The sport has become a popular alternative to dance for many youngsters in the Portsmouth area. Stuart Anderson reports.
Take a healthy dose of dancing, add a pair of pom-poms and mix in some marching. Throw them all up in the air like an aluminium rod and you get an idea of the quirky and popular phenomenon that is baton twirling.
While the female-dominated activity is in no danger of being considered a mainstream sport just yet, those who love it think it’s high time baton twirling stepped out of the shadows.
Toni Tarling, 23, teaches a twirling group called the South Coast Spinners, based in Drayton.
She reckons there are hundreds of girls and young women involved in baton twirling across Portsmouth.
Toni says: ‘It is really popular here now. There’s at least one team that comes from pretty much every area of Portsmouth.
‘I’d say there are about 10 to 12 teams in Portsmouth. Some have just a few girls and some have up to 40 girls.’
A visit to one of the Spinners’ training sessions is a good introduction to twirling.
Spread around a school’s sports hall are girls expertly tossing spinning batons into the air.
Some of the hardest moves are those where the twirler performs a trick – a cartwheel, spin or an illusion – while the baton is in mid-air, before catching it again.
But there’s much more to baton twirling than that, as Toni explains.
‘There is twirling and there are also marching events that are more like traditional majorettes,’ she says.
‘There’s an event called extra, where you dance and twirl in the shape of an X on the floor. There’s another one where you twirl with two batons and do duets and team twirls.’
Toni says there are even some events in which batons are not used at all.
‘In our team routine we just use pom-poms and it’s more like cheerleading.
‘Then there’s a new event that they’ve brought in called dance line where you don’t use a baton or a pom-pom, you just go out there and show your dance ability.’
The Spinners are currently practicing for an event next weekend, part of a series of competitions leading up the national final of the British Baton Twirling Sports Association in April.
Although many people confuse baton twirling with majorettes, Toni says there are important differences between the two.
Majorettes troupes must have at least eight members while baton twirling is often done by smaller teams, duets and solo performers.
While majorettes is all about timing and poise, baton twirling focuses on the performance and incorporates more dancing and gymnastics.
Toni says: ‘Majorettes is more marching to the beat of a drum, but in baton twirling, you have more creativity.
‘You can do dance, gymnastics, any movement you want.’
Toni says she has been twirling batons for as long as she can remember, encouraged by her mum, Elaine Tarling, who is still involved with the group.
‘I’ve been doing it since I was two, apart from when I’ve had injuries or I was pregnant with my little girl,’ she says.
Toni says the Twirlers are in a rebuilding phase after the departure of a number of members.
‘My sister used to teach as well, but she’s taking some time out to concentrate on family,’ Toni says.
‘We’ve had a lot of older girls leave because their GCSEs are coming up, and one of our parents started another team and took a lot of girls with her.
‘So it’s a fresh start for us, and we’ve got another six to eight girls joining in February.’
Toni says the group is looking for sponsors to pay for new uniforms for the girls.
Stacey Brennan, 32, of Drayton, goes to the Twirlers’ sessions to watch her nine-year-old daughter, Ruby, practice.
She says baton twirling is more demanding than it looks.
‘You have to be pretty co-ordinated and flexible and have a lot of stamina.
‘It’s more competitive than dancing. There’s a lot of hard work and dedication that goes into it.’
Stacey says a proud moment for the group was when they placed second in a ‘top team’ category at a competition in Ireland last year.
‘There were Irish twirlers there that were really good, so it was a really big achievement.’
Time out for champ
Baton twirling can take its toll on your body, as one of our top achievers knows all too well.
Southsea’s Kayleigh Smith, 14, was forced to take a break from twirling in October because of the strain it was placing on her joints.
She says the injury was the result of years of pushing herself to the limit.
‘It progressed over time,’ she says.
‘It’s hard to not be able to do what I love at the moment, but I know it’s for the best to keep me healthy.
‘Hopefully later in the year I’ll be able to do it again. I’m having physio at the moment so we’ll play it by ear.’
Despite the injury, Kayleigh says she’s happy with her performance in 2014, having placed highly in competitions.
‘It was a pretty good year,’ she says.
‘At the European championships in Crawley I came third in one of my personal events - the “two baton”, where you perform with two batons.
‘And I came fourth in our pair event.’
Kayleigh also excelled at the British championships in April, placing highly in many events and winning the overall award for the ‘Junior 2’ age group.
Her partner in the duet routines was Jessica Whitbourn, 18, who is also from Portsmouth. Another star, Jessica won the overall award for the ‘Senior 2’ age group.
Kayleigh is part of an Essex-based team called the Bellettes, and attends Admiral Lord Nelson School.
She says baton twirling has helped her to mature mentally, and the sport has had benefits in other areas of her life.
‘I’ve learned a lot of other skills, like how to work as a team and how to take criticism well,’ she says.
‘It’s really changed who I am because I have dedicated a lot of time to it.’
Where does baton twirling come from?
Baton twirling’s roots are in Eastern Europe and Asia, where festival-goers used to toss and twirl knives, guns and torches for entertainment. The activity was adopted by various armies, who threw an occasional rifle spin into their marches.
Rifle spinning is still done by the US armed forces drill teams, usually with a bayonet attached.
In other groups, ceremonial maces took the place of actual weapons, and this evolved into the hollow metal version used
by majorettes today.
Competition baton twirling became big in the US in the 1980s, and the sport is also popular in France, Italy and Japan as well as the UK.
The World Baton Twirling Federation governs the sport internationally.
One of Toni Tarling’s twirling highlights was when she travelled to Florida at the age of 13 to take part in the world’s best-known baton-twirling event, Twirl Mania.
‘There was a group of about 10 of us,’ she says, adding: ‘It was at the Walt Disney World sport campus, which I’ve heard is where the Miami Dolphins train.
‘We actually got to be in a Disney parade. We had batons with lights on the ends and we followed all the Disney characters, it was pretty amazing.’
Toni hopes to arrange another trip to Twirl Mania if enough money can be raised.
At a glance
South Coast Spinners
WHERE: The group trains at Springfield School, Central Road, Drayton.
WHEN: Training takes place on Mondays and Thursdays from 5.30pm to 7.30pm.
CONTACT: Call Toni Tarling on 07769 170 841 for more information about the group.
AGE: The minimum age is three and there is no upper age limit.
‘I like doing military events’
When it comes to baton twirling events, 15-year-old Elle Parvin says she has no doubt which one is her favourite.
The Copnor girl says she prefers routines inspired by majorette marches.
Elle says: ‘I like doing the military events, the marching. I think I’m just good at it.’
Elle says she has been doing baton twirling since the age of nine, and was inspired to get into the sport by her mum.
‘My mum did it when she was younger and she liked it so I thought I would try it out,’ she says.
‘It is hard work doing some of the stuff, and you have to learn a lot of new techniques but I really like it.’
Elle says that while throwing a baton up in the air and attempting to catch it after performing a trick can be dangerous, the thrill of success makes the risks worthwhile.
‘You get a lot of bruises if you don’t catch it right and it hits you,’ she says.
‘We went to Ireland for a competition last year and we came second in the top team event.
‘We were all excited to get that.
‘My friends think it’s good that I do it. They think it’s hard and they don’t understand how it’s done.
‘They support me and come to competitions sometimes.’
‘I’m already learning harder tricks’
Paulsgrove’s Lillian Palmer, 14 (pictured teaching new recruit Sasha Clarke, 9) says she got into baton twirling because she wanted to become more elegant.
That was six years ago, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Lillian says: ‘I started it because my mum always said I was heavy footed. She said she wanted me to be more elegant.
‘Now I think I am more elegant than I used to be and I’m not as heavy footed anymore.’
Lillian says she likes baton twirling because there is always more to learn and new routines to master.
‘I’m always getting more into my routines and learning harder tricks,’ she says.
‘The hardest part is being able to catch it without hurting yourself.
‘Sometimes it’s hard not to.’
As one of the older members of the South Coast Spinners, Lillian also helps to teach the younger members skills such as finger twirling.
Duet loves to dance
As one of the younger members of the South Coast Spinners, nine-year-old Ruby Brennan has no shortage of enthusiasm.
The Drayton youngster says she prefers the routines where she gets to dance with pom-poms rather than a baton, and always enjoys the chance to perform in front of an audience.
Ruby says: ‘We flip the batons and do routines, and sometimes we do some gymnastics.
‘My favourite part of it is the teamwork, because I like dancing with the pom-poms and doing stuff other than twirling.
‘We go to some competitions - I’ve been to Ireland. Sometimes they are two days long. It’s fun.’
Ruby’s duet partner for routines is 11-year-old Harli Dignam, of Havant.
Harli says she started doing baton twirling a few years ago with a different team before coming to the South Coast Spinners.
She says: ‘I do a duet with Ruby and we’ve just learned a new one,’ she says.