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I heard one of my favorite sounds today as I was riding home from work–the sound of drill-team drummers doing their thing.

I fell in love with drill teams shortly after having moved to Kansas City. The Marching Cobras were doing a fund-raising drive, and were performing out in the parking lot of the grocery where I usually shopped. They had some little kid, probably no more than 10 years old doing all kinds of acrobatic tumbling feats, while the other children either drummed or marched and danced, stepping jauntily into complicated formations. After each routine, a couple of the older kids would approach the crowds which invariably amassed, and let them know who they were, what they were about, and that they were raising funds, and would sure appreciate donations. They got them, too.

The Cobras and the Sizzlers performed at the St. Patrick's Day parade this past year. In fact, the Sizzlers were right behind the cycling group I participated with. They were a darn good group of kids, too. High spirited, full of mischief and mouth, as kids of junior-high and highschool age are wont to be, but respectful and responsive when their drill leader spoke to them and commited performers. They had the precision moves, solid percussion skills, and charisma that comes from hours of hard work, of practising together, and coming to appreciate the steps it takes to make something great happen.

There's something you get in drill teams, dance troupes, marching bands, and other group-performance efforts that is hard to teach, impossible to force, and inreasingly rare in a world of unique snowflakes and armies of one. There's less of an emphasis on how truly cool you can be as part of a larger group, that in some circumstances, you can achieve so much bigger and impressive things working as a unit. Some things take on greater force, passion, and soul from being a mass experience. I know; I've been part of a dance team that gained all of its presence from the fact that we functioned like a Swiss watch, a well-oiled machine, or any other cliche you choose to illustrate a dozen schoolgirls marching, high-stepping, and chorus-line-kicking their way through an old-fashioned tap-dancing routine with an enthusiasm you'd never deem possible from ordinarily-bershon junior high girls.

The year was 1989; I was 12 (in case you are wondering, I am the sallow one in the front row with the big, black-framed glasses). I'd recently been promoted up in both of my dance classes, out of the ballet and tap-dancing classes I'd been in with my sister, and indeed many girls I'd knows since I was 7 or 8. Instead of being the oldest girl in class, which I'd been for all those years, I was now one of the youngest.
Our group ranged in ages from 12 to (I think) 16. When given the first listen to our new “number” Yankee Doodle Boy by George M. Cohan we all reacted with dismay. So corny, so cheezy, so childish! The version we danced to was a much stronger, more military-sounding march, but it still sounded to our jejune adolescent ears like some kind of old-fashioned kiddie song, and we didn't think we were having any of it. That was until we got started learning the dance. It was complicated!

We were expected to learn a routine with repeated line changes, chorus-line high-kicking and rapid-fire, strict-precision footwork. Before too long, we were setting aside our opinions about the song and concentrating on the dance. Once the routine started to come together, as our precision improved, as we began to fire like sparkplugs in a racing engine, we realized that the product of our co-operation transcended the dorkiness of the song, that our performance was actually very cool. We were a solid group, so much so that we were the second-to-last performance at recital, an honor usually reserved for the most senior ballet class. (The last act being a sort of elaborate walk-through that each class participated in, to close the show) Later on, I watched a videotape of the performance, watched us marching, kicking, revolving, and scissoring our lines back and forth across the stage, “BAM clickety tap-stamp shuffle hop STOMP tick” stepping and stamping in unison as though we were run on a driveshaft. We performed this routine several more times through the summer, at the local festivals (Heritage Days and the county fair, most notably). We shared a spotlight and drew strength from our numbers in an age when most girls are working out strict and vicious pecking orders.

This is the kind of teambuilding business experts wish they could create in their workshops and retreats, but I don't think it can be duplicated in that kind of a setting. Things like drill teams, dance squads, choirs, and cheerleading teams offer a venue that draws young people in. There's a chance at “coolness,” a chance to be in the spotlight, a chance for attention, praise, and quantifiable achievement. It's a chance to co-operate on their own terms, rather than being made to share and play nicely. It's a stepping stone in social development that I wish more kids had the chance to stand on. Things like this help ease the way between “playing well with others” and “being a team player” that we have to make in the adolescent phases between childhood and adulthood, and that group identity, your team, your “sisters” or “brothers” can be very powerful and very positive.

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