Most Yalies have probably seen Christine Houle ’16 in action at a football or basketball game. Though everyone might not immediately recognize her on the street as the same girl twirling batons and tossing herself through the air with incredible grace and agility, Houle does maintain some degree of campus celebrity. As Yale’s only serious baton twirler (ever!), it’s to be expected.
For Christine, baton twirling is more than the incredible-to-watch, slightly obscure sport many people perceive it to be. It’s an integral part of her life, and has been so since she was five. Christine is a Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies major who, in addition to practicing twirling for hours every day in the gym, is involved in the Yale College Democrats, YIRA and YPMB.
When Christine first came to Yale, baton twirling was not traditionally a part of athletic events. Growing up, Christine twirled for competition, not performance, which is what she does at football games. But she really wanted twirling to be part of her college experience, so she found a way to adapt to a different style of twirling. One of the perks of performance twirling is that the crowd is much more encouraging than, say, judges in a competition environment, she said, citing the sympathetic noises the audience makes if she happens to drop the baton. It’s the type of support that makes her “incredibly grateful” for the community Yale has offered her.
Q. When did you start doing baton twirling?
A. When I was five years old. So this is my 15th year doing it, or something like that. I kind of lost track after a while.
Q. What made you start when you were five?
A. I grew up my entire life in this teeny tiny suburban town ride outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, and there was a team there called the Saline Twirlettes. It was a private organization, run by my coach Susan Usher, who’d been a really well acclaimed competitive baton twirler, and every little girl sort of tried it for a little bit when they were four or five years old. For me, it stuck. I really loved it, and I decided to start competing with it and not just doing it recreationally when I was seven.
Q. What does a competition involve?
A. It’s complicated. It’s hard to explain to people who have not been living in that world as I have been. There are multiple events, both team and individual, some are choreographed to music, but most are not. They’ll just be playing John Philip Sousa’s marches in the background for 12 hours straight, and it makes you want to cry after a while. Now whenever “Stars and Stripes Forever” comes on for anything I kind of cringe a little. So you compete in lots of different events throughout the whole day. It’s split up by age division and difficulty level, so currently I would compete in age 16 plus — the old lady division — and I’m at the highest difficulty level, which is advanced.
Q. Do you still compete?
A. Yes! Primarily I was a competitive baton twirler, the whole performance thing is just an added bonus — it’s a lot of fun. I took a break last year just because freshman year of school I had to figure some stuff out. I was planning on still going to Nationals in the summer — it’s the third week of July every year, but I got offered this really awesome internship in D.C. with two congressmen so I did that instead. It was hard. I was really kind of having withdrawals and feeling lonely after quitting something cold turkey, but I have every intention of going back this summer and training.
Q. Have you been training all year or do you just train in summer?
A. You never really stop training. It’s not one of those things you can take a break from, just because it’s so intricate. If you stop, even for a week, you immediately lose your timing on things, which is bad. It’s hard to get that back. So I practice every day if I can — it’s hard with a Yale schedule, but I try. I’ve been trying to find competitions in the area but apparently there are no baton competitions in Connecticut, and not having a car makes it very difficult to get around. I found one at the end of spring break in Pennsylvania that I’m going to because I can’t really just show up at the national qualifiers having not competed in two years. That’d be a really bad idea. But in the summer it’ll really kick into gear. My team is in the gym for 8 to 12 hours every day.
Q. Do we have a Yale team or do you have a personal team?
A. No. Yale’s a really old institution, but I’ve done research, and as far as I can tell they’ve never really had a baton twirler before, at least not at the capacity that I do it, like performing at football and basketball games. Twirling in college was always my childhood dream. Growing up right outside Ann Arbor, I wanted to be one of the U of M featured twirlers, which would have been amazing. They have a big house, and a 150,000 person crowd every football Saturday. That’s what my coach really wanted me to do. But as I grew up my academic goals and aspirations kind of diverged from that and forced me to choose between the two: an Ivy League education or my childhood dream. But Yale is really great; I contacted the band director before I even knew if I was accepted, and they were really positive about it [me twirling here]. The athletics department was also very enthusiastic about having me twirl at football and basketball games.
A previous version of this article misidentified composer John Philip Sousa and attributed to him a piece called “Susan’s Marches.” In fact, the interviewee was referring to John Philip Sousa’s marches.