The lights that surround the football field are bright against the night sky as the IUP Marching Band takes the field for a featured performance at a high school band festival. As the horns begin to play, Jenn Jablonski tosses her baton into the air in sync with her fellow majorettes.
The stadium lights reflect off her spinning baton, creating a shining, blurred silver image. She turns around quickly, her foot balancing in the mud and damp grass, and catches the revolving flash of light with chilly fingers and a smile.
High school majorettes watch from the sidelines just as she had done a few years ago, when the IUP band performed at a band festival at her high school, Moon Area High School in Moon Township, northwest of Pittsburgh.
“Once I saw them, I thought ‘Wow, I want to be in that band,’” she said. “It's one of the reasons I came to IUP.”
Jablonski, now 20 and a junior at IUP, was in tenth grade and considering several colleges when she saw the IUP band. She had become interested in baton twirling the year before, when she had played clarinet in the marching band. She took baton lessons, auditioned, and became a Moon Area majorette. At a high school majorette camp that summer, she earned the “most improved twirler” award.
When the IUP band was on Jablonski's local television station, she taped it. “The style [of the majorettes] looked easier than it turned out to be,” she said. “I completely had to learn to twirl again for IUP.”
The IUP majorette style is a sharp-looking combination of tosses, twirls, and stick movements done at very fast speeds with extreme precision. Routines are broken down into each tiny movement of the twirler's body and baton to achieve continuous unison. The IUP majorettes spend a week on campus for majorette camp in June, in addition to band camp in August, to learn the style and a few routines for the fall season.
Though Jablonski's passion for baton twirling developed in high school, her desire to become a teacher began in childhood. “Ever since I was little, when someone asked me what I wanted to be, I always said ‘teacher,’” she said. “I was always better at math and science than English. In ninth grade, I had a wonderful geometry teacher. She was just such a fun teacher, out of the ordinary. There was never a dull moment.”
Janet Walker, an associate professor of mathematics at IUP, observed Jablonski during pre-student-teaching. “I think she'll make a great teacher,” Walker said. “She did a very nice job in terms of presenting herself in front of the students. That's a good quality for a future teacher.” And, Walker added, an interest in numbers is a good quality for a majorette.
“Baton twirling is very mathematical,” according to Walker, who began twirling when she was six years old and was a majorette at Western Oregon State College. “It's a very spatial type of sport. There are a lot of patterns involved in it.”
Along with strong math skills, it is helpful for majorettes to have musical training, since routines must be counted out to fit the music. Jablonski played clarinet in both the marching and concert bands early in high school and was selected for the symphonic band in eleventh and twelfth grades.
Jablonski, who is also a sister in the Alpha Xi Delta sorority at IUP, said the band is her first priority outside the classroom in the fall. Practices are four times a week, and weekends are filled with football games and high school performances. As a majorette, Jablonski has performed at halftime of two Pittsburgh Steelers’ games, one with her high school band and one with the IUP band.
Charles Casavant, who retired last summer after twenty-five years as Marching Band director, included majorettes in the band beginning with his second year at IUP. “I've always felt good about the majorette squad as far as what they do stylistically and how they're integrated into the band,” he said.
David Martynuik, the new band director, plans to continue the majorette squad. “The majorettes here are a very strong tradition,” he said. “The traditions and strengths will continue.”
Another band tradition is playing “Amazing Grace.” At one point, the instruments are lowered, and all of the band members sort of “hum” the song, Jablonski explained.
“Sometimes I look at the people, and they’re crying. It’s a great feeling to be able to bring out that much emotion,” she said. “It is such a big and powerful band, and it definitely has been an honor to be part of it.”