Twirling for Tomorrow
Photo Credit: Jake Burton
In a flurry of sparkly tanks, colorful hair ribbons, and bedazzled baton duffels, four bags stand out among the packed bleachers of a high school baton twirling competition. Maybe it was their striking appearance that so vastly contrasted with the black, sleek bags of their competitors. Or perhaps it was the team they belonged to, who, unlike the young twirl stars who flittered across the gymnasium biting their nails or worrying about their next performance, stood proudly boasting eyes filled with a love for their sport few are ever honored to see.
Or maybe the zebra totes’ passionate owners stood out because they were anywhere from four to nine times older than their competition.
The bags belonged to Second Debut, a 55+ baton twirling squad from Central Florida who not only rocked their routine, but drew attention from tournament participants, volunteers, and onlookers. However, the team did not demand center stage for their age, but for the passion with which they competed, the love with which they laughed between routines, and the excitement that zinged within a ten-foot radius of their blue-sequined uniforms.
“When we go to competitions where people have never seen senior twirlers, there are [people who] come up to us and say ‘Oh my gosh! We used to twirl in high school, we should start a group too!’” Carol Morcom said. “People see us and get enthused.”
And that’s exactly the kind of a reaction the team hopes to elicit: nostalgia, reinvigoration, and passion.
“When we were younger in the 60s and 70s, it was the peak of twirling, and in the ‘76 Olympics everybody put their batons down and went to gymnastics and high school bands went to drum corps,” Jan Mahaffey said. “We want to get all those gals who twirled back in the day back out with their batons.”
The team started in 2013 when three women, amidst their busy post-retirement lives, decided they could do what they had done so many years ago: twirl. So they dusted off their batons, ordered some bags, and nabbed a coach to begin their journey. Their second debut into the world of twirling now leaves the team standing eight strong and competing across the state, making a splash where ever they go.
But the motives behind the team, while competitive, are in stark contrast to those of the younger girls they sometimes compete with.
“In high school [your sport] was everything, it was your life, but for us, it’s a part of our life, it’s an enhancement,” Susan Turnipseed said.
And it is for this reason that the ladies of Second Debut believe their team is so different from the younger teams they competed against 30 or 40 years ago.
“I think it’s so sad young girls are stressed that their coach will kick them off or their mom will get mad,” Denise Kotas said. “With us, when [we] retired, our priorities changed. You’ve lived your life, you’ve had your family, you’ve raised your kids, and we’re all looking for something to do that we love.”
And this kind of spirit, the idea of doing something you love simply because you love doing it and shedding any drama or serious pressure from your activities in order to enjoy and flourish in them, gives Second Debut their extra spark, the spring in their step, and their success.
“As you get older, you just want to do things that are fun until you can’t any more. You’re done with the stress because now it’s time for [you],” Debra Winchester said.
So every Wednesday morning, as the sleepy Floridian sunshine ambles its way into the sky, eight women make their way to the cavernous church just outside of Leesburg, Florida where their practices are held.
“I wake up every Wednesday excited for the most wonderful day of the week,” Morcom said. “My husband knows that if baton’s involved, I’m going to that no matter what.”
And the excitement for their weekly practices is apparent when any onlooker happens to stumble into the auditorium. The laughter, music, and soft taps of batons dropping to the ground echo with teammates helping each other out, talking about their loved ones, and planning the team lunch that usually follows practice.
“I have a sign that says ‘Close friends, chosen family,’ and this is my family,” Mahaffey said.
The team: a former Disney character, a traveling hippie, and a prison guard among others, came together easily, despite what others may think.
“We have a philosophy that says no drama,” Elizabeth Galpin said. “We have no leader, no captain, just our coach [Lynn Miller] and our fellow teammates.”
It makes sense then that their teamwork is that of a close-knit family competing to make memories rather than a team competing to win.
“You’re taking eight women from everywhere and you’re putting them together and creating something,” Turnipseed said. “And each week it gets a little better and a little better, and it’s a very creative process.”
“And we’re delighted to see it happening, too,” Jan Over added. “Like yay, we improved!”
So as Second Debut prepares for their second year of competition, challenging themselves with routines on par with varsity high school and college baton teams, they urge onlookers to stick true to their passions.
“You don’t have to retire from work and life.” Mahaffey said. “And it’s important to remember that at any age you should do what you love while you can and enjoy your life in all the stages you go through, because believe me, it goes by fast.”
And even if retirees, young adults, or anyone in between is at a point where they believe they can’t do the things they love, the ladies of Second Debut remind those who are competing that winning isn’t everything, and proudly representing a team or sport you’re passionate for is the true reward.
“It’s less about the thrill of winning, and more about the thrill of competing,” Winchester said.
Second Debut plans to live in the moment, enjoying their days of retirement with the knowledge that baton twirling will always be there awaiting their nimble fingers, fancy feet, and wide smiles.
While others may have different passions or be more restricted than these baton twirling retirees, the team believes that everyone has the opportunity to shape their lives as they want to find happiness through a little hard work.
“I will never ever put my baton down,” Mahaffey said. “And if I do, it will be because I’m using it as a cane.”