Design/Movement – 20th Century
The early years of “marching and maneuvering” in drum corps involved parade formations and straight lines with heavy military influence. Marching behind the corps proper and executing “the manual of arms” were often the extent of contributions from color guards. Most maneuvers involved platoons and squads at tight intervals. Drum lines were largely pinned to the 50 yard line. Fast forward to this century, and what is presented on the field these days is very different from those original roots. While many are critical of some of the innovations and relaxation of rules, claiming it is no longer “drum corps,” there is no doubt that today’s visual programs are more complex, more creative, and are packed with more GE. The progression from straight lines to the artistic maneuvers of today took decades, shaped by dozens of visual designers whose genius propelled the activity forward. Most harsh critics – if they could set aside their angst about the aspects they disdain – would probably concede that the visual displays in the activity today are more entertaining than the constrained “M&M” witnessed before the formation of DCI.
Up through the 1960s virtually every visual program consisted of linear forms and totally symmetrical designs. Precision and execution at that time were the primary objectives with General Effect as secondary. Toward the end of that decade a few corps experimented with adding more color guard equipment work and there was increased interest in non-linear forms. But it was not until the Casper Troopers unveiled their famous “sunburst” that curvilinear maneuvers began to appear. The 1970s were a pivotal decade for drum corps visuals with significant advances in the use of the color guard and innovations in design made possible by rules modifications after DCI became the activity’s governing body. The elimination of the starting line and relaxation of boundaries were two much welcomed changes. With every DCI Rules Congress more restrictions were lifted, providing more opportunities and flexibility in visual programming.
Although the Troopers’ singular “curved” formation may not have immediately caused others to follow suit, it did open minds to more creative ideas. The Santa Clara Vanguard was one of the first to introduce asymmetrical drills and dance (the bottle dance from “Fiddler on the Roof,” for example) and their success sent a ripple through the activity. Before long, audiences were witnessing a burst of new designs and the color guard began an ascent from afterthought to visual focus. The Santa Clara Vanguard, 27th Lancers, Bridgemen, and Blue Devils capitalized on visual innovations to boost their scores. The combination of Ralph Pace’s drill and George Zingali’s guard work made 27th one of the leaders in visuals in the 1970s. At the same time, the higher level of coordination Pete Emmons promoted in Santa Clara’s programs tied visual to music in a more elegant way. Higher GE scores were now garnered through creative concepts that involved more sophisticated coordination of all elements. Toward the end of the 1970s, we saw double flags, the “Rockford File” and other dazzling guard work on the 50, the “low” leg lift, and more corps experimenting with dance. By the end of that decade, color guards were doing more sophisticated equipment work, with higher tosses and exchanges. Curvilinear forms became common and most corps marched at wider intervals. The addition of the Visual Analysis caption, a buildup caption that rewarded content and technique, provided incentives for more audacious and complex maneuvers.
1978 Phantom Regiment – drum solo with the color guard performing their “Rockford File”
During the 1980s, more corps used asymmetry with Cadets (Zingali) and Phantom Regiment (under John Brazale) joining Santa Clara in expanding it. An expectation arose across the activity that the guard was to be integrated and utilized for exciting effects. Steve Brubaker, visual designer for the Cavaliers, was a catalyst for guard integration and he introduced many intricate and amazing kaleidoscopic maneuvers. The growth of WGI began exerting more influence on DCI, edging the guard closer to being equal in importance to brass and percussion. “Caption bleed” from visual effects was exerting a subtle influence on non-visual GE scores. During this decade, the use of multiple silks, the “solo dancer,” and flashy moves like “head chops” and daring pass-through maneuvers were commonplace. Initially, percussion instruments like tympani and mallet instruments were allowed to be grounded and many corps took advantage, placing them along the front sideline. When DCI rules created “the pit,’ an area off of the front sideline from the 40 to the 40, it gave visual designers more flexibility to use the front of the “stage.” Eventually, some designers actually ventured some visual forms into the “pit” area.
A tribute to Steve Brubaker’s drill designs
By the middle of the decade, the Cadets were a force in the visual arena, led by George Zingali. He surprised the drum corps world with his truly innovative “flex-drill” for the Cadets. He said that he received some of his design ideas by examining water droplets and playing with the chains that were attached to bank teller windows back at that time. The pace of the frenetic drills designed by Zingali, with the corps essentially running as they performed daunting maneuvers at unrelenting speed, was not well received initially. However, it did not take long for the activity to catch on after the approach started receiving top scores. Cadets then threw another curve when they jettisoned the traditional “concert,” played at a standstill, and performed programs with continuous movement and no concert. That additional time in motion was a factor in their dominance of the visual captions and three consecutive championships. It was a hint that “concert” would be abandoned by all corps at some point in favor of more movement. Those championship programs also included Zingali’s famous “Z-pull” maneuver, an ingenious visual composition that was more than just a spectacular visual effect. It reinforced the synergy that can be created when musical and visual elements are exquisitely intertwined.
The Garfied Cadets performing George Zingali’s Z-Pull
The trajectory of visual innovation continued in the ’90s as designers Steve Brubaker and Michael Gaines launched the Cavaliers into the top echelons with twisting, sliding, and morphing geometric and three-dimensional forms. The strength of their visual programming helped the Cavaliers solidify their place among the top units and win their first two Championships in the DCI era. Zingali, now with The Star of Indiana (DCI Champions in 1991), continued to push the envelope with his high speed drills and elaborate forms. He also pioneered incorporating the percussion battery into his wild maneuvers, another trend of his that was adopted widely within a few years. With widespread consternation over the accessibility of music as top corps’ repertoires were often unfamiliar and difficult for audiences to assimilate, the visual elements were constantly enhancing interest. The Blue Devils’ color guard helped propel them to four DCI Championships during the last six years of the decade and established them as the captions’ gold standard going forward. Other corps recognized the advantage the top units (Blue Devils, Cadets, and Cavaliers) were enjoying with the superiority of their guards and there was a race to catch up.
1999 DCI championship winners – the Blue Devils
With the total show concept fully entrenched, the visual caption had gained more influence in program design and was at the forefront of ingenuity on the field. Corps continued to capitalize and expand upon the innovations of the ’80s and ’90s with superior coordination among all elements required to qualify for DCI Finals. Visual design software had matured and was widely used as the tools were now commensurate with the complexity and demands of what was becoming a unique art form. The trends that had transformed the visual caption since the inception of DCI were foreshadowing what would emerge in the 21st century, as the changes seemed to be squarely in the “knee of the curve.”
In the next article we will cover Design and Movement, in the 21st century.
George Zingali’s final drill with Star of Indiana in 1991
*Featured Image: Top Row – 1979 27th Lancers and 1981 North Star
Bottom Row: 1988 Cavaliers and 1991 Phantom Regiment
1981 North Star photo courtesy of John Stark