On a humid Monday evening, the Pride of Oklahoma practices its upcoming Motown program on the Pride field adjacent to the softball stadium.
The left side of the field hosts a dozen trombonists playing “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, while the center of the field rings with the chirp of a metronome.
But on the right corner of the field, Emily Perkins, OU’s baton twirler, rehearses in a world all her own.
Perkins began twirling at age 6 after asking her mother — a baton twirler and coach — if she could pick up the hobby. This hobby soon became a passion, as twirling throughout her teenage years led her to the prestigious role of the University of Oklahoma’s sole twirler.
The baton twirler is a position in many collegiate marching bands and is rooted in the tradition of drum majors. Formerly known as “majorettes,” baton twirlers perform using their skills in gymnastics, dance and twirling, all with gleaming smiles on their faces.
Oklahoma has only two collegiate baton twirlers recognized by the United States Twirling Association: Perkins at OU and Amanda Jantz at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
“The Pride of Oklahoma has a long-standing tradition of having highly accomplished feature twirlers, most of whom have held national and/or international titles,” said Brian Britt, director of the Pride and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, in an email.
While many colleges have two twirlers or teams of twirlers, OU is home to just one. Perkins decided to audition to be OU’s twirler because, just as she began her college search, the position became available.
“I came, toured the campus and auditioned with the directors and a whole bunch of other people who came and watched. It was really, really scary,” Perkins said. “I just ended up really liking the campus and really falling in love with the school.”
From that point on, Perkins embarked on a journey of independence and a whole lot of practicing.
“The band practices four days a week. That's not including games or any outside rehearsals that we may happen to do,” Perkins said. “But whenever I'm not with Pride over the summer, practices can be anywhere from three to eight hours.”
Perkins is given substantial creative control when it comes to her routines. With some help from her mother, Perkins choreographs all of her own routines to fit the Pride’s program while maintaining her own personal flair.
Her choreography is precise and athletic. During the Pride’s pregame field show, Perkins charges down the center of the field through the band to the 50-yard line. She flips, leaps and entertains the crowd as the band enters the field.
In the Pride’s recent Panic! at the Disco themed show, Perkins twirled multiple batons on her elbows without using her hands.
“I try to do hard things on the field to push myself to go farther than what I did last year. So this year, my pregame is really hard,” Perkins said.
Complicated stunts, such as twirling three flaming batons into the air during a halftime show, take hours of rehearsal. The hard work Perkins puts into each practice, however, always pays off, both for her and the audience she captivates.
Perkins performs, on average, for 85,000 people in the stands at home games, not to mention all of the people who watch the televised games.
“It's scary, sometimes, knowing that there's so many people there, judging you if you drop,” Perkins said. “But most of the time it's just kind of a blur. I don't see anybody, I don't really hear anything — I just kind of do my twirling and have fun with that.”
Outside of OU, Perkins is an internationally competitive baton twirler. She holds 37 U.S. National Baton Twirling Championships individual titles, making her one of the top twirlers not only in the nation, but in the world.
Perkins won the U.S. National Baton Twirling Championships in 2019, bringing home the title to OU. She holds a silver medal from the World Baton Twirling Federation's World Championships as a member of the U.S. twirling team.
Behind the trophies, leotards and medals though, Perkins is a normal OU student. She’s a cat lover, a Houston native and an environmental design junior who happens to have an extremely unique life outside of school.
“On top of being one of the best twirlers in the nation, she’s very determined to make a good name for the university,” said Matthew Lisenby, OU biology senior and member of the OU color guard.
Lisenby and Perkins met when he was a sophomore and Perkins was an incoming freshman at the Pride’s band camp.
Balancing life as a college student is already extremely challenging — if you add long practices and time-consuming games, finding a balance becomes much more difficult, Perkins said.
Perkins also teaches baton twirling to kids aged anywhere from 7 to 18. Perkins said it’s sometimes hard to manage it all, but she has gotten better at it with practice.
“I think starting to teach twirling has helped me to better understand everything that I'm doing,” she said. “I have to really know everything concerning what I do, and I have to be able to fix things they're doing wrong. It's a different experience having to teach people who aren't yourself.”
Although she holds a solo position, Perkins has fostered close friendships within the Pride — she describes the people she’s met throughout her experience as being like family.
“Most, if not all, of my friends are in the Pride band,” Perkins said. "It's just a really nice way to get connections with different people and especially all of the different people who are working with the Pride."
Friendships, competitions, becoming a teacher, performing at the OU games — these are all opportunities Perkins has encountered through the Pride. She said her gratitude for this position and all it entails is immense.
“Having the feature twirler position with the Pride is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” Perkins said via text. “It has helped me grow by giving me opportunities to choreograph baton routines, organize events, and even become a coach! I am so glad I get to be a part of this group.”
Editor’s note: Britt was asked to expand upon the history of OU’s baton twirler position and he did not respond by the time of publication.