Rowlett, Tex. In an industrial park, under the glare of fluorescent lights, Lauren Richardson unzips her baton case and begins to spin magic.
The silver rod flashes between her fingers like a propeller. She tosses it high and pirouettes several times beneath, meeting it in time and space as if it were a bird lighting softly. Instantly, she leaps away and strikes another graceful pose, always spinning the baton.
Lauren, 16, is practicing for state that is, the National Baton Twirling Assn.'s (NBTA) state competition. She is performing a solo routine in the senior women's advanced division, pursuing the competitive side of the sport in addition to being the feature twirler at Rowlett High School, itself a high-profile position in a state that knows about baton twirling.
Thousands of girls and they are almost all girls from preschool beyond college twirl the baton in Texas, where colleges like Stephen F. Austin State University offer twirling scholarships.
"People make light of, 'You know, she used to be a baton twirler,' but truly it was a lot of hard work," says Texas state Sen. Jane Nelson, who was a national baton twirling champion during her high school years in Hamilton, Ohio.
"I've had people ask me how can I smile sometimes when I'm watching one of my bills go down in flames or getting beat up on the Senate floor," says Nelson, 49, who put herself through the University of North Texas teaching baton twirling. "Let me tell you, I have twirled in 10 degrees below zero when my fingers hurt and my toes hurt. And yet you smile because all those people have come to watch you perform."
Nelson was one of many children who took up twirling in the 1950s.
Undone by sports
Don Sartell, 72, a former twirler and now president of the NBTA International, based in Janesville, Wis., says back when every high school band was fronted by at least one twirler or majorette, some 1 million kids were twirling batons nationwide. These days, the figure is more like 150,000 to 200,000.
"You can see why," he said. "Girls have so many alternatives now, where they didn't back then."
The body blow for twirling came in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments, which required public schools to provide equal access to girls and boys in all academic and athletic programs. Finally, girls could play varsity soccer, softball and basketball instead of standing on the sidelines twirling or cheerleading.
Within 10 years, twirling's popularity nosedived, recalls Sandi Wiemers, president of the United States Twirling Assn., based in Huntington Station, N.Y.
"Title IX really had an effect on us when the women's sports movement really kicked in," says Wiemers.
Traditional twirling strongholds like the small towns of East Texas held on for a while but eventually began to suffer, too, reports Joan Bridges, coach and choreographer of the twirling line at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches. Male athletes there are called the Lumberjacks, women the Ladyjacks, and the twirlers they're the Twirlojacks.
"The economy has hurt twirling as we know it now," as fewer can afford private lessons, says Bridges, who also teaches at East Texas Twirling Academy in Henderson.
In Rowlett, Lauren Richardson's teacher, a highly regarded instructor named Janice Jackson who has produced national NBTA champions, charges $33 per month for one 45-minute class each week and $48 per hour for a private lesson. Membership in her dance company and on the invitation-only twirling team cost extra. Then there are costumes, equipment, entry fees and travel expenses.
However, all that is far below the cost of competitive ice skating estimated at $10,000 per year, notes Bonnie Baxter of Dallas, a twirling teacher for 30 years.
"I don't want to say it's a blue-collar sport, but it is financially within the means of a lower socioeconomic group. You don't have to pay $100 an hour," says Baxter. "The teachers I know who stay in it do it for love of the sport and the love of the child, because we're certainly not making a lot of money."
Passe or popular?
Baxter rejects the notion that the sport is permanently waning.
"Even though we are smaller, we are not dying out," she says. "It goes in cycles."
Baxter, whose students come from all over the country, proudly defends twirling's emphasis on appearance, deportment and interviewing skills (all are evaluated in the NBTA's state and national competitions).
"People ask me, 'What do you do with that after you get out of school?' Well, what do you do with soccer? With ballet?" Baxter demands. "Really, it's the one life skill we give the kids ... posture, how you sit, how you present yourself."
And what about twirling's fluffy image as a relic of prefeminist times? Don't get her started.
"The public thinks it's passe? Well, OK, maybe it is. But parents standing on the soccer sidelines shouting obscenities I don't care if those people think we're passe or not."
Whew. Let's ask the girls. Why spend hours in the gym or the family driveway trying to master the elusive back neck roll or five-spin?
"I love it; it's so fun," exclaims Amy Bounds, 16, a sophomore and feature twirler at Henderson High School, about 125 miles southeast of Dallas. She started at age 3.
"I took dance and I just saw a girl twirling," Amy says. She was hooked.
Practice makes perfect
Back at Jackson's studio, Lauren's straight brown bangs are sticking damply to her forehead an hour into her two-hour lesson.
Jackson sits off to the side in a plastic chair. On the floor around her lie empty water bottles, boxes of cassettes and CDs, dance shoes, boom boxes, batons.
She watches keenly as Lauren tries a four-spin, attempting to whirl around four times while her baton is aloft. Not this time the baton thunks to the floor and rolls away.
"It's there!" Jackson tells her gently. "Coming out of the spin, step out to the front."
Lauren tries again. This time, the stick drops lightly into her hand.
Lauren considers twirling "a blast," despite the frustrations and daily four-hour practices in competition season. She took it up at age 4.
Her plans include twirling at Baylor University, where she wants to study to become a registered nurse.
For now, though, she has to work out the kinks in her three-baton routine, a dizzying cascade of hardware that sometimes ends up in a jumble on the floor.
As Lauren stops to explain, Jackson urges her to practice it once again.
"OK, baby," she tells her, "just twirl."