The Winterguard program at North Thurston High School was born nearly five seasons ago in an effort to provide the colorguard performers an opportunity to fine tune their skills year-round. David Wilson, the high school’s director of colorguard, found that without year-long training in place, the program and performers were unable to develop to their full potential.

Colorguard usually runs from July to early November. It is often referred to as fieldguard since the performers work in partnership with the marching band during the fall football season. Winterguard, on the other hand, runs in the off-season and performances are held indoors, usually on a basketball court and are choreographed to recorded music.

Many of us carry an outdated perception colorguard, perhaps picturing in our minds a program of military preciseness and uniformity. While some of these elements are present in today’s modern colorguard, they also use elements of interpretive dance and theatrical performance to create a harmonious union of athleticism and art.

North Thurston High School Winterguard art of flags
The modern winterguard and colorguard is a combination of both athletics and art. Photo credit: Jessie Dunnam

Although fieldguard and winterguard are two completely separate competing units, their overall mission is the same, to interpret the music in such a way that even someone who cannot hear the music can see the music in their work. A seemingly herculean task, for someone inexperienced like me, but after spending an evening with the team and watching them practice I began to grasp the ways they make this possible.

During my visit, the team was training for an upcoming event where they would receive feedback from judges on their work prior to heading into the competitive season. It was impossible not to take in the quiet mood of the room. All ten members were dressed in black, not individuals, but a matching unit. The music was peaceful. The team’s choreographer, Rod Andrada, soon arrived and with little direction the performers moved into their places. Warm-ups were synchronized and simple to start, progressing in difficulty.

North Thurston High School Winterguard practice
David Wilson and Rod Andrada utilize practice time to refine not only the individual movements and tosses, but to ensure that the story is unfolding as it should. Photo credit: Jessie Dunnam

“Everything we do revolves around setting a mood, from the warm-ups to the performance itself.  It’s all about establishing predictable routines that are perfected over time,” explained Wilson.

Bringing the Music to Life

It was fascinating to watch as individual pieces of the greater puzzle were rehearsed, as rifles were spun, and flags were tossed, as footwork and synchronicity were refined. If an error was made, critiques by Andrada and Wilson were positive, supportive and simple. Nine of the ten Winterguard members are returnees and it’s easy to see why.  If you want to be there and are willing to work hard there is a place for you, no matter your experience.

“Before winterguard, I was a flute player in the marching band. What makes our program really special is the connections we have made. The long bus rides, the inside jokes, the long nights of training, it really brings you together, you feel like family,” said Bethany, a member of the guard.

What does it take to be great? In addition to three-hour practices one to two nights a week, colorguard participants give up four to six Saturdays to competitions with either the marching band or the winterguard.

“The level of discipline depends on your personal motivation. If you are a self-starter who is willing to work hard, the sky quite literally is the limit in this activity!” explained Wilson.

North Thurston colorguards are open to any students, grades 7 through 12, who are in North Thurston School District.  Most of the current performers attend North Thurston High School, River Ridge High School, Chinook, Salish and Aspire Middle Schools.

North Thurston High School Winterguard group huddle
North Thurston High School Winterguard is a family beyond anything else. Working together, learning together, excelling together. Photo credit: Jessie Dunnam

“I was invited to try for winterguard by my friend Ella,” shared Annabelle. “What has amazed me most, and what I wish people knew about colorguard is that we aren’t just flags behind a marching band. A lot of what we do is about art and grace.”

Since this is Annabelle’s first year, she has to put in extra work to learn the routines because each move is brand new to her, but the moments when it all comes together, like the first time she caught a rifle, make all the work worth while.

The unit is currently working on a performance choreographed to Evan Hansen’s “You Will Be Found.”  On their wrists, every member of the winterguard, including Wilson and Andrada, wear a bracelet.  Inside the band it reads, ‘You are not alone.’ Remember, colorguard is not just about the implements they toss or the dance they perform. Their mission is to tell you a story, so just as much work has gone in to understanding the message and emotion behind the music as was put into memorizing the choreography.

Wilsonv has been with the North Thurston colorguard nearly 13 years. Through his efforts and experience the team has grown into a regionally recognized unit, consistently ranking in the top three of their division, year after year.

North Thurston High School Winterguard rifles
Winterguard units incorporate flags, sabers and rifles in their performances. Photo credit: Jessie Dunnam

“I’ve spent a lot of the last forty years working on this activity,” admitted Wilson. “My youngest sister was in the Seattle Imperials who were one of the very first ‘modern’ winterguard programs in the world. I spent several years working with Stanley Knaub, their director and designer/choreographer and he got me hooked on teaching colorguard.”

“This activity truly is one of the best kept secrets in the world of performing arts,” he added.

March 24, the Winterguard will hosting its first-ever Winter Showcase. “This will be a chance to see some of the best winterguards throughout Washington State,” said Wilson. “There will be three divisions and two rounds of competition. We currently have a dozen scholastic units entered to compete. Since this is the final competition before NWPA Championships, the level of performance should be very high as each unit will be making the final finishing touches on their show.”

Specific times and admission prices will be available on the North Thurston High School Website as the date gets closer.

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