From my first experience with juggling at the 1981 IJA convention in Cleveland, I was thrilled to be part of an atmosphere that nurtured my baton twirling skills so strongly. The similarities of our separate art forms became evident to me as I took workshops, taught one and spent a great deal of time watching jugglers practice in the gym.
One fond memory was when a group of jugglers formed a circle around me as I first began to practice. Unaware of their presence, I continued until the inevitable drop caused me to stop. What a warm reception I received then! This acceptance and appreciation of my twirling was the beginning of my realization that I, too, am a juggler of sorts.
In the history of baton twirling, three baton twirling is considered a newcomer. First used by twirlers as a spectacular ending to football or basketball halftime routines, the increasing popularity of this technique and the challenge it offered brought it to be recognized by the U.S. Twirling Association (USTA) as a competitive event in 1976.
I had the privilege of become the first Grand National Three Baton Champion in that year. In the 10 years since it has developed into an event that has brought audiences to their feet during the national finals competition. Besides its status as an individual event, it has recently become an integral part of exchange sequences in team competition.
Baton twirling is a sport that requires great skill development in addition to polished performance techniques. Sounds a lot like juggling, doesn't it?
The two have a lot in common. Baton twirling, however, uses only one type of prop -- a baton. There are different types, but they are all centrally balanced and consist of a metal shaft with rubber ends.
Three baton twirlers start by simply juggling three batons, treating them as three objects. But juggling techniques are just a basis for the event. The three baton competitor must twirl three batons as opposed to simply juggling them.
Twirlers develop rhythm and add different releases and catches as their skill develops. The progression continues into dual and tri-plane material, dual direction, body movement, double and triple releases as well as various high-low stackings of tosses. Mixed in with the tosses will be performance of the major and minor classifications of baton twirls (rolls, fingers, wraps). But this is still not the entire picture.
One of the main characteristics that separates the better three baton twirlers from colleagues is consistent use of followthrough and distinct pattern. Followthrough is simply the smooth transition between making one catch and another throw.
Pattern refers to the vertical and horizontal patterns that twirlers must maintain in their routines. Novice three baton twirlers often have a hard time maintaining those patterns because of the difficulty of keeping three batons going. Ninety percent of the moves in all routines are vertical patterns, performed in planes perpendicular to the floor. But twirlers must also demonstrate horizontal patterns, that is, twirling in planes parallel to the floor.
Effective use of followthrough and good pattern control make twirling performances seem almost effortless. At this point, the three baton twirler is an accomplished twirler and juggler.
In competition, judges reward correct fundamentals of both juggling and twirling with Olympic flash card scores from 0-10 points. Seven judges moderate the top events, with fewer used in preliminary and age level events.
The USTA divides competitors into five levels of proficiency -- fair, average, good, excellent and superior. Each level has been divided into ten areas of focus:
At the "fair" level, athletes will do basic three baton material. Juggling maneuvers will include:
Only one baton will be in the air at a time and all tosses will be high to give competitors time to make subsequent moves. At this basic level the athlete is still struggling to achieve a sense of rhythm. Because they are concentrating on baton handling, the athletes will sacrifice body movement. There is a strong possibility that the athlete may hold one or more batons without twirling them.
At the "average" level, basic juggling material is still the basis of the routine. Attempts may be made to include an isolated finger series, wrap, roll or turn. There is still basically one baton in the air, but a single-double release is the next progression. The athlete's body will be more relaxed as he or she gains confidence in tosses, timing and control.
As athletes advance to the "good" level, they can handle more simultaneous responsibility. There is a much greater demand for correct baton placement and timing. Basic twirling techniques will be used in combination with three baton juggling basics. Body and baton combinations begin to develop with better control of baton placement.
The routine includes a finger section, roll section and a variety of releases and catches. Two batons will be thrown in the air at once with a single toss. The routine will demonstrate three levels of aerial height. Controlled basic tricks will be done low, less accomplished tricks at an average height and double releases or hard tricks will be tossed high. However, these three aerial levels will not be done simultaneously as in further levels. No collections of all three batons are allowed from this level on. The athlete has developed sufficient strength to complete an uninterrupted routine.
The "excellent" three baton twirler introduces stacks (simultaneous tosses of one baton high, second medium high and third low) and triple tosses (a three baton flash). The more batons that are consistently in the air, the harder the routine. The routine will be mainly high tosses with contrasting low basic maneuvers.
Collections of all three batons at once should only be used for a simultaneous triple release. The athlete's non-dominant hand becomes a major factor in tossing as well in catching. There is more body movement, with poses such as a kneeling position for a good length of time. This requires incredible control and arm strength, not to mention precise baton placement. Tri-plane material will be introduced. This use of three planes is much more difficult since it is hard to look at a baton in each plane at the same time. The athlete will spin batons in both directions intentionally for increased difficulty.
The "superior" twirler develops very intricate routines. There is rarely just one baton in the air. Double and triple releases are the norm. The routine contrasts high and low tosses. Tricks flow from one to another because followthrough is second nature at this level. Body and baton blend together, with body movements enhancing the routine and accenting the top qualities of the athlete.
The current USTA three baton champion is Jill Westover from Oregon. She will be defending her title at the 1987 championships July 26-Aug. 1 in Milwaukee, Wisc. I hope some jugglers will be in the audience to appreciate the beautiful similarities between our two art forms.
(Ginnette Groome of Syosset, New York, is a USTA coach and judge, known to be the authority on three baton twirling. Besides winning the USTA Grand National in 1976, she won the adult division two and three baton titles in 1979, 1980 and 1981. Jugglers interested in learning more about baton twirling will have the opportunity when Groome teaches a workshop at the IJA convention this summer.)