Southern Life

“Baton twirling looks easy but it’s hard … I’d like to see a lot of people try and do it.”  —Joan DeVan Peugh

The little girl with braces on her legs watched the parade go by on the Fourth of July, 1970, in downtown Arbutus, Maryland.

As the marchers passed the Hollywood Theater—majorettes twirling batons, drummers banging out a military beat—the 8-year-old turned to her mother and said, “I want to do that.”

The kid wanted to be a Sailorette!

Mom checked with the doctors and they gave the green light, saying it would strengthen the child’s legs. By that fall, the braces were off.

Joyce Peugh Cooper, now 49, was a Sailorette, the Arbutus marching corps founded in 1963 that’s still parading down Main Streets across the USA.

“For 41 years, I’ve had a child, a grandchild and now a great-grandchild in the Sailorettes,” said Joan DeVan Peugh, assistant director of the majorettes, color guard and drum corps group.

It strengthened young Joyce’s legs and the Peugh family as well. Joyce’s daughter Jackie was a Sailorette, and her granddaughter Cadence, at age 3, is the youngest member.

Strong legs, strong family and a strong neighborhood can be attributed in no small part to the group founded in 1963.

“Arbutus is still apple pie, and the Sailorettes are part of that,” said Peugh, sipping a diet cola at Paul’s Diner, a folder of vintage photos spread before her in the booth.

One Arbutus native, a writer now in his 50s, recalled “cute-as-a-button majorettes who marched in every civic event in the community along East Drive—toddlers to teenagers, the youngest marching first.”

And Peugh had years of group portraits to prove it.

Peugh, born in Howard County, raised her four children on Sutton Avenue, living there from 1962—just before the Sailorettes were founded—until 2009, when she and her husband John moved to a mobile home in Lansdowne.

Joan, 66 and John, 68, are known in the Sailorette community as “Granny and Poppy.” They work as “turn keys” for the Arbutus Recreation Council, which gives the baton group practice space but no funding. The group’s director is Scott Brown.

“We do it all ourselves,” said Peugh, noting that current membership is down to about 40 from a high of 200 or so in the 1970s. “We need more people. It’s a dying sport but we’re determined to keep it going.”

It comes with its share of injuries—bangs, bings, cuts and conks on the head; the stuff that happens when you’re twirling six-foot flag poles and marching at the same time.

“I have a scar across the top of one of my feet where a saber cut me,” laughed Peugh. “That’s back when we used real sabers.”

Maybe a little blood might get some kids interested again.

Baton twirling started in festivals and military parades in Eastern Europe and Asia. It reportedly was brought to the United States after the Civil War by Reuben Webster Millsaps (1833-1916), a Mississippi businessman who founded the college named for him.

Asked if the current crop of 21st century teens is too cool to twirl batons in hot pants, play drums in funny hats and march up and down Oregon Avenue like Robert Preston in The Music Man, Peugh didn’t bat an eye.

“The Sailorettes are the coolest there is!”

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Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez

A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.

Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. 

His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.