High culture, low culture, pop culture: When it comes to arts and amusements, I like to think I've seen and done it all. But last weekend I was indoctrinated into a genre that was almost entirely foreign to me. There's a weird world where music, dance, rhythmic gymnastics, cheer-leading, visual design, mime and military drill instruction are mystifyingly mashed up; it's an art form most outsiders are ignorant of, while participants often become addicted for life. And it all happens almost every weekend in gymnasiums and football stadiums around the world, right under your unsuspecting noses.
This is madness?(!) No, this is drum corps.
Let me back up and begin with a proud, if politically incorrect, proclamation: I was a band fag. For more than a decade beginning in the mid-'80s, if there was a concert band, jazz ensemble or pit orchestra in my New Jersey hometown, I was there with my trusty silver-plated Bach Stradivarius horn (still in playable condition and available for purchase, e-mail me with an offer).
I loved almost every aspect of being a musician – from the passion of performance to skipping school for shows – save one, marching band. At my high school, in order to participate in the music program it was mandatory to spend the fall strutting around in scratchy polyester, forming geometric patterns while bleating out barely recognizable arrangements of Edgar Winter classics. I still suffer flashbacks from frigid pre-dawn rehearsals and wasted Friday nights performing halftime shows for apathetic audiences; it didn't help that our football team got their asses handed to them by every neighboring town.
By the time I was a college sophomore I was well over it, but the experience allows me to appreciate the intense dedication of Drum Corps International participants. The trademarked "Marching Music's Major League" dispenses with the football, along with the woodwinds (sorry, saxophonists), instead bulking up the brass section, drum line and flag-flying color guard. Each summer, nearly a score of 128-member teams (with names like Bluecoats, Phantom Regiment and Crossmen) crisscross the country on sweat-soaked buses, spending countless hours drilling 10-minute routines and forging through a grueling schedule of competitions. (When summer ends, there's Winter Guard International, performed in gymnasiums to pre-recorded music.)
Last weekend, I traveled up to Pennsylvania to attend Music and Motion in West Chester, and the DCI Eastern Classic in Allentown, two of the final regional performances preceding the world championship on Thursday, Aug. 12, in Indianapolis. The scene was somewhat overwhelming: Picture a packed stadium of psychotically screaming fans (who have paid $30 and up per seat), focused with laserlike intensity on every snapping snare and spinning saber. As a former trumpeter, I was most impressed by the musicians' ability to play at full volume facing one way while simultaneously sprinting in the opposite direction – without chipping any teeth. When you consider the coordination required to keep massive numbers of equipment-laden marchers in perpetual motion without any head-on collisions (only the occasional dropped rifle), it truly is an impressive athletic endeavor.
On an artistic level, however, the spectacle frequently left me scratching my head. Often it resembles an emulation of Las Vegas–style excess, with all the pomp, pageantry and pretension that implies. I witnessed day-glo costumes of lime Jell-O green and Epcot purple; humans tossed skyward like living liquid in a biological Bellagio fountain; and bare-chested boys dancing deliriously to "Rhapsody in Blue." Sometimes it works in a surreal way, as with the Blue Stars' Houdini-themed show featuring straightjacketed dancers twirling flags with necks and ankles. Other times it doesn't; the Cadets incorporated an obnoxious comic-relief character that pulverized an otherwise entertaining "March of the Wooden Soldiers" act.
Some readers by now are rolling their eyes, wondering, "Who cares?" Well, more people than you'd think. I attended Allentown with Jay McCarroll, winner of the first Project Runway and the latest Celebrity Fit Club; he's a veteran of the Field of View Winter Guard and still close with other alumni (including my wife) two decades later. Orlando fans and followers include radio journalist Katie Ball, musician Joe Meadows, artist Rick Jones, theater director Christian St. John and puppeteer Heather Henson.
There are enough drum corps devotees in our town to make sure the annual big-screen simulcast of the Drum Corps International championships are a perennial sellout at local movie theaters. (This year: 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Regal's Pointe Orlando IMAX and Waterford Lakes Stadium 20, AMC Pleasure Island 24 and Cinemark Festival Bay Mall.) So beware before you dismiss them as a bunch of "flaggots" – the person next to you might just be a closet corpsman.;
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