The night of Feb. 18 was particularly chilly in Orlando, Fla., with the mercury dipping into the 30s as more than 2,000 people crowded into the amphitheater that, during the day, is home to the Indiana Jones stunt show.
A Harrison Ford look-alike would not be swashbuckling through Cairo or slugging Nazis tonight, though, as Disney World was hosting Twirlmania, a weekend event that brought some of the best baton twirlers from across the country to compete against one another.
Somewhere in the crowd was Florida State University's twirling team of about a dozen; a few rows away sat the University of Florida team, with 14 or so twirlers. And up near the front sat three girls in black velvet, with "W" and "C" in purple outlined in gold on their chests.
The director of the event, an official-looking lady, approached the microphone to announce the winner of the collegiate classic team final - the best college twirlers in the country.
"From the state of Pennsylvania . . . West Chester University."
How did three young women from West Chester top every college in the land, besting squads with three and four times as many members? In the little-known world of competitive baton twirling, it's West Chester that stands on top of the mountain.
Elaine Russell, 54, twirled when she was a girl, and never lost her love of the sport. When her daughter Tammy was 3, Elaine introduced her to the baton. Holly Russell, three years younger than Tammy, jumped in as soon as she could, and soon what once was a hobby became a way of life for the Russell sisters.
Elaine opened her own twirling and dance studio 10 years ago in Coatesville, not far from their home in Wagontown, and Tammy and Holly, in addition to helping Elaine teach baton, dance, and color guard, began competing as Russell's All-Star Twirlers.
Collegiate twirling has become popular only in the last few years, and relatively few schools have teams. So the opportunity for a West Chester baton team didn't present itself until Laurie Harvey, a former pupil of Elaine's, enrolled as an undergraduate.
With 27-year-old Tammy and 24-year-old Holly both in graduate school at West Chester, the school unwittingly picked up another sports team in 2007, one that has already notched two championships in its short existence.
Harvey and the Russell sisters are in no way funded by the university. They practice on their own time, when Harvey is free from school and her part-time job at Kohl's, and the Russells can escape their studies and work (both sisters teach full time with Elaine at the studio; Tammy also teaches dance at Avon Grove Charter School).
"There's a lot of sacrifice and expense to it, but it's given us a lot of opportunities to travel," Elaine said. Before Twirlmania the girls swept the awards at the National Collegiate Baton Twirling Championship in Oxford, Ind., on Feb. 3, competing against more than 16 other schools. The Russells have traveled to Las Vegas, Cancun, and England over the years to showcase their skills. And do they ever have skills.
The sport most like baton twirling is ice-skating. Twirlers choreograph two- or three-minute routines set to the music of their choice, and are graded according to poise, difficulty and showmanship. Instead of skating across ice though, competitors dance, flip, and cartwheel across the floor, all the while tossing and catching the 30-inch metal rod. Watching the Russells run through their routines, the baton becomes almost another appendage.
The girls can juggle up to four batons at a time, twirling one around their neck or arms while tossing the others in the air.
Most impressive are the blind catches, where the baton is hurled into the air as the girls dance below. Just when it seems that the batons will clank to the ground, the girls pull them from the air almost effortlessly, sometimes between their legs or behind their backs, their eyes set straight ahead.
"I love doing it," said Harvey, a 20-year-old Coatesville High alumna, when asked why she keeps dedicating so much of her time to the sport. "I'm a competitive person. If I didn't do it, there'd be this huge gap in my life."
Harvey started twirling at Elaine's studio when she was in fifth grade. She has worked with Tammy and Holly for more than five years, and it is their well-developed relationship that gives them a major advantage when competing.
Tammy will finish up her master's degree in criminal justice this summer or fall, so the days of West Chester's champion twirlers are numbered. Although they may not be able to compete at Twirlmania next year in the black, purple, and gold, it's a sure bet the Russells and Harvey will be there, representing Russell's All-Star Twirlers.
"I have no plans on retiring any time soon," Tammy said. "I plan on twirling competitively as long as I physically can, and then moving on to teaching," she said, echoing similar responses from her sister and Harvey.