Walter Johnson High has a halftime show at its football games featuring Susan Garabedian. She twirls batons.
Garabedian is still putting together the routine she’ll use this season, which she’ll debut next week during the Bethesda school’s home opener against Wootton. But she expects that, as in past years, the peak will come when she torches the lighter-fluid-soaked ends of a pair of batons and throws the flaming sticks in the air.
“That gets the crowd going,” says Garabedian, a senior honor student who has choreographed and scored the solo performances each fall since entering Walter Johnson in 2004. “I don’t know why more schools don’t do it.”
There was a time in this country when pretty much every halftime show had twirling. But the baton has lost its place as part of prep-football pageantry. Garabedian is one of only a handful of twirlers who performs under the Friday night lights for local schools, and she’s the only one around here to be given such a prominent role.
When Garabedian arrived at the Bethesda campus, her school didn’t have baton-twirling at games, either. The idea for the act was all hers.
“In my freshman year, I went to the athletic director and asked if I could do it at games,” she says. “I wanted to show my friends that baton-twirling wasn’t just cowboy boots and parades. It wasn’t easy to convince [the AD]. Nobody at the school could remember anybody twirling here.”
Garabedian’s pitch was helped by the fact that she’d already won several twirling awards, including state and regional championships, and that she was a member of the team at Wheaton Dance/Twirl. That’s a Rockville-based outfit that has long produced the nation’s best twirling squads.
In her high-school years, Garabedian has won additional prestigious titles. Tops among them: In 2005, she was named solo-baton champion at the World Open, an international competition, and was two-baton champion in the same meet a year later.
The Wheaton team’s successes have continued, also: Last year, the squad captured both the senior and junior team titles at the World Twirl Team Championships in Amsterdam.
Turns out this area is the center of the competitive baton universe. Along with Wheaton, the nation’s second-most decorated squad, the Dynamics, trains just up the road in Laurel.
So if twirling’s been removed from the high school football scene around here, it’s probably dead pretty much everywhere, right?
“The world of baton twirling isn’t on the football field now,” says Kay Colen of Potomac.
Colen, along with being a twirling teacher and tournament organizer, is a founder of the National Coalition for the Advancement of Baton Twirling. In its mission statement, the group sets its primary goal as promoting “the acceptance of baton twirling as a scholastic sport at the high-school and collegiate level.”
There have been some successes: Northwestern University, for example, brought back the featured twirler position for its marching band after an absence of 20 years. But there’s no clear signs that the baton will ever regain the halftime prominence it once had at the high school level.
Nobody’s sure exactly why twirling went away. Colen thinks the baton’s removal from football was part of a bigger downturn in twirling’s profile.
“Twirling used to get a lot of its exposure from parades, and in this country there used to be all sorts of parades, for everything—every fire department had its own parade,” she says. “Now, there aren’t that many parades. Twirling has its own little universe now, indoors, in the competitions.”
Every high school in Fairfax County, the area’s largest school district, has a marching band. Roger Tomhave, who as fine arts coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools oversees the music programs, theorizes that twirlers don’t add enough to the “visual ensemble” that today’s band directors are trying to put together for their halftime shows.
“It’s mostly flags,” says Tomhave. “The nature of marching bands now is all the formations and what would show from a distance. A baton-twirler wouldn’t show from a distance.”
Emery Harriston of Alexandria might be the world’s oldest competitive twirler. In July, at 45 years old, he competed in the United States National Baton Twirling Championships in Rochester, Minn. He’s also a devotee of football-related twirling: He performed with bands at football games as a junior-high and high-school student, and then with the University of Maryland marching band from 1988 through 2005.
Harriston believes that twirling’s emergence as an individual competitive sport has hurt its standing on the football field.
“The kids don’t want to twirl for the school. They want to do the competitions, since those are on television,” he says. “You don’t see marching bands anymore on television at halftime, because they show other things now. I think that’s one reason it’s gone away from the high schools. I know when I was a kid all the high schools had baton-twirlers.”
Annie Kennedy, whose family started the Wheaton Majorettes, a Dance/Twirl precursor, in 1959 and now is an instructor with the club, says that despite the abundance of twirling talent in this area, the baton is kept out of the schools because administrators think of it as
“Susan [Garabedian] was fortunate to be able to work with her AD so that she could twirl at school,” says Kennedy, who has four Wheaton batonists now twirling for the Maryland band. “Sometimes, they don’t understand twirling and think of it…as if it is 1950s, parades, high boots, and hats.”
Garabedian graduates in the spring. She’s pretty sure there won’t be anybody at Walter Johnson she can pass her flaming batons to.
“Nobody’s going to follow me,” she says. “That’s sad. Isn’t it?”