Elbow grease

In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, my best friend Reese said, “Let’s try out for majorettes for next fall.” This was something I had never considered doing. I was more the newspaper-editor type, which in fact is what I became the following year. I wavered. She cajoled. Out of loyalty to Reese, I finally agreed.

While I was reasonably athletic as a teen, trying out for majorettes would require things that I had absolutely no natural ability in, moves that were – quite literally – a stretch. A front-back split and a cartwheel, for instance. Muscles, I had. Flexibility, not so much.

For months, Reese and I practiced holding and then twirling our shiny new batons, coached by her big sister. We marched around our houses, lifting our knees high and stomping our feet down and springing them back up, one two three four. Daily, I stood in the back yard and forced myself down into a split, making slow progress toward the grass. (This was more than a little painful!) A complete non-gymnast, I threw myself into cartwheel after cartwheel until I nailed it.

Tryout time. Several dozen girls marched around the gym in front of a table of judges, which included the band teacher, the football coach, the head majorette, and the phys ed teacher. “Good posture!” I silently coached myself. “Chin up! Shoulders back! Knees high! SMILE, dammit!” The judges scribbled notes. There would only be room for a few of us to replace the graduating seniors.

I was the second one picked for the squad; to my relief, Reese soon followed. We’d done it! And now it was real, not just some favor for a buddy.

Majorettes turned out to be fun. We practiced every day after school from 2:30 to 4:30 pm, then caught the “late bus” home with all the jocks. We learned different performance routines to the music the band would be playing at halftime during that week’s football game, and synchronized our twirling and marching for the parade onto and later off of the field.

At the games, we wore bright red wool uniforms with white soutache trim, white mid-calf boots,  and tall furry white hats with red plumes on top. The get-up seems silly now, but we definitely stood out on the football field.

Best of all was the march music. Lots of Sousa. “Stars and Stripes Forever.” “The Washington Post March.” It made me want to prance like a pony! We led the band at the annual town Memorial Day parade, high-stepping down the narrow streets with people applauding on both sides. To this day the rolling cadence of marching drums thrills me.

I’d worked hard to be a majorette, mostly to help Reese. But it ended up helping me. I learned I could master physical skills I had thought impossible. (Eventually I was able to toss my baton high in the air, catch it with both hands held over my head, and simultaneously drop into a no-hands-touching split.) I learned that a tight marching and twirling squad required hours and hours of practice every day, all autumn long.

I learned that the work, the aches, the agony of a dropped baton on the field, were all worth it in the end. I was a majorette for my last two years of high school, and I had a ball. Thanks, Reese!

Reese and I are still good friends, albeit from a distance since she moved to Arizona. We love to look at old photos of us in the yearbook, smiling – shining – in our bright red uniforms.



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