Twirly, madly, deeply 

Look back on your school days, and you'll remember that twirlers occupied a distinct middle ground in the social order: above the marching band in importance, but still well below the cheerleaders and football players. They were popular, but not outstandingly so. And no one, but no one, ever referred to them as athletes.

Joyce Perrone is bent on changing that. As the executive director of Twirl Mania, an annual conclave of baton-bearers from across North America, the perky advocate (think Annette Funicello in her peanut-butter period) has dedicated herself to the rehabilitation of the pastime's public image.

"It's a sport that no one really knows about," Perrone laments, "because it's been hidden for so many years."

Well, maybe not "hidden" -- how completely can you hide a kid who's decked out in a rhinestone leotard and enough eye makeup to make Tammy Faye Bakker gasp? But the validation of the hobby as a sport was clearly important to the youngsters who somersaulted into Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex last weekend to vie for top honors in the fifth edition of Twirl Mania. One peek at the venue's parking lot -- where a minivan's soaped-up windows bore the brazen legend "Twirl naked" -- was proof that this was not your mother's color guard.

When I walked into the venue's fieldhouse Sunday morning to watch the "team competitions" portion of the event, acrobats of all ages were milling about with their indulgent parents, who carried their little ones' magic wands in expensive zippered cases. A group of at least 100 girls in black-and-blue jumpers were out on the floor, running routines to the lilting strains of "Whoomp! There It Is." I still wasn't certain that this qualified as athletics, but their Broadway-style shimmying raised suspicions that a breakfast of Cookie Crisp is the overlooked first step in becoming Bob Fosse.

Baton and on

A long day of group choreography followed, with squads from schools and dance studios executing moves that spanned from impressive to woebegone. One 12-member parade corps instantly distinguished itself by dropping batons like hot potatoes. "God, they are terrible," the mom behind me muttered as the smallest of the bunch fell on her tush. It was a hazard that even the most accomplished crews had trouble avoiding; the janitor who had cleaned the fieldhouse floor had apparently used a mixture of wax and whatever's in Coolio's hair.

The panorama of incipient womanhood betrayed no hints that twirling had actually been an all-male discipline as recently as the 1940s. (Don't feel ignorant if you were unaware of this trivia; I was too, until Perrone and her people set me straight.) On Sunday, that vanished tradition was embodied by two guys who competed for drum-major honors, marching across the floor while barking out orders to the invisible musicians they pretended were following them. Observing from the stands, their feminine counterparts no doubt wondered why boys always act so bossy, even when no one's listening.

The awards ceremony that capped the afternoon was a protracted affair, with seemingly every participant granted a citation in categories that included Halftime Show, Dance Line and Strut. I had no problem with that. These children, I reasoned, would soon enough be forced to compete for jobs and lovers. Why break their little hearts now?

The flair/Weech project

To equip them with hope for the future, the ceremony was co-hosted by WFTV Channel 9 anchorwoman Marla Weech, surely Orlando's best example of how far a former twirler can go. Weech was in high spirits, reacting with good humor when I kidded her in between awards about returning to her roots. Seated next to me during the subsequent, all-important Gold Invitational competition -- the weekend-closing contest between the stars of Saturday's solo performances -- she offered much helpful information about the history of the sport. (There, I said the word.) In her younger days, Weech told me, she had thrilled audiences by juggling batons that were set on fire. Now I know what I want for Christmas 2000: a photograph of that.

The four young women and one fellow who went for the gold were simply superb, balancing two or three batons at once while doing somersaults and flips. Orlando's Allison Krieger had the best presence, but was punished by the judges with a last-place finish for a few mishandlings of her props. The winner was Tennessee's Jenny Hannah, whose motions were the speediest of the five.

None of them, however, was as awe-inspiring as outgoing 1999 champ Brandi Martin, whose farewell exhibition saw her spinning the rods around her body until she looked like a science-class mobile. I'll go Perrone one better and say that Martin is not only an athlete but an artist -- maybe even a movie star in the making. Set this woman up with some nunchuks, and she'll be ready to clean out an opium den in the next Hong Kong action thriller.

With Weech on flamethrower detail, of course.


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