By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Twirling a baton at a championship level exacts a cost on young majorettes.
“It really hurts when you hit your fingers,” said Katie Harness, 13.
“It hurts my fingernails,” said Abbie Chandler, 14.
“Sometimes, it pops your blood vessels on your fingers. That hurts,” added Kaylin Costello, 13.
“And sometimes you crack yourself on the head,” Abbie said.
Such tiny agonies are a fact of life for members of the Tupelo Twirlers, who all attend Tupelo Middle School. Most of them have been practicing their batons for about eight years.
They meet every Sunday at Karen Costello’s house to hone their form. Costello is Kaylin’s mom, but it is her oldest daughter, Samantha, who started the Tupelo Twirlers.
“When it became time for senior projects, she decided that nobody knew about baton around here,” Costello said, “so she would do that.”
She formed the group of 5-year-olds, including Kaylin, and coached them up to perform in the Saltillo Christmas Parade. They also competed in Memphis that year.
“They won. They beat three other teams,” Costello said. “They twirled to ‘Lion King’ music.”
“I loved that routine,” Kaylin said.
When her daughter graduated high school, Costello stepped in to keep the group going. She had learned the ways of the baton from her mother in Monette, Ark., and won a scholarship to be featured twirler at Delta State, so she was the natural choice to lead the crew.
“They still wanted to do it, so I started teaching them,” Costello said. “They started going off to contests and performing at GumTree Festival on the youth stage.”
Their years of dedication have paid off with state and regional recognition. The region includes competitors from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana.
“Kaylin has won Miss Majorette of Mississippi for the past three years. That’s the advanced division,” Costello said. “She was Miss Majorette of the South, too.”
Kaylin qualified as a soloist for national contest in July at the University of Notre Dame. The team qualified, too, but the other members didn’t make the trip.
Katie and Abbie play soccer, and Addie Bridges, 13, is a volleyball player, so that cuts into twirling time.
All of the girls were encouraged to take ballet, and they did for about a year.
“I had to take ballet because I wasn’t graceful,” Katie said. “Soccer is not a graceful sport.”
“It can be,” Abbie said.
“My coach said that if you do it right, volleyball is graceful,” Addie said.
Kaylin still takes dance because it helps with baton, which is her passion. She hopes to earn a scholarship to be featured twirler at the University of Arkansas.
“I was practicing two to three hours a day to get ready for nationals,” she said.
There were about 50 girls in the 10 to 12 age group at Notre Dame, and they were the best of the best. Kaylin watched some of their routines but that didn’t help.
“Really, you don’t need to watch other people because …” Katie said.
“It makes you nervous,” Kaylin said.
“Yeah,” Katie said.
Kaylin’s goal was not to finish last, and she beat about 10 other competitors. Her big goal for this year is to return to nationals, where she’ll move up an age group.
But first she has to win the right to compete on the national stage by earning state and regional honors.
The team also stepped up in age division this year and added another routine. It’s been a challenging time of learning new tricks. Knuckles have been busted and heads have been bonked.
“We broke a chair, but that was Addie,” Katie said.
“Hey,” Addie said.
“I threw batons in the pool a couple of times,” Katie said.
They’re working on a Dance Twirl routine that allows the girls one baton each. Their Halftime Show Twirl routine features multiple batons and props, like the chair that was broken.
“This is our first year to do two at a time,” Addie said.
They took one Sunday off during Christmas vacation, then got back to preparing for a competition that will be Saturday in Clanton, Ala.
“We pray when we get nervous at competitions,” Addie said.
They also march onto the competition floor with a cadence that mimics the military’s “Left, left, left, right, left.” It goes, “100, 100, 100 and 10 to win,” which refers to giving 110 percent.
Since they travel to compete, their friends in Tupelo often don’t get to see what they can do, but that’s changing.
In addition to performing at the GumTree Festival, they were asked to show off their skills at the Up, Up and Away Hot Air Balloon Festival at Ballard Park.
They also achieved a dream of taking the field for football halftime shows at Tupelo Middle School and Tupelo Christian Preparatory School.
And it could be argued that their years of tiny bumps and bruises and building callouses on fingers and palms came to fruition on Dec. 10 during the Reed’s Tupelo Christmas Parade. They were the ones spinning flaming batons.
“I was sort of nervous. I always prepare myself for the worst,” Kaylin said, “so I was a little nervous. I didn’t want something to catch fire.”
Costello pitched the red-hot idea to them, and they had about a month to prepare.
“Sometimes, she has to convince us to do certain twirls,” Abbie said.
“Once they started doing it, they liked it,” Costello said.
All of their experience with batons combined to keep them and everyone else safe along the parade route, but there was a cost involved.
“It was really smoky,” Abbie said.
The event became a high-profile chance for the Tupelo Twirlers to show their stuff. Phones buzzed with text messages, and people at school had plenty to say about the fire batons.
“A lot of people had never seen what we can do before,” Katie said. “After the Christmas parade, they were like, ‘Whoa.’ That was so cool.”