Color Guard – More Than Just Spinning Color Guard Flags

Military Origins of Color Guard

Ancient Color Guard Flags
Ancient Color Guard Flags

The modern art of color guard has its roots in centuries-old military practices.  In ancient times, armies would march into battle carrying flags bearing the symbolic colors or insignia of the ruler they were representing.  For example, in the ninth century in the Islamic world, armies representing the Abbasid caliphs would carry a solid black flag.  In 15th-century England, the War of the Roses is so called because the belligerents, the House of Lancaster and House of York, displayed a red rose symbol and a white rose symbol, respectively, on their standards.

military color guard flags
military color guard flags

The military color guard which is the direct inspiration for civilian color guard came to be in Europe in the 17th century.  This was the time in which the modern nation states of Europe, with their modern armies, were forming; it was also the time when firearms such as muskets and rifles had begun to play a prominent role in European warfare.  During this time, the basic military unit was the regiment, which consisted of about a thousand men commanded by a colonel.  Each regiment had not only its own colors but also its own set of customary practices.

Because marching in formation was an important part of military tactics in early modern Europe, soldiers carrying flags bearing the regiment’s colors would be placed at strategic points in the formation so that soldiers could see them and position themselves relative to the standard.  The soldiers who carried the regiment’s colors were often highly skilled; thus, capturing the enemy’s colors was very difficult and, if one managed to do it, was a decisive victory.  Some regiments were given orders to destroy the colors intentionally, if they were in a position to be inevitably captured, rather than letting the colors pass into enemy hands.  Otherwise, regimental flags were never to be destroyed; once they were too old to use in battle, they would be put on display, such as in museums.  The practice of regiments marching in formation in battle while carrying their colors was abandoned in the early 20th Century when the development of modern weapons made it necessary to change military tactics.

Modern Military Color Guard
Modern Military Color Guard

Military color guards still exist in some countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Sweden, but they can be seen at ceremonial occasions such as parades, rather than on the battlefield.  In the United States, the color guard will carry the National Color (the United States flag) and a departmental flag (the flag of a branch of the United States Armed Forces), as well as sabers and rifles symbolizing the pledge to protect the National Color.  Color guards often perform at public events while the national anthem is being played.

Scholastic and Independent Color Guard

Competition Color Guard Group
Competition Color Guard Group

Color guard as it is practiced in high schools and universities in the United States does not have any military associations.  Instead, the color guard performs as part of the marching band, except instead of playing instruments, they march and dance in formation while carrying and spinning color guard flags (sometimes the school colors, other times colors that match the “show” they are performing), rifles, and sabers.  Sometimes drum and bugle corps, which are marching bands without a woodwind section, will still have a color guard.  The color guard might be only one person spinning a flag, or it might be the largest section of the marching band, or anything in between.  Color guards perform whenever the marching bands with which they are associated perform, such as at school football games.

Color Guard Equipment

One of the things that sets color guard apart from other forms of dance is the use of military-inspired props known as color guard equipment.  The most important piece of color guard equipment is the flag, which often bears the colors, insignia, or logo of the school or university that the color guard team represents.  Almost every color guard performs with one or more flags.  Color guard flags are usually attached to a flag pole that is small enough that the members of the color guard

color guard flags
A High Schooler Spins a Color Guard Flag

can throw, spin, and catch it but which is still heavy enough that it will not blow away when the color guard performs outdoors. Flag poles used in color guard tend to be either five or six feet long but can be as long as eight feet (depending on the height of the person carrying the flag), and they are usually made out of aluminum, fiberglass, or PVC pipe.  One factor to consider in choosing a flag pole material is how flexible you want the flag pole to be. The flag itself can be made out of almost any kind of material, but most color guard flags are made out of shiny materials like nylon or lamé, with polyester-china silk being one of the most popular flag materials.  The flag is usually attached to the flag pole with electrical tape.  Flags used in color guard also have weights attached to one or both ends of the flag pole in order to balance it.  It is important to make sure the weights have been taped securely to the flag pole, and to reinforce the tape if necessary before practice or a performance, because they can cause serious injury if they fly off while color guard members are spinning the flag.

color guard rifle
Teams spins their color guard rifles

Many color guards also perform with one or more rifles.  The rifles used in color guard are just plastic or wooden props; they are not real weapons.  They tend to be either one yard (36 inches) or one meter (about 39 inches) long.  The plastic body of the rifle, not including the bolts, screws, straps, and tape, is about one pound, but rifles can be made heavier through the addition of weights or other add-ons.  Many color guards customize their rifles with black or white straps made of nylon or leather and plastic bolts; bolts can be any color, but the most common colors are black, gold, and silver.  Blots, especially black ones, make it easier for color guard members to see how fast or how slowly the rifle is spinning in the air.  This can help them adjust their technique in order to synchronize the spinning of their rifles with that of the other rifles in the color guard.

color guard sabre
A color guard performer with a sabre

Sabers are another prop frequently used in color guard performances.  Like color guard rifles, color guard sabers are usually 36 inches or 39 inches long.  The blades are usually made of some kind of lightweight plastic, but they are coated in a shiny material like zinc.  Like sabers used in fencing, sabers used in color guard usually have a tip covering the point, but unlike fencing sabers, color guard sabers would not be sharp even if the point were removed.

Winter Guard Flags and Performing

Winter guard is a performing art derived from traditional color guard, with the main difference being that winter guard is an indoor activity performed to recorded musical accompaniment instead of a live marching band.  As its name suggests, winter guard was originally developed as an indoor form of color guard, a way for color guards to practice their art indoors, but it has since developed into its own separate event with its own artistic styles and its own regulatory board, which is known as Winter Guard International.  The range of number of members of a winter guard team is similar to the range in size of color guard teams that accompany marching bands; that is, there are usually no more than 50 members of a winter guard team.  Winter guard teams usually perform in school gymnasiums or similar areas with a large, rectangular floor.  Special pieces of flooring (called floor mats, although they are different from the floor mats used in gymnastics) are usually placed on the floor of the gymnasium.  The floor mats are suitable for barefoot dancing, and some winter guards perform barefoot, although some wear jazz shoes or some other type of dance shoe.

Indoor Winter Guard
Indoor Winter Guard Performers

Because they do not perform with a live marching band and because they perform indoors, winter guard teams have more flexibility in terms of musical styles and forms of dance.  Often, winter guards choose marching band music similar to the types of music danced to by outdoor color guards.  It warrants mention, though, that school bands can play any song as long as it has been arranged for the instruments in the band, from military marches to songs from Broadway musicals to current pop songs.  Since winter guards are not beholden to live instruments, they can perform to any type of music, whether it is played by a marching band, an orchestra, synthesizers, or any other combination of musical instruments.  Some even perform to spoken word, abstract music, or even in one case seen at WGI in the last few years . . . complete silence.

Why Color Guard Is Awesome

There are plenty of reasons why participating in color guard or winter guard is a rewarding experience.  It is both a physical activity and a musical one.  It is a great way to get physical exercise even if contact sports do not appeal to yet, yet it is a team activity.  Thus, members of a color guard team to do compete against each other; instead, the team gets to represent their community and compete

color guard is fun
Color Guard and Winter Guard is Fun and Rewarding.

against other schools.  For almost as long as it has been an activity in schools and universities, color guard has been a co-ed activity.  Color guard and winter guard provide opportunities for high school and university students to travel and to meet other young people from all over the country and the world.  Performing with props such as flags, sabers, and rifles requires color guard and winter guard performers to develop excellent hand-eye coordination and reaction time.  Color guard is also enjoyable because performers get to generate enthusiasm among the audience.  Additionally, it is a very impressive looking performance.  It has developed from a storied military history to a truly unique performance art form.