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Stepping in Time: The Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2006-06-21

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If their story was made into a movie, we would first see a bleak April afternoon and a deserted school playground, and on it, a half-dozen young men wearing shabby athletic garb. They are armed with wooden rifles, not presented or shouldered, but thrown into the air and caught—or not—as they fall. A few passersby glance at the handsome youths. ( One bystander remarks to her companion, 'Look! Baton practice!' The lads wince visibly. ) Meanwhile, a pair of little girls applaud supportively even as the patently phony guns clatter to the ground.

The picture would then change to a bright June day, the sidewalks outside the playground and miles up the street crowded with men, women and children eagerly watching as the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade approaches. The ragtag company we saw before is now a marching squadron dressed in quasi-military uniforms. They come to a halt, standing at attention as the amplifiers strike up the Weather Girls' anthem to homoerotic cosmology, 'It's Raining Men'. In an instant, 30 rifles spin toward to the sky, their reflective inlays catching the sunshine in a dazzling display of precision timing. The spectators' cheers drown out the music, but the objects of their applause never lose the beat or their smiles.

'The Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps ( R.O.T.C. ) was founded in 1992 by Ron Rubright, Bruce Linsmeyer and Chuck Henson, all former drum-and-bugle corpsmen from Madison, Wis.,' says Mik Erwin, the organization's drill instructor and current director. 'They decided that the Gay Pride parade—at that time primarily a political commentary—could use something that was a little more entertaining. A little more fun. A little more—how shall we say?—GAY. So they took out a classified ad in one of the gay publications that read just, 'Can you throw a triple?' with a phone number. Twelve people assembled for color guard practice that April, coming from drill teams, marching bands, drum-and-bugle corps—anything that enabled them to recognize what that question meant.'

'How does your training differ now from your early days?' I ask him as we stand on the sidelines of one such practice. 'At our first parade, our routine was a standard one that could be performed in any setting, and our music was—well, whatever was playing the loudest. But by the next year, Ron had choreographed us a drill staged to a specific song, and THAT led to our being asked to perform at other Halsted Street events. Nowadays, we begin rehearsing in January, adding more practice sessions in February and March. In mid-May, we determine who is performance-ready and assign them their place in the formation. It's always a terrible day for the ones who don't make the cut. Sometimes they cry. But it has to be done.'

I ask how they recruit these days, and Erwin calls out to one of the corpsmen, who trots over to us and gives his name as John Tebault. 'How did YOU hear about R.O.T.C.?' Erwin queries him briskly.

'I saw it at [ Halsted Street ] Market Days last year and went online to the Web site,' the Joe Hardy-lookalike replies. 'I learned how to do this stuff when I was 15, and later put myself through college by teaching it at the local schools. R.O.T.C. is a great way to meet people, and it's something I LIKE to do.'

As Tebault returns to his position on the field, Erwin shrugs, 'That's how it usually happens. Somebody says to themselves, 'I can do that!'. And they come to show us they can.'

I gaze on the rank-and-file cheerfully simulating masturbation with their rifles in perfect tempo with Thelma Houston's 'Don't Leave Me This Way', and I ask what determines R.O.T.C.'s martial-disco fusion and how their act differs from, say, the Rockettes.

'We don't get PAID!' laughs Rhett Lindsay, but then answers seriously,

'Other color guards have to be extremely careful about the image they project, but gay IS our image. We can grab our crotches or spank the guy in front, and it's all part of the wink-wink that makes us unique.'

Adds Doug Roeske, 'I think we put a lot of raw male sexuality into our routines—lots of sass, lots of flair and lots of innuendo. Some of our moves might be deemed inappropriate for some crowds, but our audiences would be disappointed if we didn't do them.'

Erwin concurs, 'Our 'Mickey' number [ set to Toni Basil's 1980s hit ] is a parody of cheerleader combinations. We look for a song with a strong masculine lyric, but we also look for how naughty we can get while still keeping it all in fun.'

This aesthetic is not always readily apparent to audiences. Several R.O.T.C. members recall their introduction to gay crowds in Boston. 'They didn't know us,' Lindsay recounts, 'They saw men in khaki and jungle-camo uniforms. They thought we were the real thing! But when we grounded the rifles, spread our legs and got kind of graphic, they were shocked. And then they suddenly got it! We were going to spoof the military—not being disrespectful in a mean way, but just by being gays, in uniform, and totally OK with it. We're positive role models that everyone can respond to.'

'When we played in Milwaukee,' Erwin recollects, 'They wouldn't let us off the stage—we had to repeat the same number three times.'

So what makes the Righteously Outrageous Twirling Corps representative of Gay Pride? And how does it promote pride in its participants?

Roeske muses on this question for a moment. 'At the competitive level, in high school or college, color guard is female-dominated. A lot of gay men are drawn to this activity because they've been excluded from even trying it. So this is their chance to do what they were never allowed to do before.'

'The two hours I perform in the Gay Pride parade—marching down Halsted and back up Broadway—are unquestionably the two best hours in my entire year,' declares Erwin, 'Four hundred thousand people screaming because of something I'M doing is enough love and affirmation to last me all the way to the next season!'

Big Chicks' Smoky Compromise

BY AMY WOOTEN

After becoming completely smoke-free mid-January, North Side's Big Chicks has raised the white flag—simply to stay in business.

According to an e-mail sent out by owner Michelle Fire, Big Chicks will be smoke-free 50 percent of the time until the city's ordinance goes into effect in 2008. From opening until 9 p.m., the bar will be completely smoke-free. After 9 p.m., until closing, smoking will be allowed in the main bar. The bar's salon will always be smoke-free.

Although the smokeless decision was quite popular and supported by many, Fire wrote that it wasn't sustainable because the playing field is not level.

Fire told Windy City times that since making the smoke-free switch, business has been down 40 percent on weeknights. 'It has been rough,' she said. 'They're going everywhere else.'

Chicago's smoking ban went into effect Jan. 16, which prohibited puffing away in most public places.

However, bars and restaurants with bars do not have to comply until 2008. Some city bars, including Big Chicks, decided to make the switch to smokeless early on.

Big Chicks will be installing a rooftop fresh-air return to improve air quality in the main bar.

NAMES Project to Host Quilting Workshops

NAMES Project Chicago, the local chapter of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, will hold quilting workshops on every second and third Saturday of each month from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. the organization's new location at 2855 N. Lincoln.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, created in 1987, is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. In its entirety, the display's size is 792,000 square feet ( larger than over two dozen football fields ) , and contains 50,000 three-by-six-foot quilted cloth panels representing over 85,000 names.

The workshop is free and open to the public. For more information, call 773-472-6469.

Cher Supports

Troop Protection

Cher took center stage on Capitol Hill on June 15 when she appeared to help convince legislators to provide U.S. troops with upgraded helmets that can protect against explosions and other concussive impacts to the head, ABC News reported.

The entertainer did not speak, but several members of the House Armed Services Committee made note of her presence. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., called her appearance 'extremely important.' Committee chairman Curt Weldon, R-Pa., added that she has given 'well over $100,000' to the cause.

Clear Channel Launches Gay Station in Chicago

Clear Channel Radio Chicago has announced that the HD2 Side Channel at WKSC-FM ( 103.5 ) would be the new home of Pride Radio. This move will not affect the current programming on Chicago's Hit Music station, 103.5 KISS-FM.

Clear Channel Radio Chicago broadcasts high-definition digital-radio multicasts channels on five radio stations: WKSC-FM, WGCI-FM, WLIT-FM, WNUA-FM and WVAZ-FM.

Pride Radio will incorporate LGBT-centric music, entertainment and spoken-word content.

Flashes Reopens in New Location

Flashes Hair Designs, now in its 23rd year, had a grand opening celebration recently at its new location at 3740 N. Broadway.

According to Michael Kauffman, president and general manager of the business, it was time for change. 'We needed a new look,' he said in a statement.

However, there isn't only a ( slight ) change in geography, but services are different as well—in the sense that more options have been added. The salon now has five hairstylists to attend to customers' needs. Flashes also now offers Thai massage, a form of passive yoga.

Call 773-472-3355 or see the Web site www.flashessalon.com .


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