Sparkling against the green turf in a blazing red costume glinting with crystals, Anita Ney tosses her batons high while flitting across the Nippert Stadium field in a routine combining dance and gymnastics.
Ney will again be the featured twirler this season during halftime of UC football games when the Bearcats Marching Band lights up the field.
The world of baton doesn’t have an off-season for the second-year pre-med student in UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences. The accomplished twirler competes year-round at state, national and international events, where she holds numerous titles. Balancing a full academic course load with daily practices, competitions and performances can be demanding, but Ney is an expert at juggling.
“My life,” she says with a laugh, “is pretty much school and baton.”
Q&A with Anita Ney
How would you describe twirling?
It’s a lot of dance and a lot of gymnastics. I like to say that baton is three sports in one. Not only is it baton, but you have to have the flexibility you need in dance, and for field twirling you need tumbling tricks, like aerials and walk-overs.
How did you get started in twirling?
When I was little, my parents tried putting me in all these different types of sports. I started off in gymnastics, and then I broke my elbow when I was 6, so I wasn’t able to continue. I tried tennis. I tried dance. I tried swimming. I tried all kinds of stuff, and I always changed to the next sport within a couple months or a year. With baton, I never lost the interest in it. I never put it down, and it’s still hard for me to go a day without practicing.
How do you balance competition and practicing with academic work?
There’s no off-season in baton, for sure. I always put my school work first. If I have a lot going on in school that week, I might have to stay home from the gym for a couple days, but I always try to go for at least an hour. If I’m totally jammed for the week and I know it’s going to be hard to fit in time, I still try to fit in time just to take a break from everything. Last semester I had to go to the gym at 6 a.m. at the Rec Center because it was the only time I could fit in to go. During the summer when I don’t have much going on except for working, I practice two to three hours a day in the gym.
It’s really hard to keep your grades up when you’re traveling that much. I was gone every other weekend during the spring  semester, and I still managed to pull off a 4.0 somehow. I missed an entire week of classes just to go to Norway for the World Championships and it was hard catching back up. Normally you would take the weekends to catch up, but we’re busy during the weekends [with marching band/guard]. Saturday football game is an all-day thing for us. We practice nine hours a week. My life is pretty much school and baton.
How do you feel before competition?
I get nervous really easily. I’m just trying to calm my nerves, that butterfly feeling in your stomach when you know something bad is going to happen or you’re nervous to speak in front of the class. I jump a couple times before I take the floor to get the blood pumping and shake out the nerves and take a couple of deep breaths. If it’s something I am super nervous for, like the Blue Curtain solo, which is probably the most terrifying event anyone has done — they actually make shirts that say “I survived the Blue Curtain” — I literally stand before the curtain and pray right before I go on.
Have you ever had any embarrassing moments or mishaps on stage?
Last year my Blue Curtain solo was so awful; I hit myself in the face twice. My lip was bleeding, my eye was bleeding, and I just had to push through it to get through it. It was terrible. That was terrifying, but I’m happy that was the event I crashed and burned in, because I was more focused in my team events. We were trying to qualify for the World Championships, and I was the team captain, so I got that one bad routine out of my system and we were able to qualify and go to Worlds.
What was your best moment on stage?
When my team qualified for Worlds last summer. We were standing on the floor. The announcer has a funny way of saying things, and my team is called the Jazz Dolls. He said, “Frrrooom Canton, Ohio, the Jaaazzz Dolls.” We were just waiting to hear that, and when he said in second place our rival team, we literally fell to the ground crying. I still get chills when I think of it or when I watch a video of it. It was an amazing sense of accomplishment.
What kind of person would you recommend give twirling a whirl?
If you like being a ham, for sure — performing on field is the best place to be a ham because the football crowd just eats that stuff up. If you like dancing, tumbling, anything that’s considered performance sport, I would recommend twirling. It’s not gender-specific — I have lots of friends who are male twirlers, and there is a separate division for them. You need some eye and hand coordination, but with practice, anybody can do it. I had no idea what I was doing when I first started, but through a lot of hard work and practice, that’s all it takes.