From complicated drill sequences to advanced dance moves, the demands of performing in a competitive marching arts ensemble have increased rapidly in recent years. Just as wind players practice long tones and chorales to build their chops and improve balance across the ensemble, conditioning exercises for the body help performers stay in good physical shape and move effectively as a group.
Vincent E. Thomas is a professional choreographer and Professor of Dance at Maryland’s Towson University with extensive drum corps and color guard experience. Last month, our team visited Towson to meet Vincent and see his techniques in action.
About Ready-Set-Move: Preparing the Physical Instrument
“The session [that I lead] is all about getting the body ready to do the rigorous marching drill, movement, and dance that we ask of marching members,” Vincent explains.
The idea for Ready-Set-Move began to take shape during Vincent’s time as the first-ever Caption Head of the Carolina Crown Drum and Bugle Corps. Realizing that the horn and percussion lines would need to march at a fast pace, jazz run, and even jazz sprint in addition to carrying and playing heavy instruments, he began to lead movement sessions for members to warm up, practice techniques, and rehearse marching fundamentals.
“I asked the band directors, ‘How long do you take to warm up the horns before you play the show? How long does the drum line warm up in their rudiments…and how long do you give them to warm up their bodies?’” His colleagues began to rethink the way that they led rehearsals, devoting more time to physical conditioning.
Vincent advises directors to keep in mind at the start of each season that every ensemble is unique: “There are different heights, different body masses, different ranges of motion. Embrace process and practice and let go of perfection.”
The Body-Scale Warm-Up and BrainDance
Ready-Set-Move begins by articulating each part of the body. Similar to playing through each note of a musical scale, participants move through a physical scale from head to toe with exercises including yawns, head and shoulder rolls, and upper and lower body twists and bends.
The body-scale warm-up draws on components from BrainDance, a series of exercises developed by educator Anne Green Gilbert. Based on developmental patterns that babies naturally move through in their first year of life, the inclusive and adaptable BrainDance benefits both the mind and the body—and many of its movement patterns appear in the marching pageantry.
The eight components of BrainDance are:
- Tactile stimulation
- The core-distal pattern (pulling the body in, then stretching out)
- The head-tail pattern (warming up the spine)
- Mobilizing and stabilizing the upper and lower body
- Body-side movements
- Cross-lateral movements (crossing the midline)
- Stimulating the vestibular system (tilting, swinging, or spinning to move the head from its central axis)
Technique Practice and Improvisation
After the warm-up comes a technique practice, which includes several ballet fundamentals:
- Plié (to bend, with awareness of vertical alignment)
- Elevé (to rise)
- Relevé (to bend, then rise)
- Tendu (stretching the lower body)
- Dégagé (disengaging the toes from the floor and reaching the leg into space)
- Rond de jambe (a circle of the leg)
While the French terminology can be helpful, what’s most important is that participants understand each of the movements, their purpose, and how to perform them.
Improvisational prompts allow for a few moments of relaxation and play. They can also relate to a show’s theme, giving the creative team an opportunity to explore new ways of movement.
Concluding the Session
Ending with a cool-down and drinking water helps participants avoid muscle cramps and soreness, encourages higher quality sleep, and facilitates better recovery.
“A key thing for directors to understand is that the instrument that the students play is only an extension of the body,” says Vincent. “Once they understand the fullness of their body, the instrument is a part of that landscape. It automatically becomes an expressive entity, just like the flag, rifle, and sabre.”
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