Each time Kaytlyn Schmitt tosses her baton into the air, sending it flipping end over end, it climbs to the same spot just inches away from the 30-foot ceiling of the Volleyball House in Elkridge.
A twirler since age 1, Schmitt relies on muscle memory developed during her 23 years with the Dynamics Dance Twirl Team. Like her teammates, she instinctively knows how hard she can throw the rubber-tipped, hollow metal rod, and she takes full advantage of every inch of airspace at the Furnace Road facility.
But that doesn't mean she's not laser-focused on what she's doing.
Baton twirling demands the athlete's full attention to accuracy, timing and choreography while she simultaneously exhibits grace, poise and personality. It also requires twirlers to master elements of ballet, ice skating and gymnastics floor exercise.
"It's like a hidden world all our own," says Dynamics founder and director Linda Alford of the sport/art.
With 10 world championships and more than 100 national titles, Alford's group has excelled since its inception in Prince George's County in 1976. The group relocated to Howard County when Alford moved with her then-husband and three daughters to North Laurel in 1985.
Grown by word of mouth
Despite considerable success on the national and world stages over the decades, the Dynamics may well be one of Howard County's best-kept secrets. The group's only local performances are periodic appearances at University of Maryland Baltimore County basketball games; the rest are competitions, often hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
The group draws members ages 3 to 25 from counties across Maryland as well as Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Ten of the 30 twirlers currently on the roster live in Howard County.
Alford will make her ninth trip to the world championships in April, this time to Lignano Sabbiadoro, an Italian resort town on the Adriatic Sea. Representing the United States from the Dynamics this year will be individuals, pairs and the junior dance team.
Alford has taken twirlers to Italy before — and to France, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium for the global competition held every three years.
The director, now a Columbia resident and 2013 inductee into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame, acknowledges that the group has thrived purely on word-of-mouth.
That may soon change though, as she's considering partnering with other organizations to set up classes for girls and boys who'd like to give twirling a whirl.
"I'm not that big on promotion," Alford says, in part because it hasn't seemed necessary. But introducing more kids to the unusual sport seems like an idea whose time has come, she's decided.
No white boots here
Like all athletes, twirlers devote an incredible amount of time to practicing and perfecting their sport. Team practices are held for three hours on Mondays and eight hours on Saturdays, and most team members spend several more hours each week practicing on their own.
Alford's passion for twirling comes through during practice sessions, said Robin Schmitt, who is a former University of Maryland twirler; the mother of Kaytlyn, 24, and Karilee, 29, a high school teacher and Dynamics coach after twirling for 20 years.
"I remember seeing the Dynamics perform as a kid, and every kid looked like they loved it," says Robin Schmitt, who is Alford's go-to person in managing the team and who commutes to practices with her daughters from Springfield, Va.
"Linda is a great motivator," she says. "She has natural instincts and knows what to teach and when to teach it."
Tina Bronk studied under Alford and now drives her three daughters — Serena, 16, Maddie, 12, and Mackenzie, 10 — to practices from Calvert County so Alford can coach them. She says many people mistakenly assume the kids wear white boots and big hats to perform.
"Dance twirl is more like gymnastics floor exercise," Bronk says, adding that many stakeholders would like to see baton twirling become an Olympic event.
Love at first twirl
Alford, who worked in the technology department of the county public schools for 22 years while overseeing the group, says she discovered baton twirling when she was 12 and has never looked back.
"It was love at first sight," she recalls. "I had to beg my father to let me drop ballet to twirl, and he finally gave in. It became something that I couldn't think about not doing."
Beverly Johnson, one of seven "majors" with the National Baton Twirling Association, which sanctions competitive events, says Alford's students embody the sport's precision, grace and elegance.
"Linda has a sincere passion for baton twirling, and the young people on her teams are real examples of the character, discipline and respect that twirling teaches," she says.
Kristi Alford Taylor, 36, is the youngest of Alford's three daughters and serves as co-director of the Dynamics. A former Ellicott City resident, she moved with her family to Richmond, Va., in October but still drives up to Elkridge.
"It's such a unique sport, and it never gets boring," says Taylor, who has two sons. "No matter how old you get and how many years you've coached, you're constantly learning."
Kaitlyn Boyer, Alford's only granddaughter, lives with her coach-mom, Stacey Alford Boyer, and family in Glenelg. She is a sophomore at Virginia Tech, where she is a feature twirler. Other Dynamics members twirl with the marching bands at Penn State and Rutgers universities.
"My mother, aunts and grandmother were all really good twirlers, so I want to live up to that," says Boyer, a 2013 graduate of Glenelg High School.
Her Virginia Tech band director gives her a lot of freedom during performances, she explains, allowing her to move in and out of the college's marching band formations at will.
Her favorite crowd-pleasing routine is done to music from "Dirty Dancing," and she especially likes the part where she is lifted up by the team mascot, the HokieBird, re-creating a scene from the 1987 film.
"You need flexibility, good balance and good hand-eye coordination to be a twirler," Boyer says. "I tried every single sport growing up and was good at a lot of them, but this one really stuck with me."
Alford says she never pressured her daughters or granddaughter to stick with the sport, but she's glad they did.
"What I love about twirling is the drive it takes to perfect a routine, the competitive spirit it creates and the life skills it teaches," she says. "There's nothing else like it."