The most important thing you need to know about being a competitive baton twirler is that you will, at some point, get hit in the face with a whirling metal rod, and you will need to keep smiling.
My journey to membership on the world champion baton twirling team began, as with most nascent baton twirlers' careers, in dance class.
In addition to rocking tiny boobs at the ripe old age of 8, I displayed a startling inability to follow anything more advanced than the most rudimentary instruction in tap dancing. I don't know why I thought the next logical step was to take more dance classes, but I did. And I sucked.
And then, of course, there was the fact that while little girl dancers were supposed to be cute and lithe and agile and perky and graceful and feminine in that vaguely gymnastic cheerleader way, I … was not.
But I desperately wanted to be. Which is why I joined a local dance studio's baton and dance team. It was a catalyst for me finally -- finally! -- talking my parents into contact lenses. After all, 'twas a far more dangerous thing to get smacked in the face with a baton whilst wearing ginormous glasses than while wearing contacts.
When my glasses were gone and my hair grew out, I felt like my whole world opened up. I could wear my hair in a bun, just like a real girl.
The baton team consisted of 30 girls and women between the ages of 12 and 24. We were divided into three groups -- novice, intermediate and advanced. We novice gals performed a series of rhythmic moves in conjunction with a musical medley that included Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and "Dim All the Lights," both of which are hot jams about fucking. "Dim All the Lights" includes the following immortal lines: "Do it tonight/You know the moments are right/Turn my brown body white." We wore cute, skimpy, sparkly little outfits and we weren't allowed to stop smiling, although we could relax our smiles when we faced away from the judges in order to give our facial muscles a break.
"But don't relax them too much," the male assistant director told us. "Otherwise, you look fake."
Most glamorous of all was the opportunity to participate in pageants. Unsurprisingly, despite my new hair and new skills and new community of companions -- I'd even call a few of the girls friends -- I still felt like the ugly kid painting the dorky hat. (And in fact, I still do, which is why I've treated many fairly run-of-the-mill romantic relationships like some sort of God-given unprecedented happening that might never occur ever again. What? A boy likes me? Ugly me? How did this miracle occur?!) The opportunity to masquerade as a pretty girl, in a pretty dress and pretty makeup, was too good to pass up. I also learned very important tricks from pageants, like the right way to smile while wearing a ballgown (teeth together, lips apart, open your eyes really wide and make eye contact with each judge).
Before the national and world championships, we were encouraged to eat more healthily in order to appear more "streamlined" for championships. There were voluntary weigh-ins. I refused to participate out of some nascent feminist spirit.
Once, right before nationals, I horrified our male assistant director by bringing four hardboiled eggs for lunch.
"Four?!" he gasped, aghast, looking at me with what seemed like intense disapproval. "Four hardboiled eggs! Do you know how much fat is in one hardboiled egg?"
I was five foot two and 105 pounds. On subsequent rehearsal days, I left the hardboiled eggs at home. By the time we got to the big competition, I felt lighter, more feminine.
We won national and then world championship trophies for beating everybody in every category. Every category, that is, except one: the novice baton and dance routine.
That was because of me.
We were in a packed gym at Notre Dame, and families from around the country and even the world -- well, Canada -- were there to watch their little girls shine. If ever there were a time to successfully do a one-spin -- throw a baton up in the air, spin around, and catch it -- it would be this moment.
Our routine had six one-spins.
I dropped the baton every single time.
To be fair, the first drop happened because the baton came down on my face, smashing into my nose but somehow neglecting to break it. The subsequent drops happened because I was afraid the baton would once again blast me in the faccia. Maybe it's my Sicilian blood, or my Scorpio nature, but I've never found it easy to let go of the past. Especially the very recent past, and particularly when that very recent past involves a projectile aimed at my heavily made-up visage. But I obeyed the most important rule of over-sexualized little girl booty-shaking performance: Never stop smiling. If anything, I grinned bigger. And I felt awful inside. In the most important moment of my entire life, of all our lives, I'd let my teammates down.
The entire experience was rather shameful, and when we trudged off the floor, I knew I'd blown it for my little group. We might be the world champions as a big team, but as a novice sub-team, I'd made sure we wouldn't take home any category medals.
Then one of the girls from the intermediate group crept over and hissed loudly, "Way to drop everything, Sara."
"Fuck off, Jenny," I said casually, as if such words had ever come out of my mouth before (they hadn't.) There was a collective shocked intake of breath among my teammates, their heavily penciled eyebrows raised to the sky, their lip-sticked mouths hanging open.
I kept smiling.
When we got home from Indiana, I quit the team in order to focus more fully on activities that didn't involve pretending to be happy, including (but not limited to) reading and writing. And years later, when it came time to foolishly choose a performance-related vocation, I went with comedy, where my job is to make other people smile. It doesn't matter if I'm scowling, so long as I'm cracking the audience up.
And I can eat as many hardboiled fucking eggs as I want.Sara Benincasa's "Agorafabulous: Dispatches From My Bedroom" is on sale now.