In flowing black dresses and black-patterned tights, the color guard team from Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School performed an elegiac, emotional production at the Wildwoods Convention Center on Sunday.
To David Phelps' cover of "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables, they spun and danced. To the number they called "My Last Wish," they twirled black-and-purple flags and flung sabers and wooden muskets high in the air, catching them with precision before the piece ended as a long red banner rippled across the dancers.
Since Thursday, the annual National Judges Association Tournament of Bands Indoor Championship had been dominated by jazz bands, percussion lines, baton twirlers, and dance teams. But Sunday's finale was devoted to 40 color guard teams that put on short, dramatic productions punctuated by glitter and a riot of color. Teens and adults went through their choreographed moves in several age categories.
Founded in 1972, the Tournament of Bands contest drew 233 units from about 125 schools and programs in seven states. There was heavy representation from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Besides Plymouth-Whitemarsh, color guards from Audubon, Radnor, and Allentown were among those vying for points and glory on Sunday.
Tim Kondziela, director of the judges' association, said the contest had its roots in the tradition of indoor military parades and color guards sponsored by organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"That's where the rifles and sabers stem from," said Konziela, a color guard enthusiast since 1968. His high school, North Catholic in Philadelphia, did not have a color guard, so he joined an independent group in Roxborough.
Guard members say the love of performing and the camaraderie are the allure.
"I do this because this is an activity that develops me to be the best I can be," said Zyanne Clay-Hubbard, 13, a Plymouth-Whitemarsh freshman who lives in Plymouth Meeting.
For her fellow guard member Allyssa Conner, 17, a senior, Sunday's performance was the last of her high school career.
"I'm still crying," Conner said after she and the other team members gathered their props at the end of the production and swiftly carted them off the convention center floor to clear the way for the next group.
"I've been doing this since I was a freshman," Conner said. "I can't get over that it's the end of the four years we've been together."
She is determined to join an independent color guard program so she can continue performing when she heads to Lafayette College in the fall.
By day, Steve Vincent, 48, of West Chester, works in information technology. But he is also a member of and designer for the Guard, part of the Classics Colorguard, an independent organization based in Allentown that will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
Vincent's color guard experience began in high school in 1983. After twirling flags and dancing to One Republic's "Marching On" Sunday, he seemed only slightly winded.
"We can do this until we drop," he said.