Wheaton Majorettes now toss batons around the world
Brian Lewis/The Gazette
Melissa Weygand, foreground, works on her twirling form during a recent practice of the Wheaton Majorettes.
Anne Marie Kennedy was born to twirl. Her sister Kathy was a majorette at Peary High School in Rockville and her other sister Vicky was also a majorette.
"I was a strut champion at 18 and a ballet dancer," Kennedy said.
After a brief career as a ballet dancer, Kennedy is the head coach of the Wheaton Majorettes, taking over from her sisters 16 years ago and continuing the family tradition that started the year Kennedy was born, 1959.
Then, her mother, Evelyn D'Anna, organized lessons for young twirlers in the family basement, with Kathy as the teacher.
The Wheaton Majorettes, as the class was called, grew from there. They marched in local parades, with young Kennedy, still in diapers, leading the twirlers.
"It started as recreational fun for the kids -- it just grew and grew," said D'Anna, 81.
By 1964, the Wheaton Majorettes were winning local parades. By the late 1960s, they competed in state and national championships.
The majorettes won their first national championship in 1969. Since 1983, members of the team have consistently held national championships.
Now, Kennedy's extended family numbers about 125, and the Wheaton Majorettes are the reigning world and national junior and senior twirling champions. Next month, the teams will travel to Birmingham, England to defend the world title. They are involved in fund-raising activities in between the many hours of practice each week.
From January through April, the team practices six days a week, wherever it can. On the seventh day, members enter competitions.
When schools were closed for snow, they practiced on racquetball courts.
Twirling as a sport is similar to gymnastics, with batons as the apparatus. Kennedy expects the sport to one day be an Olympic event.
Most of the Wheaton Majorette performances are indoors, though individual twirlers sometimes do halftime shows at football games. "We don't do it on the street anymore -- no parades," Kennedy said.
Twirling requires stamina, coordination, balance, grace and dance, Kennedy said. The Wheaton Majorettes cross-train with lessons in jazz and ballet, led by Kennedy, aerobics and kickboxing.
The name Wheaton Majorettes is more of a historical term. The girls on the team come from Damascus, Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, Olney and West Virginia. They usually practice in Damascus schools, but this winter they found practice space some days in Germantown.
On Sundays, the teams run through their entire routines in the Roberto Clemente Middle School gym. Neighbors pause on their way home from church to watch through the windows.
"The show is just awesome, such precision," said parent Donna Sagona of Damascus. "The girls throw the batons up, spin seven times, catch them behind their backs. Probably three corps in the United States are her caliber."
"When you go [to world competition], you need to be pretty flawless," Kennedy said. "At the last world championship, we had just one drop."
By the time the Wheaton Majorettes get to the world championship contest, they will be able to do their baton twirling routines blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs, Kennedy said.
Three of the girls on the team will also be competing in individual events.
National junior strut champion Stephanie Dallachiesa, 17, of Ijamsville started twirling at age 4.
"My mom saw one of the county classes and just signed me up," she said. "I've been twirling ever since."
The same girl has held the junior title for the last eight years, Dallachiesa said.
"Everybody thought she was unbeatable," she said.
Dallachiesa was stunned when she won the title at the national competition in July.
"It was a very emotional moment," she said.
Her routine, choreographed by Kennedy, is a flawless mix of gymnastics, ballet and baton twirling.
Dallachiesa is helping recruit the next generation of Wheaton twirlers. She teachers a class for the county Department of Recreation at Damascus Elementary School on Thursdays.
When Morgan McAlister, 10, of Damascus was in first grade, her teacher brought a baton to class and twirled it one day. For McAlister, once was enough. She asked her parents to signs her up for twirling classes with the Department of Recreation. McAlister worked at the sport and graduated to more advanced lessons with the Wheaton Majorettes.
While the teams practice for the world competition, she works alone, throwing a baton high in the air, catching it, moving it between her legs, over her back and up in the air again, repeating the same movements over and over again until they become routine.
"I want to go to the world competition in two years," she said.
The youngest member of the world team is Kristin Sagona, 12, of Clarksburg.
"I'm very excited," Sagona said. "My sister [Katie Richards] went to the last world [competition] a couple of years ago."
Twirling teaches the girls life skills, Kennedy said. They have to learn to manage their time and have the discipline and motivation to practice every day.
"Like karate or ballet, they have to train, eat and sleep properly," she said.
Kennedy herself balances raising two young boys with her coaching duties. Her years of twirling and ballet practices helped develop her time management skills, she said, and taught her to work hard at everything she does.
D'Anna, although retired and living at the beach, continues to travel with the team to national and world competitions. With her daughters and granddaughters running the team, she still likes to keep an eye on her baby.
The team plans to go to England early, train for half the day and go sightseeing the other half.
"Traveling is my favorite part," Dallachiesa said. "I get to see different parts of the country and make new friends."
The girls are good friends to each other, Donna Sagona said.
"It's an expensive sport ... but worth every penny I've put into this," she said. "I know she's with a good group of girls, safe and focused on when she does it."
The Wheaton Majorettes will hold a benefit performance 7 p.m. April 1 at Damascus High School, 25921 Ridge Road. The suggested donation of $2 will help support the trip to world championship competition.