A performance during the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup championship celebrations; two anniversary trips to Florida; and, in the mid-2000s, the troupe’s most recent opportunity to compete in the Eastern Canadian championships in Nova Scotia — these are just some of the grand memories for Sue Clarke from her 44 years of involvement with the St. Marys School of Baton.
More commonly known as “The Starlettes,” the St. Marys-based troupe — which, in the early days, practiced every Saturday morning from fall through to spring in a gymnasium building situated between the St. Marys United Church and the former Central School — celebrates its 50th year in 2013-14. The number of participants has dwindled since the group’s heyday as a force to be reckoned with in competitive baton twirling, Clarke notes, but she believes it still offers a friendly, creative opportunity for girls to be physically active.
A Granton-area resident, Clarke first picked up a baton when she was seven. She eventually went on to become a teacher, and now she runs the St. Marys School of Baton. Other teachers are Sandy Vanderschot and Jenn Fredin.
“When we had our 10th anniversary, we went to Florida . . . to perform. Then when we had our 20th anniversary, we did it again.” The first time, they performed in the Electric Light Parade at Disneyland. On their 20th anniversary trip, they performed at Sea World and Cypress Gardens.
“We took about 20 kids. We went by bus and, with the parents who came along, I remember it was a pretty full bus.”
But the members of the Starlettes were accustomed to buses, since they would use that same mode of transportation throughout the year to get to competitions in places like Pickering, Toronto and Niagara Falls. There were also trips to perform in parades across Ontario and into the US. Highlights recalled by Clarke include a bus trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, a Grey Cup Parade in Toronto in the 1980s, the same city’s Santa Claus Parade, and the Peach Festival in Niagara Falls, New York.
They also, as a result, became accustomed to very early mornings. “For the competitions, we used to have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to meet the bus at the Town Hall in St. Marys . . . We would have to be (to the competition site) by 6 o’clock, and the competition would start at 7 o’clock and go all day.”
“We’ve been Canadian champions in the past; we’ve been Ontario champions,” she said.
The sport of baton twirling has evolved since Clarke first got involved. At first, there was an emphasis on marching and twirling.
“In the beginning, we even had our own drum line, with drums and glockenspiel,” she said. “Now, we just have taped music.”
More recently, the focus has shifted towards adding dance moves to the routines — something you’ll understand if you see the Starlettes in one of the few remaining local parades, such as the St. Marys Santa Claus Parade, in which they still perform.
“We’re a lot more recreational than we used to be, but we still do a few competitions,” Clarke said of the evolution of the St. Marys School of Baton away from the hustle and bustle of regular, long bus trips to competitions.
She stresses that, if a twirler becomes interested in the competitive side of things through their involvement with the Starlettes, they will certainly be referred to other area organizations which still compete regularly.
The Starlettes are hosting one more free “registration and lessons” event: Tuesday, Sept. 24. They’ll be held during the troupe’s regular weekly practice time, at their regular location: 6:30-7:30 p.m. at St. Marys DCVI’s large gymnasium. Anyone who is in Kindergarten or older is welcome to try it out, and register for the year if they like it. The ages of the current registrants range as high as 14. For information, contact Sue Clarke at 519-225-2111.