BATON ROGUES

SUN DEVIL BAND DIRECTOR SPURNS TWIRLERS; HOPEFULS SAY THEY GOT THE SHAFT

Sarah Stephens had good reason to be confident on April 17, the day she auditioned to be a baton twirler with the Arizona State University Sun Devil Marching Band. After all, the 18-year-old is a twirling champ--recognized nationally, secure in the upper echelon of her sport. During a competition just a month earlier, she had out-twirled twirlers who perform with the USC and UCLA marching bands.

And she knew that the band director could choose as many twirlers as he wanted; usually, he chose two or three. Three auditioned that day: Stephens, a young woman from California and Abb‚ McFarland, 19, the reigning Miss Majorette of Arizona and an accomplished twirler whose credits already included a season with the Sun Devils.

Stephens and McFarland performed their routines perfectly, they say, giving Sun Devil band director Robert Fleming what they assumed was a simple decision.

In fact, they were right. "This year, it was a rather unanimous and easy choice," Fleming says. He chose none.

For the first time in at least 15 years, the Sun Devil Marching Band will be twirlerless this fall. No high-stepping sequins, no glint of sunlight as the chrome baton is tossed in the air and the crowd holds its collective breath, waiting to see if the twirler will catch the baton.

The news has sent the castoff twirlers scrambling for positions with other collegiate bands. Their supporters remain perplexed. "These kids could have tried out at any university and made it. That's what's so sad," insists Becky Hewitt, director of the Arizona Twirling Athletes, which is devoted to the promotion of baton twirling.

Meanwhile, the next generation of twirlers continues to train and hope that one day it will have a chance to perform with the marching Sun Devils.

The smell of lunch lingers in the cafeteria air as a couple dozen teenagers gather on a Monday evening for their weekly twirling practice at Cholla School in north Phoenix. They wear shorts and tee shirts, or midriff-baring tank tops; hair is pulled tightly into ponytails. Rising on the balls of Keds-clad feet, arms aloft, the girls spin a baton in each hand, in a maneuver their teacher calls "double fishtails." It looks like an imitation of the swimmer's breaststroke. The batons spin faster and faster, almost disappearing from sight. As they twirl, the girls chatter casually, as if unaware of the unusual sight they present.

Custom-designed baton cases line the walls, along with mothers who sit crosslegged on the linoleum or in lawn chairs brought from home. Accustomed to long practice sessions, the women converse about sequins and other details of the costumes they're designing for their daughters. They're as fanatical as Little League parents.

Along with practices and competitions that fill most weekends (twirling is a year-round sport, and advanced twirlers compete at local, regional, national and world tournaments), the typical twirler's regime includes instruction in jazz, ballet and gymnastics. Like McFarland and Stephens, most of the girls here this night began training in kindergarten.

Baton twirling has quite a following. Hewitt estimates that she has more than 100 boys and girls in various levels of ability in the Valley. Her advanced students travel all over the country to compete.

For the dedication required, the career of the twirler is tragically short. Unless she aspires to teach, she will most likely retire her batons by age 25. The pinnacle for almost any twirler is a stint with a university marching band.

In Becky Hewitt's mind, band director Fleming has cheated McFarland and Stephens out of their greatest dream. It's not a question of funding. Sun Devil twirlers pay their own way, including costumes, warm-up outfits and equipment. (Twirlers do not have to attend the university, but are required to take a band class.) Unlike other large universities, ASU does not offer twirling scholarships.

So why would Fleming turn away "world-class" twirlers? "It's not their ability. There's no way. We have too much proof," Hewitt insists, rattling off titles and awards that would make your head spin faster than a baton.

Fleming pooh-poohs the traditional twirler success gauge. He readily admits that--unlike Hewitt--he is not sanctioned by national twirling associations to judge the sport. "I'm not in the twirling community," he says. "I just know that what I saw on the day of auditions is not what has been set [as a standard] for twirlers of this band."

Melanee Kull, who recently finished a four-year tour of twirling duty with the ASU band, stood by on that fateful day as Fleming made his decision. Fleming had asked Kull and two graduate assistants for their input, although Fleming and Kull both hasten to emphasize that the decision was completely Fleming's.

"He just told us what he thought and we said, 'Okay, we'll back you on it,'" Kull recalls. Kull refuses to comment further.

Hewitt suspects that Kull actually advised Fleming against accepting this year's auditionees because she's jealous of their ability.

"She's an average twirler. That's what she is. An average twirler," Hewitt scoffs.

Hewitt and her jilted twirlers claim that at this year's audition, McFarland and Stephens performed stunts even more difficult than those requested by Fleming. Specific moves aren't important, the band director counters. "It's just a matter of how they communicate, how they work an audience, quote unquote."

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