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Passing the baton

Ambition twirlers carry on tradition started by Golden Girls
Ambition’s advanced competition team pauses from practice for their upcoming performances at basketball games throughout Johnson County. Left to right: Anabelle Cooper (sophomore), featured twirler at City High; Julia Baker (senior), featured twirler at West High; Lexi Ashton (junior), Solon High School; Sophia Aguirre (junior), featured twirler at Clear Creek Amana High; Natalie Sherman (senior), Cedar Rapids Prairie High. (photo by Janet Nolte)

IOWA CITY– Longtime Hawkeye fans remember Diana Reed as the “Golden Girl,” the baton twirler who performed with the University of Iowa (UI) Marching Band at football games and won the title of “Miss Iowa” in 2007.
Jessica Baker, 23, remembers Reed as the teacher and coach of Diana’s Golden Twirlers, the program Reed founded to offer twirling classes for an eager group of kids which included Jess and her younger sister Julia.
On Oct. 3, 14 years after those early lessons in the UI Field House, Baker opened the doors of Ambition Baton Twirling at 4172 East Alyssa Ct. in Iowa City, the only studio of its kind within 130 miles.
The overarching business goal for the 2015 college graduate is to raise the profile of baton twirling to the level of sports such as gymnastics and dance. “Baton twirling is kind of a dying sport,” Baker said. “It was huge in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Every band had a majorette. Grandmas will come in and say, ‘Oh, I twirled for my high school back in the day.’ So we’re rebirthing the sport of baton twirling.”
As a student at West High School, Baker competed on the dance team and performed as a featured twirler with the marching band at football and basketball games. At 15, she started teaching twirling at the university’s field house alongside Chelsea Russell, who succeeded Reed as the UI Golden Girl.
“Chelsea took over all of our advanced kids and said ‘you take the little ones,” Baker recalled. After Chelsea graduated, Baker took on all of the advanced girls, too.
Even while studying at Western Illinois University, where she was a featured twirler, Baker continued to come home and teach baton whenever possible, like a monthly maintenance kind of thing, she said.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in business, she taught for a year in the field house until she learned it had become a liability for Baker and her students to hold classes at the UI facility.
“We had nowhere to go,” Baker said.
Teaching classes and giving private lessons to a roster of 25 students Monday through Thursday, as well as Sundays, Baker realized the time had come to find a dedicated space for her students to learn and train.
“It became this thing where I was teaching as a business, but had no business,” she said. “So we opened our own studio.”
“I always say ‘we’ because I include my students. They came on this journey with me,” Baker explained. “Parents of the students were a huge support. To open a studio when you’re 23, you need a lot of support, and I had all of it from the families that were backing me up.”
Her recent business marketing degree and minor in dance also helped: “I knew that I could work them together to build a studio.”
And though the brick and mortar studio is relatively new, the enterprise of teaching and coaching a dedicated group of twirlers is not.
“We’ve actually been competing under the name Ambition Baton for the past four years,” said Baker.
Currently, Baker teaches and coaches a talented group of young women from area high schools. As individuals and members of Ambition’s advanced competition team, they have already won an impressive list of awards at the state, regional and national levels.
Lexi Ashton, a junior at Solon High School, earned the title of 2016 Miss Majorette of Iowa in the intermediate age 13-15 category, which qualified her to perform at the national competition.
Sophie Aguirre, a junior and featured twirler at Clear Creek Amana High School, was the 2016 winner of Miss Majorette of Iowa in the intermediate age 16+ division, and went on to place 10th overall at the annual America’s Youth on Parade (AYOP) national pageant.
Baker’s sister, Julia Baker, a West High senior, competed with twirlers from Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and South Dakota to win the intermediate 16+ title of Miss Majorette at the 2016 All-North regional competition and placed ninth overall at the AYOP national pageant.
In their first year competing as a team at nationals, Ambition’s advanced group won fourth place out of over 30 teams in a dance twirl category.
Students at Ambition range in age from 5 to 18. The studio offers beginning and advanced classes in twirling, as well as private lessons that include dance instruction for students preparing to compete as solo performers.
“Twirlers need to be able to dance to twirl,” explained Baker. “When you toss your baton, you don’t just stand underneath it. You turn, or you do a leap, or you do an illusion, or you do some sort of kick. I like to incorporate dance so when it comes to baton twirling, that part underneath the baton is a lot easier because they’ve already had the dance background.”
At present, the studio’s classes focus primarily on baton twirling, but Baker plans to expand the curriculum to include dance next fall.
An accomplished twirler herself, Baker was a senior in high school when she realized she wanted to teach others.
“We were at regionals,” she said. “And I missed three of my events that I was supposed to be competing in because I was watching my students. So I found that I was way more interested in how they were doing, and if they needed help, or they needed warmed up. So I said okay, I have bigger passion for teaching than I do for competing myself.”
In addition to mastering the athletic, technical and artistic aspects of twirling, Baker believes her students take away many important life skills. “It gives you confidence. It teaches you self-motivation. It teaches you to be driven because you have to practice to be able to twirl in front of others,” said Baker. “It teaches you how to deal with failures, too, because you’re not going to win every single time you compete.”
Baker says she also emphasizes teamwork among her students.
“They’ve got to learn to work together. Nobody is better than anyone else,” she said. “The front team is just as important as back team.”
Members of the advanced team appreciate the camaraderie that develops from practicing and performing as a team.
“It’s nice to have all these friends I’ve met through twirling, knowing that I can call on them if I have a bad routine or if I don’t have a good day,” said CCA senior Sophia Aguirre. “They’re always here to help me out.”
Julia Baker, a senior at West, agrees: “I always have these girls to lean on. It’s really great at competitions, if you have a bad solo they’ll help you through it. Sometimes you have a bunch of drops and you don’t know what to do, and they’re always there to help you through. It’s nice to grow up with all of them.”
Since many of her students pursue twirling through high school and even into college, Baker lines up numerous opportunities for them to perform in public.
“My goal is to have a performance each month for kids to look forward to. They love to perform, so making sure they have those opportunities is one of my priorities,” she said.
Ambition twirlers always march and twirl in the parades for the University of Iowa Homecoming and 4th of July in Coralville. Most recently, they performed at the opening of the UI Children’s Hospital on Nov. 6. The advanced team will perform at several local upcoming basketball games: CCA on Feb. 10 and Coe College on Jan. 21, 2017.
New students may sign up for classes and lessons at Ambition any time of the year. Please see the website for more information: www.ambitionbatontwirling.com.