On guard for the winter

The three captains of the Naugatuck High School winter guard team, from left, Amber Luis, Kali Major and Stephanie Richard, practice in the school gym. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
The three captains of the Naugatuck High School winter guard team, form left, Amber Luis, Kali Major and Stephanie Richard, practice in the school gym. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — On Thursday evening, the Naugatuck High School gymnasium echoes with the hollow click of a drumstick hitting a plastic gock block. In a flash, a sea of red, orange and yellow flags erupts against the gym’s white walls.

The members of the Naugatuck High School winter guard spin and toss the flags into the air, catching them before swiftly turning on their toes, the silks rippling around their waists.

“I have this one-sentence explanation of what color guard is,” said Amber Luis, a captain of the Naugatuck group. “’Spinning sabres, rifles and flags while performing and dancing as a team.’ Like the (Winter Guard International) logo says, it’s a sport of the arts.”

Winter guard fuses music and dance with a choreographed, indoor routine using flags, wooden rifles and sabres. An offshoot of the fall competitive marching band season, most winter guards continue competing during a three-month season from February to April.

Naugatuck is one of about 30 Connecticut high schools with color guards facing off in the Musical Arts Conference circuit this season, during which they will be judged on use of equipment, design, movement and general effect.

Although programs vary, rehearsals typically start in December, just a few weeks after the close of the marching band season. Many groups rehearse two to three times per week, averaging about 20 hours of practice each week.

Kali Major, another captain, said winter guard is more centered around dance and performance than the fall season. Major said because the performance venue is smaller — in a gymnasium rather than on a football field — there is often more pressure on members.

“In the fall, we’re further away from the audience and judges,” Major said. “During winter, the focus is on everything. There’s less room for error.”

Tom Kaplan, color guard director at Naugatuck High School, said he uses the show’s music to determine everything about the performance.

“The show is driven by the music,” Kaplan said. “The music informs what the visual is doing.”

For example, Naugatuck’s winter guard theme this year is “I See Fire,” centered around the popular Ed Sheeran song from the movie “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Similar to the fall marching band season, the theme and music are reflected in the visual elements of the show. The color guard performs on an orange, yellow and red floor mat. Their flags are reminiscent of flames; there are three different silks, all varying shades of red, orange and yellow, with a hint of shimmery fabric that flickers as the guard spins and tosses them into the air.

Major and Luis said an emphasis is placed on performance as a whole, which requires members to immerse themselves into the music and story they are portraying, not just hitting their marks and nailing the routine.

“It’s not just facial expressions,” Major said. “It’s all about the music flowing through your body.”