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Local ladies to compete at Nationals

POSTED: July 5, 2014 12:00 p.m.
Photo Courtesy Debra Gilstrap/

A pair of twirlers pose together for photos after the DMA. Five of the Star Academy twirlers have the chance to compete at the upcoming DMA Nationals competition.

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The Star Academy Twirlers are putting their skills to the test at the Drum Majorettes of America Nationals in Wingate, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte, later this month. 

The group of nearly 50 young athletes meets in downtown Winder for regular rehearsals, and all that hard work has paid off in a big way. Five members of the elite twirling group get to compete in one of the world’s largest and most prestigious twirling competitions.

“It’s thrilling for me, and the girls are so excited about getting to go and participate and being a part of something that’s nationwide. It’s not just a football field routine,” Debra Gilstrap, owner and operator of Star Academy, said of her team. “They’re going and joining twirlers from throughout the country and they all share the same thing: the same goals, the same hard work and the same mindset of what they all do.

“They’re very excited.”

Star Academy has been part of Winder since August of 2013, but the school’s legacy goes much deeper. Gilstrap previously ran the Dixie Twirlers, another baton school, for more than 20 years in Barrow County from 1971 until 1994. 

“What this is is an offshoot. This is a granddaughter. Star Academy is the granddaughter of Dixie Twirlers,” Gilstrap laughed.

She took groups to the national competitions with Dixie Twirlers, and now Gilstrap looks forward to taking another group from the county to experience this one of a kind competitive environment.

“It’s fantastic. They had to earn the right to go,” Gilstrap added.

 Although the school does have some team performances, the five entrants from Star Academy will all be performing as individuals. Even still, what the school has done in such a short time is quite astounding. 

For most of the young women who are participating in nationals, they are doing so after less than a year’s worth of training.

“They haven’t been twirling that long. The fact that some of these girls have just started twirling eight months, nine months ago and doing three turns and four turns…shows the desire. It’s not me being a fantastic teacher,” Gilstrap admitted. “What it is is the girls wanting to learn and challenging me to challenge them.

“It’s all about dedication and commitment. We’re teaching these little girls from five years old that you have to work for what you get in life,” Gilstrap added.

Star Academy offers programs for young women from just five years old up through college age, and they currently have representatives in every age group in between. For most young women, the classes will start out simply enough and develop into more complex ideas and will start incorporating more difficult implements.

“You start out learning the basics and fundamentals, which are compulsory,” Gilstrap said. “Then you learn footwork, naturally. It incorporates gymnastics. It’s an aerobic activity, actually.”

From there, the young women will start adding on batons until they can work with four or five simultaneously. After a participant has mastered batons, they will often move on to other various items. For instance, some people will work with light sticks or twirling knives or fire batons. 

If fire batons and knives are not extreme enough, Gilstrap will teach young women how to use fire knives.

“It’s a full gamut of anything they would ever need to learn or know how to do. It’s endless,” Gilstrap said after mentioning that she also teaches flag classes for anyone interested in learning how to do something akin to color guard.

“We have recreation classes, too, for girls who just want to learn how to twirl and do performances outside of the studio and do some performances who maybe aren’t working on anything strenuous,” Gilstrap added. “Then we have those who plan to be feature twirlers in high school and who want to compete and have an opportunity to travel.”

While the school is most popular with little girls and young women, twirling is not exclusively a female event. In fact, Star Academy has at least one male participant in the current group and would always welcome future boys or young men who are interested in learning the sport.

“It is a sport,” Gilstrap emphasized. “It’s actually a sport, and these things for nationals, you can qualify for internationals.”

The world competition this year could take young women to Amsterdam in 2014 and the United Kingdom in 2015.

This year’s group from Star Academy, though, may not be quite to that point yet. For now, Gilstrap wants the young women to use their time at nationals as more of a growing and learning experience than an attempt at advancing to international competition.

“I would like them to take the opportunity to use the floor time to tune their skills. That’s my goal for them,” Gilstrap admits. “If they place, that’s fine. If they win, that’s wonderful. The main thing is the opportunity to enhance what they’ve learned.”

The Drum Majorettes of America competition plays out much like a pageant in that the competitors will not only show off their twirling skills, but they will also participate in interviews and designated walks. 

“They’ll do modeling and interviews in a dress, which sounds kind of pageanty, but when you have a seven year old answer questions posed to them by adults about what kind of things they enjoy and how to speak in public and how to maintain themselves in an interview, it leads down the road for better communication skills,” Gilstrap explained.

The young women will follow up their interviews with a strut routine, which consists of walking down the length of the gymnasium floor while twirling a baton to the beat of the music. Each competitor will also do a solo twirling routine in addition to their modeling, interviews and strut walks.

As well, a few young women will do a junior halftime show in the style of what people most relate to baton twirling with marching music. 

The youngest competitor from Star Academy, the Gilstrap’s seven year old member, will go for the show twirl championship. The show twirl event features a routine done to something other than march music. In this case, the competition will be this young lady’s chance to prove that she deserves to be a part of that world.

“She’s doing Little Mermaid, so she’s dressed as the little mermaid, she’ll be doing three batons and streamers and this is a little seven year old who’s only been twirling since January,” Gilstrap pointed out.

“They’re learning. Are they totally proficient? No, they’re still learning. They’re beginners.”

Star Academy’s youngest will be joined by an 11-year old, a 13-year old, a 14-year old and a 20-year old teammate. The oldest member is working towards getting her license to teach twirling, and she must perform in the competition to do so.

Before the local ladies perform in Wingate, they will show off as part of Star Academy’s exhibition on July 11 at the Winder downtown music festival, and they are eager to show the local community what they can do.

“They are so excited now it’s unbelievable. It is going to be good for them to perform for the community because the community does not get to see a level of twirling like this,” Gilstrap said. “The community gets to see the halftime shows, not the competitive routines, so they’re very excited.”

Anyone interested in getting their child involved in Star Academy twirling should call Gilstrap at 770-867-2075. At the same time, taking the family to see Gilstrap’s Star Academy twirlers to perform in downtown Winder would also be a great way of introducing children to the sport, and it’s one that Gilstrap sincerely hopes people will be a part of experiencing.

“We just appreciate the community support.”



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