Until Bailee Russell arrives in Peru on Thursday morning and begins two weeks of baton twirling in parades, orphanage visits, gala dinners and mingling with beauty queens, mayors and governors, the 16-year-old Williamsville girl’s twirling accomplishments have come with lower-key fanfare.
People applauded for the performance that won her sixth place in a national tournament. The banner and crown from winning Miss Majorette of New York is in the hallway at home, not far from the state championship trophy.
But twirling – gymnastics moves mixed with deft spins of a chrome rod – doesn’t get much local attention beyond the halftime shows at the football games of Williamsville South High School, where Bailee is a sophomore.
Practicing floor rolls and twists beneath baton tosses to the ceiling, has often involved borrowing a gym, sharing space with other teams and dodging baseballs, basketballs and Frisbees.
So it was the Lions Club invitation to the charity benefit and 10-day spring festival in a country that celebrates the sport like no other that she longed for.
“I’m so excited for it. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” said Russell, who started twirling when she was 4 with coaching from her mother, Kelli, who now leads the Crescendo twirling team of 22.
Bailee grew up hearing stories about all the glamorous, unusual and life-changing things that can happen during the International Festival of Springtime in Trujillo. Her mother and sister Chelsea made the same trip when they were about her age.
“The twirlers are what people will pay to come watch,” said Kelli Russell, who first studied the sport as a girl in Niagara Falls and then went to Peru in 1974 at 16. “As a mom, it is nerve wracking ... I know you can’t hold on to them forever, and I want her to have the experience.”
For the past month, she and Chelsea have helped Bailee practice her routines in the YMCA gym on Tech Drive, collect 300 eyeglasses to donate to the Peru Lions and organize the things on the three-page travel list that hints at the swank South American style that lies ahead: two evening gowns, four cocktail dresses, a red, white and blue outfit for meeting dignitaries, and a white outfit for a fancy show that involves dancing horses.
Bailee and the 11 other U.S. twirlers will have bodyguards and hang out with Peruvian beauty queens. They’ll visit Inca ruins and nursing homes. Paparazzi will follow.
“Famous for a week,” remembered Chelsea, 23, a baton champion herself and a newly certified English teacher working as an aide at her sister’s school. “Every year in twirling, you want to be one of the girls chosen to go to Peru.”
For a middle-class girl, Peru was a lesson in privilege and empathy.
“I was used to having TVs in most rooms,” said Chelsea, who went in 2006. “You really start to realize, ‘OK not everybody lives the way that I do.’ ”
The older Russell women say the life-changing aspect of Peru included a new appreciation for U.S. opportunities. Kelli Russell hopes her youngest will come home with similar wisdom and tolerance. “I just want her to have an awareness of how big the world is,” she said, “and how it’s different everywhere.”