Texans Compete in 'NFL of Marching Bands'

A third of the Santa Clara Vanguard is from Texas, a third is from California, and a third is from 28 other states and three countries.
A third of the Santa Clara Vanguard is from Texas, a third is from California, and a third is from 28 other states and three countries.
courtesy DCI

Wearing shorts and shoes and not a whole lot else, the drumline crab-steps past gymnasts heaving flags. Others are dressed for yoga. It’s too hot for the elaborate, colorful uniforms they wear when they’re performing. It's easily 100 degrees out, and with so much sun, it’s hard to tell whether the football field is turf or grass. But the performers of the Santa Clara Vanguard weave through their routine completely unfazed, almost at ease.

On Wednesday night, they rehearsed at the University of North Texas stadium, and a little before 10 p.m. Thursday, they’ll perform at Denton’s C.H. Collins Stadium for Drum Corps International North Texas. As soon as they finish, they’ll drive to Houston.

There’s too much chaos to be tired; they can sleep on the buses. The 200-person fleet has been on the road for a month now — a month of 14-hour days, practice and performance, and very little else, with about 30 performances in more than a dozen states, spanning nearly 15,000 miles. It’s like a 72-day foot race through every part of America.

“It’s not just performers,” Vanguard executive director Charles Frost says. “Cooks, nurses, athletic trainers, volunteers, staff, costume designers, photographers. It’s part circus, part food, part performance, part transportation and a lot of logistics. It really is a crazy event just to get down the road, but we do it well.”

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A third of the Santa Clara Vanguard is from Texas, a third is from California, and a third is from 28 other states and three countries. Auditions for 2018 begin as soon as the 2017 season ends.

“This is like the NFL of marching bands,” director of programs Shaun Gallant says. “So we get the upper crust of the kids. And the skill sets they learn here will transfer into every aspect of their life: time management, people skills, the craft on their instrument.”

Both Frost and Gallant are alumni.

When discussing the prestige of DCI, people use sports analogies, and it’s telling that — although most of the performers are college students — nobody compares the corps to collegiate sports, but to professional sports — the NFL, the NBA. This idea even carries through DCI’s motto, “Marching Music’s Major League.”

“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Frost says. “It’s a fine art. It’s an undertaking every year.”

This year, Drum Corps International begins and ends in Indianapolis, a circularity that complements Santa Clara Vanguard’s 2017 theme, “Ouroboros,” the sign of the snake eating its tail. The program has eschewed the traditional uniforms for a more modern look, and it's the first time the marchers haven't worn anything on their heads. “Which is exciting,” Frost says.

“You take the hat off and now you can see them smiling, you can see the emotion," he continues.

Across town, The Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps has taken over Denton High School. The drum line practices at C.H. Collins Stadium, while the color guard has taken to a softball field. Across the road, a half-circle of trumpets and baritones and tubas punch out horn blasts over a metronome. Everything stinks like body odor and Gatorade. It’s like the air has stopped moving, even when there’s a breeze.

Taking a moment to relish the shade, executive director Chris Lugo describes the theme of The Cavaliers’ 2017 show, “Men Are From Mars,” a reference to The Cavaliers as one of two all-male ensembles.

“It’s playful,” says Lugo. “It embraces the all-male machismo and the human legacy of destruction, while also poking fun of it and examining the vulnerability of man.”

The arc of the show captures the progression of man, from the dawn of time to Sinatra and bro jokes. The music selection spans an array of styles, from composer Aaron Copland to avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson.

“It’s a challenging show,” says Lugo, who was baritone player and drum major with the Cavaliers. “Extremely challenging, but it’s also fun. The audience is having fun when they watch the show, the guys are having fun when they’re out there on the field and we really value that fan entertainment, entertainment in general.”

For now, Santa Clara Vanguard is at the top of the table, back and forth between first and second. Both Cavaliers and Santa Clara Vanguard compete in the World Class, the highest division in the Drum Corps.The Cavaliers have seven DCI World Champions titles, and Santa Clara Vanguard has six. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Santa Clara Vanguard, something like a home field advantage.

Dallasites who want to catch a DCI competition can see 10 other corps perform at 7 p.m. Monday, July 24, at Lake Highlands High School. Tickets are $30 to $55 at dci.org. Finals are Aug. 12 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the Colts play.


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