Flying colors (and rifles and sabres)09/22/2023 12:27PM ● By Ken Mammarella
Color guard uses an evocative language, with elemental moves called spinning, tossing and carving incorporated in their coordinated routines. And the Avon Grove High School Color Guard has adult leaders using their own evocative spin (sorry, not sorry) on language.
“You can fail as many times as you want,” instructor Adam Albright likes to say. “But you cannot stop trying.” In 31 years of coaching, he has told only two participants to go home, after multiple warnings they need to keep persevering. That won’t happen at Avon Grove, which has a no-cut policy.
“Dolphins don’t learn from their trainers,” Michelle Adcock, the color guard director, likes to say. “Dolphins learn from other dolphins.”
That metaphor refers to how they and instructor Melanie Buono have limited time for individual mentorship. Instead, they need to rely on the color guard’s captains and more experienced participants to spread their knowledge to the newbies.
“They grow in leadership,” said Albright, also design manager at Hagley Museum and Library. “These kids are committed to something that is bigger than themselves.”
“Color guard is one of the best-kept secrets at Avon Grove,” said Adcock, also a STEM teacher at Avon Grove Intermediate. “We go out there, represent our school with pride, and nobody knows we exist. It’s also a great activity for kids who want to combine athleticism with creativity. It’s unique, and we’re very inclusive.”
Flags, rifles and sabres
Color guard resembles short-form musical theater. Participants are dressed in splashy custom unitards, changing for each season, and they dance (mostly modern jazz, with lyrical jazz and classic ballet), act with their body and face and create visual spectacle with equipment. The music is live for eight to nine minutes from the marching band in the fall, a recorded track half that length in the spring.
“Color guard has roots in the military,” said Buono, also a Spanish teacher at Avon Grove Charter, “more so in the precision of movement.”
Their equipment includes the flag (a 3-foot-long banner or silk, on a 6-foot pole), the rifle (a 37½-inch inoperable, wooden replica with a strap) and the sabre (39 inches). The sabre in used more in the spring, because it’s less noticeable, Adcock said.
The Avon Grove squad has 20 participants, mostly females, with a few males and a few nonbinary members. The three team captains have been enjoying color guard for years.
Emma Peterman and Lexi Weingarten began in fifth grade, with Adcock as their leader of a color guard club she started at Avon Grove Intermediate. Tatum Hanson started in eighth grade, and Adcock figures she would have begun earlier if she had been living in the district.
“I was looking for something unusual,” Hanson said. “It’s the best sport. Huge bonds.”
Friendships and relationships
Peterman also cited the friendships she has formed and the relationships she has deepened. Her father, Eric, was involved in color guard when he was in school, and both participate in Drum Corps Associates, another color guard in New Jersey. Her younger brother, Jonathan, is also involved.
Weingarten started color guard at the suggestion of her mother and wants to continue it in college.
The coaches and the director also have long, rewarding experiences in color guard. Adcock and Albright are friends since their time at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Albright recalls being fascinated by the flow of the silks. “I live and breathe this stuff,” Adcock said. “I feel I have a hard time explaining it to people since it is so in my blood.”
Color guard has two seasons. The fall season involves appearances at Friday football games, Saturday competitions and the homecoming parade (this year, that’s Sept. 30). The spring season involves competitions in the Mid-Atlantic Indoor Network, covering five states (Avon Grove has tentatively scheduled to host one on Feb. 17, 2024) and the West Grove Memorial Day parade.
The color guard is on Instagram (www.instagram.com/agcolorguard) and is featured on the Avon Grove Instrumental Music Boosters Association site (www.agimba.org).
Both seasons, of course, begin with practices. In the summer, that’s once a week, followed by two full weeks in August at band camp. Practices run two nights a week during the school year. Practices start with physical training (for instance, dynamic stretching and other warmup exercises) before moving onto choreography.
This fall, the ‘pale blue dot’
Adcock, Albright, Buono and marching band director Michael Davino select the theme and music for each season. This fall, it’s “pale blue dot.” Adcock said it’s “basically about the Earth, and we’re going to have a a big globe on the field, and their costumes have light globes in them.”
That theme goes with “Shofukan (We Like It Here)” by Snarky Puppy, “Mad World” by Gary Jules and “Temen Oblak (Dark Worlds)” by Christopher Tin. All three support a wide range of interpretation. The “Mad World” lyrics are in English, and the video showcases distinctive aerial choreography. But “Temen Oblak” was written in Bulgarian, and “Shofukan” has no lyrics at all.
The theme last spring was “ ‘the only way out is through,’ basically about overcoming obstacles,” Adcock said, noting it was performed to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
Participants pay an annual $150 school district activity fee and seasonal fees. Fall fees recently ran $175 (show T-shirt, drill app license and production costs), with spring fees $185 (costume, show T-shirt and production costs). Albright – whose coaching includes 128 videos on YouTube as Glarehead and guest stints as far as Canada – said some “passionately competitive” color guards in the South charge around $4,000.
“It should look effortless so the audience thinks that they can do it,” he said of color guard performances. Of course, it’s not: it’s based on lots of training at school and at-home practice. “Our job is to create a show where everyone is challenged, and where everyone can succeed.”
Even among all the catchy tunes and choreography, the bonding and brandishing, there can be some, downsides, witnessed by the first aid kit that travels with them. Albright recalled once cutting his eye while demonstrating a technique with the sabre. He was patched up and back before practice ended.
“It’s time-consuming and exhausting,” he admitted. “All good things are.”