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The History and Symbolism of Color Guard

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From football halftime shows to holiday parades, color guard teams keep us entertained and inspired throughout the seasons. Yet, did you know that there is a rich history to this athletic pastime?

Apart from the visual dynamics we’ve come to expect, there is a ton of skill and symbolism attached to those moves. Today, we’re taking a look back to discover where color guard started, and what it means.

What Is Color Guard?

Before we dive into how it all began, let’s briefly discuss the technicalities of color guard. Put simply, this is a team of performers that combine intricate military drills, called marches, with the use of various handheld accessories, including:

  • Color guard flags (swing and tapered versions)
  • Mock rifles
  • Sabers

Performers use these accessories to interpret the music of the accompanying marching band. They do so through specially choreographed dances and routines designed to create a sweeping visual effect. Many times, they’ll also come dressed in Color Guard Uniforms that coordinate with the theme of the halftime show.

Where Can You Find Color Guard Teams?

As the sport continues to grow in popularity, you can find color guard teams in institutions across world. They are most common at the following American locales:

  • Colleges and universities
  • High schools
  • Middle schools
  • Special drum and bugle corps
  • Independent marching bands and units

Typically, these teams perform with the marching band during a designated halftime show. In some larger academic institutions, there are as many members on the color guard as in the band!

In addition, they can also perform with the band in competitions. When that happens, judges will incorporate the color guard’s score into the band’s overall performance score. However, color guards can also receive their own scores.

This judging category is often called auxiliary. As a team, the color guard is judged on its ability to hit the following marks:

  • Physical movement
  • Fluidity of choreography
  • Synching with accompanying music
  • Member coordination
  • Overall visual effect
  • The use of equipment
  • Drill sequences

From this scrutiny alone, it’s clear to see that color guard is a sport and an art. It requires precision at every turn, and has become more advanced throughout the years.

Early Civil War Origins

While it’s an expected part of sporting events now, you might be surprised to learn that color guard teams weren’t always a given on the field. Rather, the history of color guard traces back to the Civil War. During this time of English reign, special bands were tasked with accompanying soldiers in their work.

The band would play lively music to encourage the soldiers and keep their spirits high. The music was usually some type of patriotic song. In addition, these bands were also helpful in ensuring the soldiers marched in beat, and in unison.

While the band played a critical wartime role, it didn’t act alone. There was also a soldier assigned to march in step. This soldier would hold a flag with their troop’s colors on it.

Not only did the visual effects aid in the overall festivities, but they also served a practical purpose. The flags and banners helped soldiers find their specific regiments, which was critical amid the thick clouds of dust and smoke often found on the battlefield.

Post-War Military Use

In time, that singular soldier grew into a larger color guard troop. After the Civil War, color guards mostly became associated with the military. These groups would march alongside bands that played patriotic songs, designed to encourage loyalty and nationalism.

From there, civilian marching bands and color guards started to develop. This is why most of the equipment found in modern color guards is military-inspired in nature.

The colorful banners, along with the mock rifles and sabers, mimic the authentic gear that wartime soldiers would carry. Yet, it wasn’t until 1936 that flags became a prominent part of the show.

Hug and Haug: The Introduction of Flag Swinging

That year, a Swiss Olympian named Franz Hug visited America.

During his time here, he introduced athletes to the art of flag swinging. This was already an iconic event in his home country, where people gathered every summer in the meadows of Rutli to watch the flags soar brilliantly into the air.

Intrigued by Hug’s idea, one academic leader became fascinated with flag swinging, and was determined to find a place for it in America. An assistant band director at the University of Wisconsin, Leonard Haug went to work. He created 10 individual flags, each representing the different schools in the Big 10 Conference.

The following year, Haug transferred to the University of Oklahoma. There, he introduced the act of flag swinging to schools in the Southwest. Together with other leaders, he assembled a group of athletes who would become the Big Six Conference Flag Swingers. These students marched alongside the Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band in the late 1930s.

By the 1940s, the group had become co-ed. Each member used two flags to participate in elaborate routines, setting the stage for the creative routines we see today. Haug eventually published articles and brochures detailing their work, which other marching bands and universities across the country used as a blueprint to create their own similar teams.

Approximately 30 years later, Haug was still looking for ways to make the color guard more visually stunning. In 1965, he invented the modern color guard baton. Known as the twirl-flag baton, it added another element of balance and precision to an already-complex routine.

The Art of Modern Color Guard

Today, bystanders can still see evidence of the early origins of the color guard in every performance. The wartime accessories point to the sport’s earliest days in the Civil War, while the flags and batons are nods to the two men who helped pave the way for the sport in civilian culture.

When you enjoy a performance, remember how it started and marvel at how far it’s come. Color guard is more than a sideshow for the marching band. It’s an art all in itself!

Looking for more news and updates? Check our blog often for other insights and guides.


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