there somewhere.

Rinse and repeat.

It is a no nonsense trip. You don't get to stop for dinner and take a 3 hour break. As if performing wasn't enough to exhaust you, the rehearsals are. The long drives are. Even the sheer fact that you have to be somewhere every second of the day on such a tight schedule is enough to fry your brain. You better carry your schedule with you (but bring an ink pen, too, because it will change at the drop of a hat).

2) You will be sore. 
Extend your arm. Point your feet. 5-6-7-8 and turn. Dut dut OUT! Toss. Catch. Prep. Toss. Drop. OUCH. Recover. Lift. Extend. Curve your arm. Close your fingers. Free arm is down. "For the last time, girls, that toss is out on EIGHT!" 5-6-7-squeeze, push, OUT. Release. Breathe....

Sound familiar? It does if you're in guard, and you know what each of those things mean. You've heard them a thousand times from your instructors and teammates. You know how bad it hurts when your rifle jams your thumb. You know how much you bleed when you stick your hand in too fast to catch a sabre. You know the way things black out for a moment when you whack your head with a flag. And yet, you keep right on going. Chances are, you don't even notice your body is giving out until you're done with the run-through anyway.

3) You will be tired.
So your rehearsal lasted until 11 p.m. last night, and the venue was an hour away from your hotel. You have to be up at 6 a.m.  But don't you complain, because that's a good day. An easy day. You might only get four hours of sleep one night. You catch 10 minutes naps on the bus when you can. They're all that get you through the week after all. Any time you get to lay horizontal on a bed is nothing short of a luxury, and it isn't taken for granted.

P.S. We drove through the night last night and arrived home at 8:30 a.m. I'm writing this post at 10:13 p.m. after three naps and only one meal that I've dared to emerge from my bed to consume.

4) You will be judged. 
Everyone in that arena has worked just as hard. The judges are top notch. They are critical. They are harsh. They don't miss a single thing. You must have the best of the best judges for the best of the best guards.

The audience will judge you, too. You'll be criticized by the enthusiasts for not being artsy enough, but you'll be bashed by a high school audience for being too abstract. Some people won't understand your show. Or worse, they won't like it. Most people don't understand guard itself, and believe me, all of us are used to that. But everyone in Dayton knows their stuff. They know what it is and how to do it.

Just remember... It may be a sport, but it is also an art. It's 1,000 people's opinions in one day. Some will love your show. Others will despise it. It's like life; you can't please everybody. All you can do is the best you can do. Sometimes it isn't enough. But sometimes, it is.

5) You will be loved. 
Because now that I'm sitting at home after a concluded season with no rehearsal footage to review, no practice to go to, and no performance to prepare for, I'm not thinking about the schedules or the aching muscles or the technique of it all. I'm thinking about the group I did it with. I'm thinking about the literal blood, sweat, and tears we poured into our season, and the countless hours spent with my closest friends. I'm thinking about the age-outs, too; the ones who may never spin again, and the bonus babies who surely never will. That may not mean anything to the general public, or to my readers who have not experienced guard at all. But for us performers, that thought alone is enough to instill tears for the memories had and the uncertainty of what's to come. That team, my team, as it existed wholly and interdependently only yesterday, has ceased to exist. I will spin with the Pride of Missouri State again. That much is certain. I have a year left before my age out and I don't intend on wasting it. It will be the same name, but it will be a different team. The people, the talent, the jokes, and the memories I've clung to since December will never be the same again. It will never again be the way it was only yesterday.

So to my friends who think I march around with the band and wave a flag around... Stop telling me that. Because it's offensive to degrade my entire life into what I do in a five minute show. Because I might be passionate about the sport itself, but in the end, it's not really about color guard. It's about inspiring other performers to be better. It's about impacting performers and non-performers alike with your art. It's about making people laugh, cry, believe, love, and feel something when they might not otherwise. It's about the journey you make individually, and where it takes you, and who you get to spend it with. It's about the hugs and tears when it's all over, and that one comment someone said three months ago that still makes you laugh when you're walking down the street. It's about the frustration that you learn to handle. It's about knowing your limits, and pushing past them.

I've learned a lot about guard since I started spinning with the Pride of Missouri State. I've learned that I never had a very good turn-out in my feet, that my rifle tosses are always high, and that I don't like spinning weapon half as much as I enjoy spinning flag. But after all that, I learned that it's never really been about guard. It's about everything it gives you; the confidence, the pain, the dignity, the plight, and the twenty seven other performers you now consider family.

Because it's never really been about guard. It's about knowing what it's like to feel alive.

Congratulations to all units who performed with thousands of others at WGI World Championships this past weekend, and a special thanks to the members and staff of the Pride of Missouri State for making my dream come true.