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Thanks to movies like “Drumline” and the popularity of Saturday afternoon NCAA football, most Americans have more than a passing familiarity with marching bands. Many may recognize the level of dedication and commitment required to carry an instrument and hit the football field, but fewer have as much of an understanding about the demands of the complementary cast of performers that shares the stage with them – the color guard, a coordinated group of dancers and performers who showcase routines with banners, flags, batons, and mock rifles. 

The color guard tradition stems from VFW marching bands; over time, its pageantry and dance routines have grown into larger-scale productions until finally, color guard routines became separate from marching band performances themselves. For someone like Kyle Grozelle, a color guard member since his high-school days, the organization is a physical and mental outlet.

 “It’s surrounded me with people who show compassion and care beyond that of a regular friend,” Grozelle said. “It makes you part of the community.”

 Since 2008, Grozelle has been a member of the Rhapsody Winterguard, a color guard troupe based out of the Pacific Northwest; today, he is its executive director. Every summer, the organization hosts a camp for high-schoolers and college students that’s specifically dedicated to improving their skills at the activity.

 “There’s nowhere for them to go during the summer to increase their skill; to be around kids that they perform with,” Grozelle said. “It’s a nice chance to bring kids who compete against each other to come together.”

grozelle Every summer, Grozelle and the Rhapsody Winterguard head to Deception Pass State Park in Washington to hone their craft. Despite the occasional interruption from Navy jets at the nearby Whidbey Island air station, the park is a serene retreat, and the most commonly visited in the state. Over the course of a week, 80 to 90 campers spend their days training and connecting with fellow students of marching drills.

 “We connect with nature, we go on hikes, we go up to the lookouts,” Grozelle said. “We have classes focused on dance, leadership, and drill props — flags and [wooden] weapons.”

Like Grozelle, the camp is staffed by campers from prior years, which means “the kids are learning from the people they look up to; people who are learning on an international scale.” It’s an opportunity that’s rare enough within the state of Washington, but in recent years, the camp has drawn attendees from as far away as Maryland and Arizona.

 “They saw it online and had a family vacation in the area, and broke off to come to camp,” he said. “During the regular season, half the kids are in college, and the other kids go to a high school that don’t have programs. So we find a home for them, or we create a program of our own.”

 For high-school campers who don’t attend a school where color guard is offered, Rhapsody works to help coordinate separate rehearsals around their schedules. About 40 to 50 such students train with the group during the academic year, coordinating with a nearby high schools and local advisers.

 “We give them the best experience we can while not stressing their high-school life,” Grozelle said.

When the summer season ends, campers return home with new skills, new friends, and a base from which they can build relationships at future competitions. They also come home with a deeper knowledge of marching music and what it takes to push their performances to the next level.

 “For members in our yearly organization, we try to win the world championship every year,” Grozelle said.

 Within the past decade, the Rhapsody Winterguard has won titles in the A class and open class, in 2007 and 2009, with a couple of finals appearances to its name, too — respectable achievements for a group that’s only one in a field of 300 such guards.

 “We take inspiration from popular culture, history, anything we can do,” Grozelle said. “A lot of the inspiration comes from other programs, or maybe something our creative staff has experienced that year.”

 One of the group’s winning performances was inspired by the Black Crowes song “She Talks to Angels”; the other was based around Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and an exploration of the Greek mythological approach to the human soul. One of its finalist programs was based around Gnarls Barkley’s hit “Crazy,” and was set in an asylum. It’s heady stuff topically, and that’s before you consider that the performance itself is something like a five-minute dance-choreography sprint. Acts aren’t allowed to dawdle; they’re expected to hit the performance area and leave as soon as their set ends.

 “Your time on the floor is all you get,” Grozelle said. “You are coming onto the performance area and leaving as fast as you showed up. It’s usually about a 6-minute interval.”

 From September to April, Grozelle spends three or four evenings a week planning the Rhapsody logistics, and then two months in the summer planning with another camp director. His responsibilities are pretty much non-stop; everything from budgeting and logistics to planning the 19-hour weekend rehearsal sessions. The workload can be overwhelming at times, he said, especially when the demands of his leadership intersect with those of
the workplace.

 “As a [student] member, [Rhapsody] taught me to manage my time. I was working, going to school, and doing this,” Grozelle said. “I learned how to be a responsible person. A lot of our members now work with the young program as interns, choreography advisers; even becoming actual teachers. I try to keep everything off their shoulders so they can keep focused on the kids.”

 Grozelle credits a dedicated volunteer staff and understanding employers with allowing him to keep up with both at a high level; he credits the guard with helping him grow as a professional. Grozelle always wanted to be a teacher; instead, his career led him into corporate training. It’s not the same thing as being in the classroom per se, but it still gives him an outlet to give back to the community.

 “[Color guard] has helped me with my career because it taught me how to be focused on the details and to be responsible for my own time, as I work during the day at Summit Imaging,” Grozelle said. “Summit has always been supportive of the time I need in order to work with the organization.”