In the cavernous Studio 2 of the UHM athletic complex, a flurry of movement and color kicks to life. Dance cues and short musical clips echo off the vaulted ceiling. Dancers leap in harmony and hurl massive flags and wooden rifles around like they weigh nothing.
So goes a typical three-hour practice for Kaikalino, the only independent winter guard group in Hawai‘i. Founded in 1999 by its instructor Bobby King, the team has been training since December in preparation for local performances beginning in April.
Winter guard bears a strong resemblance to color guard, and is essentially the wintertime variant of color guard. Aside from the time of year, the main distinction lies in the setting: rather than being accompanied by a live marching band on a field, winter guard groups perform indoors to a pre-recorded music setup.
It seems like a minute change to swap out grass and sunshine for a fan-cooled gymnasium. But the differences create unique challenges: since there are no outside factors like nature and influence from sports groups, the teams are the only ones responsible for their performance. Everything is controlled, which means everything is on them.
For King, this makes all the difference in the world.
“We tend to make things more difficult, because we can,” he said. “We don’t have the elements to hold us back, and we don’t have other ensembles restricting us because of space or anything like that.”
Kaikalino's theme this year is “Welcome to the Moulin Rouge,” a topic as flamboyant as its musical cues. Christina Aguilera’s “Lady Marmalade,” OutKast’s “Hey Ya,” The Commodores’ “Brick House” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” all adorn the group’s quick footwork and flashy tosses.
King has been Kaikalino’s instructor since its creation. Having taught for 25 years, he is also the advisor for UH’s color guard team. He prides winter guard for its additional contributions to color guard, as it can help color guard members stay in practice during their off-season.
In King’s eyes, the benefit to winter performances is the freedom the group experiences by being its own entity, rather than acting as an "attaché" to a larger event.
“We’re not tied down by other people,” King said. “We can create to our hearts’ content. If we want to do a stage production with lights and curtains moving and stuff like that, we can do that.”
Winter guard is one of a few “winter” variants of traditional seasonal events. Also in the crop are winter winds, an indoor performance of wind instrument players, and winterlines, the off-season form of drumlines that are sometimes used as musical accompaniment for winter guard performances.
Kaikalino’s membership is notably varied. Group members come from all over O‘ahu, and ages range from 18 to the mid-40s. Chalsey Castro, one of Kaikalino’s flag spinners and dancers, is one of the youngest in the group at 20 years old. The way she sees it, one of the toughest aspects of the sport is the lack of recognition it gets in larger contexts.
“I tell people I’m a winter guard member and I spin a flag, and they go, ‘A little one?’” she said. “And I have to be like, ‘No, it’s a six-foot pole!’”
Some members work full-time; whereas others attend school. About one-third of all members are UH students. King works graveyard shifts as a sergeant out of the Kalihi Police Station, and Castro herself is a licensed esthetician with her own business. As a member with frequent solos on stage, she notes the feeling winter guard gives her that she doesn’t quite achieve at her day job: “This is where I get my moment of shine! It’s like, ‘Look at me!’”
The practices are intense, and the moves are taxing. Injury during training is standard fare. But the flags keep twirling and the rifles keep spinning and through it all a craft is honed and perfected.
“We’re really hard workers,” Castro said. “We always love having a good time, but then we don’t like to veer away from putting on a good show.”