By Sarah Honosky
For Melanie Bowling, twirling runs in the family.
Melanie, 16, has been baton twirling since she was 4 years old, but now it’s her turn to wrangle a gymnasium of 13 elementary-age girls through a twirling routine. They stood in two rows behind her at a May practice, taking brief breaks for impromptu handstands and splits, clutching slim, black batons. As soon as the music kicked in — Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” — the girls fell in line.
“OK,” Melanie said. “5-6-7-8.”
The Timberlake Twirlers crowd into the Tomahawk Elementary School gym every Monday night during the school year, a group of 6- to 10-year-olds in bright pastels. Though all of the girls are new to the group, the Timberlake Twirlers have been around for 32 years.
Brenda Lipscomb, 69, started the group in 1987 when her daughter — Melanie’s mother — was 12. Lipscomb twirled at E.C. Glass High School until she graduated in 1969, and she figured it couldn’t hurt to start a class for her daughter and some friends.
“I thought I was just going to have five or six kids in my living room,” Lipscomb said. Instead, she had 20-some cheerleaders who wanted to twirl, and no place to do it.
The group started practicing at a church in Lakewood and bounced from place to place — cafeterias, middle school stages, churches — until, three decades later, they landed here.
Timberlake Twirlers now is a Campbell County Parks and Recreation youth program. It costs $25 per month for anyone, age 3 and older, who wants to join.
“We’ve done what we had to do,” Lipscomb said. She kept going even after her daughter, Caren Bowling, now 43, left for college. “Caren said if you keep the group, I’ll help you with it when I come back, so that’s what I did.”
On an early evening in May, Lipscomb watched her daughter and granddaughter demonstrate the routine for the current class of the Timberlake Twirlers. Melanie and her mom choreograph as they go, side-by-side, mirroring one another as they talk the girls through the moves.
“When I was younger I swore I wasn’t going to make Melanie twirl,” Bowling said, laughing. She was set on Melanie being a competitive dancer. But Melanie would come to the twirling practices and ride her tricycle in circles until Lipscomb made an ultimatum.
“We said, ‘Look: Either you’re going to stay home, or you’re going to twirl,’” Lipscomb said.
Lipscomb later recruited 5-year-old Melanie’s dance team for the twirlers, which is where they met Zahra Elliott and her mother, Tamela Elliott, who now help coach. Zahra and Melanie twirl competitively and with Brookville High School’s band. Together — and separately — they have won national competitions and state and regional titles. Last year, Melanie was Jr. Miss Majorette of Virginia, and Zahra was the national intermediate pageant winner in 2016. They also won a national duet championship for their bracket, side by side.
“Some nights we stay in the gym until midnight, trying to catch a trick 10 times in a row,” Melanie said.
They are the first twirlers on Brookville’s field in at least 10 years, said Bowling.
Melanie and Zahra — and the Timberlake Twirlers itself — help keep the sport alive.
“There’s not a lot that twirl like them two,” Bowling said. “We’ve seen it die out in the state since they were younger. We used to go to Virginia States and it was a ton of twirlers, now they’ve probably met every twirler on a college field.”
Elliott agreed, adding despite everything, she and her daughter fell in love with the sport.
“It’s almost like [twirling is] trying to die down, but Coach Brenda and Caren, they keep it alive,” Elliott said. She gestured to the third graders practicing in the gym for their recital. “When I see this, I think about her. My girl, this age ... it creates a bond.”
After Melanie announced she wanted to start competing, and Zahra got more involved, that’s when they all became a family, Bowling said.
“Like mom and I, yes, we were together every Monday night doing it, which was cool … but when you have all of us together we spend countless hours in the gym, hours upon hours upon hours,” Bowling said. It’s impossible not to become close.
They carpool to nationals at the University of Notre Dame, spend 12 hours cooped up in a car and then a week at the competition, listening to nothing but marching music for seven days.
“I love them,” Elliott said. “But we can drive each other crazy.”
Likewise, Melanie and Zahra said having your mom as your coach can be tough.
“They’re our coaches when our coach isn’t here,” Melanie said.
Their coach, Lori Cobb, drives in once per month from the Hampton Roads area. Cobb has taught and judged competitions since the 1980s, but when she’s not around, the moms are in charge.
“They fix us, correct us constantly,” Zahra said. “What regular coaches would do, but they’re our moms.”
Melanie admitted it has its perks. Even when you’re driving each other crazy, you’re still family.
After 12 years, holding the mantle of three generations, Melanie said she isn’t sure what else she would do if she could.
“It’s something that I learned to love,” Melanie said. “I can’t imagine what I would do without it.”
Even Bowling gave up her dreams of seeing Melanie become a competitive dancer when she got to know the intensity of twirling competitively. Though she also twirled at Brookville High School — 25 years earlier — she said Melanie and Zahra far outmatch her ability.
“To see where mom came from, to where I came from, to where [Melanie and Zahra have] gone with it, it’s like a building block. and then you think, gosh, if their daughters twirl now, to see where they go with it,” Bowling said. “What else can be done with a baton that you haven’t seen happen?”
Lipscomb added twirling is more difficult than many people assume.
“It’s a reality check when you start learning,” Lipscomb said.
Melanie unintentionally knocked another girl unconscious at a competition after the girl ran into her lane mid-performance. A video of the event shows Melanie clocking her out cold.
“So many people think it’s not a sport, and it is,” Bowling said. “It’s just as intense as anything else out there. We can’t stop, because if you stop, you regress. There is no stopping.”
Xoe Formo, a 10-year-old Timberlake Twirler, said this is why you have to get “really good” at practicing.
“The first day we went to practice everybody had scrapes and bruises,” Xoe said.
Another twirler, Lily Campbell, 7, agreed.
“We have to practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Lily said. Despite all this, she said she wants to keep doing it for a long time.
Melanie and Zahra plan to continue into college. But after that, the future is unclear.
When asked if they would want their hypothetical children to twirl, they both laughed.
“Yes and no,” said Melanie. “Yes, because I know I would be able to help them along the way. And no, because I know how hard we practice with our moms.”
After their May practice, the five of them sat on the edge of the stage in the Tomahawk gymnasium. Though it was getting dark, they seemed content to sit and chat with one another for just a little while longer.
Melanie qualified for America’s Youth on Parade national baton twirling championships in June, and heads to Notre Dame again — marching music and all — in July.
Timberlake Twirlers will pick back up when school begins in the fall.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.