Winter Guard – The Biggest Sport You Never Heard Of
It’s a utilitarian high school gym. There are books and backpacks piled along the walls. The volleyball nets are removed and the basketball hoops are up. On a giant tarp in the middle of the floor, a different activity is underway.
Young men and women in a variety of shorts and tees, or leggings and tanks, are practicing dance moves while music plays on the loudspeaker. Some are twirling and flipping wooden rifles, while others are waving large colored flags. A few are tossing swords in the air (yes, freaking SWORDS!).
Each individual’s part contributes to the whole. They move around the space together, always aware of what the others are doing, concentrating on their own movements and listening carefully to their coach. Over and over you hear them chant “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8!” In five minutes, maybe less, it’s all over. And then they start again, because they can always make it better.
Welcome to winter guard!
So What the Heck Is It?
Winter guard is a dynamic indoor competitive sport, based on traditional color guard, but it has gone way beyond those military roots to become something unique and artistic. Whether it’s a part of a high school or university’s athletic and artistic curriculum, or organized by an independent group, it takes dedication, team work, and passion to create a winning routine. This is why it is called the “Sport of the Arts”.
It’s like a dance version of Glee: winter guard teams compete in regional, national, and international competitions organized by Winter Guard International (WGI), the sport’s governing body. There are also many regional groups (such as Texas Color Guard Circuit) that hosts their own competitions. While it began in the United States, and is still most popular there, there are now also teams competing in Canada, Great Britain, Korea, Belgium, Holland, Japan, and Africa.
Color Guard Roots
WGI has been around since 1977, and a lot has changed since those early days. It has left behind its marching band beginnings to become a display of music and dance, wearing matching or coordinating costumes rather than military uniforms, while still using the traditional color guard elements of flags, rifles and sabres, all against the background of creatively designed backdrops and floor tarps.
Don’t Tell Them It’s Not Hard Work
Participation in this sport is rewarding, but it’s also hard work. The winter guard team must work in complete unison to present a flawless performance. That takes months of planning, practice, and polishing by dedicated individuals, who have to master a variety of challenging skills before they are ready for a competition.
Winter Guard Music and Dance
One of the big differences between the indoor and outdoor versions of this sport is the music. Whereas a color guard ensemble often works with a marching band in the generous space available on the football field, in the more restricted confines indoors (usually a gym), recorded music is usually used. The music could be instrumental or even spoken word, but tend to be lyrical and evocative. This lends itself to the development of an interpretive dance that tells a story or creates a mood.
Dance is the element that ties the performance together. Just as a cheerleading squad must practice basic moves and then complicated routines, or a theater company has to rehearse a song and dance number over and over, a winter guard team works on elementary dance skills and then the performance of a specific routine until it is perfect. Much of the appeal of a winter guard performance is in the team members moving in a synchronized manner, and that means hours of practice in that school gym to get the moves just right.
The Equipment Used
Color guard is famous for its flags, and that element has come inside to winter guard. While early WGI rules required the use of the American Flag, today the teams use brightly colored silks in a variety of designs and sizes to better reflect the tone of the team’s presentation. They could be solid color or patterned, but the selection of the design is only the beginning.
The team then spends long hours practicing their flag techniques, so that in performance the audience will see a routine executed with flawless precision. Whether the flags are flipped or swirled all in unison, or in a succession of waves across the space, it is up to each and every team member to play his or her part so that the team acts as one. When it works, it’s like magic!
The military roots of winter guard are represented by the sabres and rifles that are a part of each routine. However, they are far removed from the real thing, becoming props for the performance rather than functioning weapons. Both are often wrapped in electrical tape and padded to make them safer and easier to handle in performance.
The “rifles” are now wooden models with straps, much lighter than actual weapons, and thus well-suited for complicated spinning routines. Once again, the team members have to develop both their individual rifle-handling skills and the coordination of their movements so that they create the desired picture for their audience. One dropped rifle- or one out of sync with the rest- will affect the whole group. Nobody wants to be that person!
Sabres can be made of metal or plastic, but metal ones are more common. The tips and blades are blunted to increase safety, but otherwise they look like real swords. The balance of a sabre is extremely important, as it will be tossed and twirled with great precision. They are not necessarily used by everyone on the team; they require a higher degree of skill and are usually reserved for the most experienced members. The dazzling display of silver-colored sabres cutting through the air adds excitement to a winter guard performance, and again takes many hours of practice to achieve perfection in execution.
Putting In The Hard Work
So, a winter guard team has been organized, its members selected, hours, days, months of practice have been completed, and it is time for competition. What does that entail?
The team travels to the site of the competition in their region. There they will be competing against other teams in their division, depending on whether they are school-affiliated or independent, and on their level of experience and skill. The order of performances is usually determined by a random draw.
The team has only a few minutes to set up for its performance. That means rolling out their tarp to cover the floor, bringing out set pieces, and putting up backdrops. Doing this quickly and effectively takes practice as well. Immediately following the performance, the team must then quickly clear the floor for the next competitors while the stopwatch ticks.
In between, the performance itself is around five minutes in length. This is the culmination of all those months of effort, and every team member is equally responsible for making it the best it can be. The performance is judged on talent, precision, creativity, and horizontal orchestration by a panel of judges. First, second, and third place will be selected in each division. The winners will be able to go on to the World Championship, where over 350 teams compete.
At the End of the Day
However, success is not just determined by a ribbon. Every winter guard team member gets an important grounding in various athletic and artistic skills. And yes, they have some fun, too in the process. As well, they learn how to work with others in a team, a skill that will help them in school and work for the rest of their lives. This is the true value of membership on a winter guard team.