Tahlequah Daily Press

June 3, 2013

High school twirlers, skimpy outfits and roaring fire batons

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — There were four former Fort Gibson High School twirlers at a reunion-ish event I attended a couple of weekends ago. If you’re more than a few years younger than I am, the word “twirlers” may give you pause. If so, you can be forgiven your ignorance, because for the most part, twirlers don’t exist anymore. I should know; I was one of them.

“Twirlers,”  in the ‘70s, was the modern way of referring to a “majorette,” which was scuttled as a sexist term in the late ‘60s. What we twirled was a baton – and the more accomplished among us could twirl more than one at a time. In the early ‘80s, twirlers fell out of favor with high school band directors, to be replaced by what we disparagingly called “rifle handlers” and “flag girls.” We liked to tell ourselves we were supplanted because the new crop of chicks had neither the skill nor the agility to maneuver the skinny stick batons, much less catch them when they were spinning so fast you couldn’t get a bead on them and had to rely on your best guess.  Our observations of this trend convinced us anyone could learn flags or rifles in a few short months. It didn’t require years of backyard schooling by an older twirler who had condescendingly agreed to share her trade secrets. Some of us also smugly told ourselves those younger chicks wouldn’t look as good in the skimpy twirler costumes as we did. Band directors, mostly men in those days, intuited this, and thus urged the transition to disciplines that came with more modest uniforms.

Besides myself, the former twirlers at this get-together were (and I’m using their maiden names) Glinda Johnson, Lisa Smith and Becky Mears. Becky and I had been twirlers from the time I was in ninth grade, she in 10th; Lisa moved from Perkins and joined the squad her junior year, after Becky graduated. Glinda was a jack-of-all-trades type: Some years she was twirler, another time a cheerleader, and one year, she was the “mascot” for the football team, which required her to wear a full-length, faux tiger fur jumpsuit. Though it may have been hot and stuffy, Glinda’s jumpsuit did not raise the ire of the school board, which was composed of stern-faced men who were either members of the First Baptist Church or Church of Christ. Practically everyone in Fort Gibson in those days was a member of FBC or CofC, though there were a few Methodists (rumored to be liberal) and Pentecostals. The representatives of CofC and FBC frowned upon the scanty uniforms of the twirlers and cheerleaders. The CofC frowned a little deeper, though; I can only think of one or two backsliders from that congregation who dared to join either squad. One year, the school board president – a CofC’er – made a concerted effort to get the twirlers’ hemlines lowered. The push-back came not from the twirlers, but from their moms – including my Baptist mother, who wasn’t about to have some CofC man tell her what her daughter was going to wear. She had an ally that year in Becky’s mom, who was one of those rare Methodists.

Some of you know Becky, who now goes by Clovis and is the coordinator for NSU’s Indigenous Scholar Program. Becky’s probably the only one of the four of us who could still squeeze into her old twirler uniform. Becky’s a lovely person, both inside and out, and in some ways, totally the opposite of me. I’m a rough-and-tumble loud-mouth who shows up with wet hair and says the wrong thing. Becky is very refined and genteel, and perfectly put-together, from the hairstyle to the wardrobe, right down to the fingernails. I never could figure out how she managed to twirl and keep her perfectly manicured nails. My mother often said of Becky, “Now that is what a real lady is supposed to be like” – a hint I needed to improve. In fact, Becky was a lot of fun and could get into mischief just like any of us. Despite our differences, we had a lot in common, and got along famously. She even let me make fun of her for being “prissy.”

I applied this label as the time to take up our fire batons approached. They’re not as dangerous as they look, as long as you keep them moving. You’d have to hold the lit end against your clothing to catch it on fire, although a particularly careless girl might wind up with a few locks of hair poofing into nonexistence like a dandelion. But it wasn’t so much the fear of getting burned that intimidated Becky; it was the thunderous roar the blazing batons make when you twirl them. During practice, I begged and cajoled and goaded, leveled a few threats, and Becky bravely took baton in hand. I’ll never forget the image of her, twirling the baton, hand over hand, crying and twirling, crying and twirling, and laughing at the same time, and still managing to keep her composure.

Later that afternoon, Becky was apparently feeling supremely confident, because she tried a throw-turn move, where you spin around a couple of times while the baton is in the air, then catch it. It’s quite a trick, because you can get disoriented during the spin, and then you have to focus on the slim, spinning baton and grab it at just the right moment so you don’t break a couple of fingers. Becky missed the baton, but it didn’t miss her: It smacked her square in the nose with a loud “whap!” sound, and went flipping off in the distance. The look of shock on her face was priceless; she was so shocked she didn’t emit a single sound of pain. Her nose did swell, which bought her another round of teasing. But thanks to a few ice packs and a couple of layers of expertly applied makeup, no one was the wiser. At least, not until the rest of us leaked the story. Fortunately, though, Becky was always the best of sports.

Let’s hope she’s still a good sport. If she objects to my revelations, I can only hope she no longer has a baton under her bed. Those things can be deadly weapons.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.