Overcoming Challenges Faced By Baton Twirlers of Color

Dancers featured on Black Baton Twirlers Network

Our topic for today is the challenges that twirlers of color may encounter and how we can collaborate to overcome them. 

Welcome to beyond the StEPS

We are thrilled to have Olivia Lynch, the co-founder of Black Baton Twirlers Network, join us for this important discussion. It's worth noting that this is a highly distinctive subject that we haven't addressed in the past three seasons of our show. Nonetheless, we're eager to explore what difficulties twirlers of color face and how we can find solutions by working together.

Olivia** was a competitive baton twirler for 22 years. She was the first African American to win the Congressional Cup Invitational. She is an accomplished baton twirling champion. Some of her Junior World Performing Arts Champion; 2004 Pre-teen Grand National Champion; 2006, 2009, and 2012 NBTA World Baton Twirling Team Champion with the Wheaton Dance Twirl Team; 2010 USTA Northeast Regional Solo Champion; and 2013 Disney Night of Stars Specialty Act Winner. 

She has her dual Bachelors's degree in Public Relations and Advertising from Point Park University. She currently works at the University of Pittsburgh in the Alumni Association as the Manager of Young Alumni & Student Programs. She focuses on community building, professional development, and traditions. 

Olivia is still involved in the sport of baton twirling. She is one of the baton twirling instructors for Howard University Dazzling Diamond Twirlers. 

We start at the base level, which is exactly what I need for this subject. While I've seen and admired it before, I don't know much about it. Back in the day (which really shows my age), baton twirling was a category in the competitive dance circuit. However, none of us knew much about it. I'm curious to know if the baton twirling community is still thriving and expanding, or if it's declining in popularity since I don't see it as often.

When baton was a category in the competition dance circuit but I know there were not many of us that knew anything about it. Is it a large community? Is it still growing or do you see it dwindling? 

I believe that the baton community is quite large, and it's still evolving with different types of twirling that people can participate in. The 60s and 70s were the peak of its popularity. 

That's fascinating to hear! So, I'm curious to know how you got involved with baton. Was it a family tradition, or did you stumble upon it by chance?

 No, baton twirling wasn't a family tradition for me. I'm actually adopted, and my mom was a field hockey champion who played for Team USA. She had high hopes for me to follow in her footsteps, so she was disappointed when I showed an interest in baton twirling instead. It all started when I began kindergarten at a Catholic school at an early age. My teacher noticed that I struggled with holding a pencil, and suggested that I try baton twirling to improve my dexterity. Eventually, I decided to give it a try and asked my mom to sign me up. Looking back, my journey into baton twirling may seem a little unconventional, but I'm grateful to Miss Bailey for introducing me to this sport.

 It's truly impressive that your teacher's guidance led you on a 22-year-long journey. That's quite remarkable! By the way, you mentioned the terms 'baton' and 'twirling' earlier. Are they interchangeable, or is there a distinction between them? I'm curious to know if it's appropriate to use these terms interchangeably.

 It seems to me that 'baton' refers to the sport itself, and you can also say 'baton twirling.' Meanwhile, 'twirling' is the action involved in the sport. However, these terms are used interchangeably depending on the context, and they may vary depending on the region or school. That being said, 'baton twirling' and 'baton' essentially refer to the same thing. It's important to note that there's also 'majorette' with the baton, as well as 'majorette dance' that you might see at HBCUs or in movies like 'Bring It On.' The tradition of 'majorette dance' originated from baton twirling majorettes.

 So, in dance, we have tap, jazz, lyrical, ballet, and other genres. I'm wondering, are there also different genres of baton twirling?

There are different levels of baton twirling. At the recreational level, you can march in parades, perform at school or community events. The highest level is competitive, ranging from novice to elite, where you can travel the world and represent your country while meeting new people. Additionally, you can twirl for your school, whether it's middle school, high school, or college, and the style can vary depending on where you go. For example, the style at an HBCU school may differ from that at Penn State University. There are also different events within baton twirling, akin to categories or themes in gymnastics, such as floor routine, but with varying styles that share the same basic techniques.

 Olivia mentioned HBCUs, which stands for historically black colleges and universities. It's important to make sure we provide baseline information and not assume everyone knows, so just to clarify, HBCUs refer to historically black colleges or universities.

 I have seen some action shots of you, and you have sent me a few amazing pictures of your extensions, lovely jetés, and beautiful upper body work. It seems like some of the techniques used in baton twirling are closely related to dance. Can you discuss the connection between twirling and dance?

There are many similarities between baton twirling, dance, gymnastics, and entertainment, such as the importance of hand-eye coordination. One of the categories in baton twirling, called strut, incorporates a lot of dance movements like turns, leaps, and pirouettes. The technique used in baton twirling, such as pulling up on a releve in fifth or fourth position, is also similar to dance. Many dance studios offer baton twirling classes, and vice versa, as both require flexibility, musicality, and athleticism. Therefore, they complement each other and go hand in hand.

So I was just curious about your location, because I'm wondering if baton twirling is more popular in certain regions of the country than others. For example, I know that in the South, it used to be really popular. Have you noticed any geographic differences in the popularity of baton twirling?

Based on my personal experience, I come from Easton, Pennsylvania, which is home to the Crayola Corporation. Currently, I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In terms of baton twirling, I believe that the popularity and prevalence of the sport varies depending on the region. For example, in the South, majorette groups are very common and they are incredibly skilled at twirling. However, I think that the availability of resources and opportunities in your area is also a determining factor. Overall, I think that most parts of the United States offer some form of baton twirling, but the level and style may vary. 

Let's talk about racial diversity in twirling. The dance industry has been struggling with this issue for a long time, but is it the same for twirling?

I believe that there is definitely room for growth in terms of racial diversity in twirling. Through starting the Black Baton Twirlers Network and expanding my connections outside of the twirling community, I have met individuals from various disciplines such as dance, ice skating, and gymnastics who share similar struggles with access to resources and opportunities. While there is certainly room for improvement, I am optimistic that progress is being made in the right direction.

Do you think there is a lack of representation in baton twirling, similar to what you experienced as a dancer in the late 80s and 90s where there was often only one of a few people of color at competitions? And do you feel that representation is also lacking at the level of choreographers, teachers, and leaders in the baton twirling community?

There is definitely a lack of representation, and I believe it's due to a lack of exposure. There are many professional black baton twirlers and twirlers of color, but we are not aware of them. As you mentioned, in the elite level of competition, there may only be one or two of us, and I didn't even realize it until I started this network. There have been many people before me who have accomplished amazing things, but they were not visible. I think there is a lack of representation in our athletic and elite levels, as well as in judging and choreography. However, I believe it's an area for improvement, and the more people speak up about it, the more change we can bring about.

You mentioned access earlier, and I think that's an important factor. Is baton twirling as expensive as other endeavors like dance or travel sports, which can be quite costly?

I think it varies depending on the level of involvement. There are opportunities for fundraising, so it's not necessarily a matter of accessibility, but more about being aware of available resources. However, I agree that like dance and ice skating, any activity nowadays has associated expenses. If you're looking to compete at an elite level, there may be additional expenses such as international travel or attending multiple competitions per year. Ultimately, the level of engagement within the sport will determine the extent of the expenses.

 Do you believe that the biggest obstacle to increasing the number of people of color in this sport is the cost or are there other challenging factors to consider?

I don't believe that financial support is the biggest challenge to growing the population of people of color in this sport. In fact, I think financial support is a challenge for all activities and sports, not just baton twirling. However, there are other barriers to entry for people of color in this sport. One challenge is the lack of skin-tone shoes for baton twirlers, which can make it difficult to feel comfortable and confident while performing. Another challenge is the pageant factor and the pressure to conform to certain beauty standards, which can be especially difficult for those with natural curly hair. Additionally, the lack of representation and role models for people of color in the sport can be a barrier to entry and motivation to pursue it. Therefore, I believe that representation, performance, and authentication are the biggest barriers to growing the population of people of color in baton twirling.

 I would like to discuss the hair issue in baton twirling, as it is also an important topic in dance. Over the past decade, competitions have emphasized the importance of a slick back bun for a clean and professional appearance. However, it is possible to achieve uniformity in appearance while also acknowledging and embracing different hair types, such as locks, curly hair, and braids. Do you think that this type of affirmation and inclusivity is also happening in the baton twirling community?

 Yes, I think it's just a matter of education and awareness. Our organizations are making an effort to educate judges on what is appropriate to wear, including locks and curly hair. When it comes to uniformity, it's not just about tights and shoes, but also about the color of the skin. There are now companies that offer skin tone items, but we still need more options, including baton twirling shoes. Uniformity is important in group activities, but it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to look the same skin tone-wise. It's about achieving a level of uniformity in professional appearance and cleanliness, regardless of skin tone. This applies to not just baton twirling, but also to other group activities like ice skating.

 I don't recall if it was mentioned in a previous season of a show, but there was an example brought up regarding uniformity. The idea was that everyone could wear a "coffee" color type to achieve uniformity, but that doesn't work because it doesn't account for the diversity of skin tones. Similarly, when everyone wears "suntan," which ends up looking like raw chicken color, it doesn't look good on anyone and it's important to remain authentic and affirm all the different beautiful shades of skin.

 Do you think racism manifests primarily in baton twirling through issues like costumes and hair, or are there other ways in which it appears? Have you ever personally experienced situations where the lack of representation has led to conflict, tension, or unfair treatment, either for yourself or someone you know? Also, as a side note, to the people who manufacture baton twirling shoes (or insteps), it's time to diversify and create options for a wider range of skin tones.

 I think that racism in twirling is not as prevalent as some may think. However, I do believe that twirlers of color sometimes feel like they don't have a sense of community or belonging in the space. I have spoken with parents who have seen me go through my struggles as an elite level twirler and being one of the only black twirlers in that space. One instance where the lack of representation caused tension was at a big performance where twirlers from all across the United States were present. Some television crews were coming around to interview twirlers, and a few of them were black. They saw me twirling and interviewed me, but they didn't interview the higher-level twirlers that I was with. Normally, it's the opposite that happens, so I was happy to be interviewed. However, I heard someone say in the background that I was only being interviewed because I'm black. That's when I turned around and spoke up. I said, "What about my talent? We're all on the same level here, and just because I'm black doesn't mean I don't belong here." Sometimes, I have imposter syndrome because I wonder if I'm there for my talent or my skin color. It adds a lot of extra pressure, and it gets to you. However, I want to be the best, and I don't want to be labeled as the "best black twirler." Ernie Davis once said that he didn't want to be the best black football player; he wanted to be the best. That quote resonates with me. I think it's essential to get out of that mindset and educate people about how their assumptions can be hurtful. Teens say crazy things, but it's crucial to understand that those assumptions are not necessarily true and can be hurtful.

I think that when there are very few people of color in a particular space, and a person of color is highlighted, it's often because of their race, and that's not necessarily fair. However, there is also the intentional act of centering people of color in spaces where they are not typically represented. This intentional act of centering marginalized groups is important and necessary to ensure that they are present and included.

I believe a great example of intentional centering of marginalized groups is the Winter Olympics, where there were many first-time milestones. I remember discussing with my boyfriend at the time how it would have been great for the Olympics to provide information on how to get involved in those areas and continue on that journey, such as directing people to a website. Although it's wonderful to elevate marginalized groups to the space they deserve to be in, we should also continue to promote and showcase how individuals can achieve that level themselves.

How significant is the concept of community? We touched on this topic earlier when you shared your story, and it seems that Black Baton Twirlers Network has fostered a sense of community. Did this Community play a role in your decision to establish the organization?

I have a background in public relations and advertising, but I've always had a passion for creating a sense of community and safe space. The Black Baton Twirlers Network (BBTN) began with a two-part series, which was a talk show where we discussed various topics related to baton twirling. During the discussion, someone brought up the question of how to get more twirlers of color engaged in the sport, which was just after the Black Lives Matter riots. I messaged the host, sharing my ideas on how to address this issue, without appearing on camera. Later, I contacted my friend John Mitchell, who is a judge and mentor, and shared my vision with him. I realized that many people didn't feel like they belonged to a community, and I wanted to create a safe space that welcomed not only black baton twirlers but all twirlers. Our events, opportunities, and membership are open to everyone, but we also focus on uplifting twirlers of color. I get excited when I hear about the growth and connections made within the twirling community, and I love celebrating and uplifting others, no matter what. Even the small things get me excited.

Is this a membership-based platform or simply an inclusive community?

So, we do have a membership platform that offers some benefits like discounts through our partnerships with national retailers such as Lavender Leotards and Award Heights, which both promote diversity and inclusion. However, our community is open to anyone who is interested in baton twirling and wants to learn more about the sport. We aim to educate and provide professional development for judges, studio owners, and program owners, and we serve as a one-stop-shop for resources and support. So, you don't have to be a member to access our community or services.

Let's discuss the idea of inclusivity and how people who are not people of color can also be a part of the community. When we started Beyond the Steps in October 2020, it was in response to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Many people who were not people of color reached out, wanting to know how they could incorporate diversity and inclusion into their space and uplift twirlers of color. This inspired me to create a resource and network that not only supports, celebrates, and promotes twirlers of color, but also works towards improving the sport of baton twirling and bridging gaps in the community. Our membership and partners include people of all races because we believe in being supportive and helping any twirler who wants to elevate themselves professionally or build community. It's going to take a village to make real change, and we need the support and allyship of other cultures and races to create a more inclusive and diverse sport.

We have been in existence for over a year now, and our official birthday is on November 21st. Although we received our 501c3 status less than a year ago, we still encounter some pushback from others. In those situations, I always try to take the higher ground and view it as a learning opportunity. As an example, when I posted about Aurora Tights offering scholarships and grants for performing color opportunities, someone questioned the need for a Black Baton Twirlers Network. I took the time to educate them about our organization, our focus on performance opportunities, and our inclusivity. It can be frustrating to have to educate others, but it is important to help people understand the value of our work.

We continue to encounter pushback from others, but we view it as an opportunity to prove the importance of the Black Baton Twirlers Network. We are always looking for ways to expand our reach, whether it's through marketing or outreach, or by hosting events in areas where we face resistance. Our goal is not to create a separate, exclusive group, but to elevate the sport of baton twirling and create opportunities for everyone, especially twirlers of color who may not be as engaged in the sport. By doing so, we hope to bring more life and enthusiasm to the sport and encourage more people to get involved. Despite encountering resistance, we remain committed to educating others and staying positive.

You mentioned earlier in the conversation about male twirlers, and I wanted to revisit that topic. Are there more male twirlers in the baton twirling community, and is that population growing?

I believe this is another area that has potential for growth. Currently, it is a smaller population, but male twirlers are amazing and some of them have even been featured on America's Got Talent. They are building incredible teams and giving back to the community. However, there is a need for more education in this area. Unfortunately, many people still view twirling as a feminine activity, but I disagree. It requires strength, confidence, and athleticism, just like any other competitive sport or performance art. Therefore, I think that male twirlers have a lot of potential in this field, and it is definitely an area for growth.

You mentioned judge education, and I think that's definitely an area that needs improvement. Additionally, I believe there should be more diversity and inclusion in the ownership of the competitive space. It would also be great to see more resources and opportunities for underrepresented groups in the sport, such as scholarships, mentorship programs, and performance opportunities. Overall, I think creating a more equitable and affirming space requires a collective effort from all stakeholders in the baton twirling community to acknowledge and address systemic barriers and biases.

I believe BBTM is currently taking steps towards improvement, and it's important for everyone to embrace these efforts. However, I understand that it may not be at the forefront of everyone's minds due to other pressing matters. Education and racial diversity are crucial areas to focus on, not just for judges but also for coaches, family members, and friends. Beyond the Steps is a great resource for professional development, and I have shared it extensively. We need to educate people and bring more professionals of color into these spaces, including judges. To this end, we have started a Judges Collective, which mentors aspiring judges and provides grants for licensing and travel. We also plan to hold reflective workshops and offer free clinics to promote professional development. Exposure is critical, and even though there may be rejections, one yes can lead to more. Regarding your question about judging licensure, it is required for judges to obtain a license in order to judge competitions.

 There are different organizations within the sport of baton twirling and each organization has its own process for judging licensure, with different steps and levels depending on the organization. For example, MBTA has one process, while USCA has different steps and levels depending on your judging experience. However, the process can be costly, which is a barrier for many people. That's why the judges Collective was created, to fundraise money for grants that can cover the judges' license fees, and anyone can apply for these grants, not just performers of color.

I emphasized the fact that Bri and I frequently mention on our show that dance lacks a governing body that oversees and enforces regulations and safety measures. Therefore, learning about the existence of licensure in the Baton space is encouraging. Hopefully, one day the dance community can establish a regulatory body that prioritizes the safety of young people and creates a supportive and inclusive environment without controlling the artistic expression.

Olivia, it's time to assign some homework. As a guest on Beyond the Steps, we ask that you give our viewers one small thing they can do between now and next Friday to make progress in this area.

To improve in this area, here are some small steps you can take: first, watch this episode and do your own research. Connect with the Black Baton Twirlers Network and Beyond the Steps by watching their podcasts and learning about their organizations. Ask questions and find a safe space to talk about these issues. Additionally, consider volunteering or donating to support these causes. As for our guests' resources, you can visit the Black Baton Twirlers Network's website to learn more about their organization, baton twirling, and certifications offered. You can also email Olivia Lynch directly or follow them on social media to get in touch.



**Olivia Lynch is the co-founder and President of the Black Baton Twirlers Network which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Black Baton Twirlers Network is pioneering a positive change and redefining what it means to be inclusive in the sport of baton twirling. We are building a network that connects twirlers, grows their real-world knowledge and resources, and elevates their twirl. 

 BBTN understands the necessity of community, and for any foundation to be strong, it’s essential to have a sense of belonging. For any sport, it’s vital to be surrounded by others that share the same vision and encourage growth. BBTN believes there is room for all baton twirlers regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender identification. They serve members in search of a community and do not let borders stop us. 

Olivia also sits on the Confluence Ballet Company Executive Board. Confluence Ballet Company was established in 2021 with the vision to create dance free from the constraints of racial inequity & stigmas surrounding body type. As it states in its mission and values, diversity and inclusion are key tenets in how Confluence Ballet Co. operates. This company strives to produce works of the highest caliber in classical, neoclassical, and contemporary genres while creating a positive environment where artists can grow, collaborate and thrive. 


She recently won Point Park University’s Distinguished Alumni Award this past year for her work with BBTN, Confluence Ballet Company, and the University of Pittsburgh. 

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