BY RACHEL BARDUSON
When Joanie Piotrowski was about nine years old, she received the book Little Majorette for Christmas. It was the start of her dream of being a baton twirler. And as it turned out, the lessons in the book have influenced her determination in trying new things, meeting new people, and always doing her best.
Joanie and her husband Bob moved to a home on Devil’s Lake north of Brandon in August of 2005. After growing up, working, meeting, and marrying in the Chicago area, they were ready to see the stars at night during their retirement. When talk of Bob’s retirement began, they spent several long weekends exploring different areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota. When they discovered the Douglas County area with a big sky and lots of lakes, the housing, economy, and job market, they had found their new paradise. “We didn’t know a soul here,” Joanie said. “But that had never stopped me, actually either of us, before.” Once they became settled, they began to be involved in community opportunities. Bob, with his musical background and keyboard experience, found radio theatre and provided music during radio shows. Joanie, always open to new things, found belly dancing lessons, and the Johari Tribe belly dancing (student) performance troupe. They joined St. Ann’s Church and Bob plays his keyboard there, and at East Moe Church.
Trying new things has always been part of Joanie’s composition. She may be small in stature but her personality and heart is big and bursting with energy. As a child, she not only read the book, she also became The Little Majorette. At the end of the book, Joanie discovered that there were instructions on how to “do spins, finger rolls, tossing and twirling... and I was hooked,” she said.
She has kept her batons, and she holds dear the memories of twirling performances and competitions. “I still have my first solo trophy – third place packed in a box somewhere,” Joanie added.
Joanie was born and raised in Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood. “I would say we weren’t poor but we weren’t well-off either. It was my mom, grandma and me, and my cousins lived a few doors down. This was a neighborhood of union stockyards and factory/office workers. I discovered the free programs that were offered to kids through the Chicago Park District. Cornell Park was a four-block walk from home, and this is where I started taking baton and tap dancing lessons.” She added, “When I started my freshman year of school, I met a girl in my homeroom who had been twirling and we became friends.”
During the summer of 1971, when Joanie was 16 years old, a summer performing arts group was formed at Kelly Park that included a concert band, dancers, twirlers and gymnastics.
“Kelly Park was a grassy park area and used by my high school as their field house for our baton and dance practices and other programs. We would go to other schools and nursing homes and put on shows. A couple of years later, our instructor pulled four of us aside to form a team to enter in competitions. Twirling was a big thing in the Chicago suburbs – in high school and the junior colleges,” Joanie explained. The competition in these shows consisted of a minute and a half routine where “We pulled out our best tricks...finger rolls, finger-tip spins. My favorite was tossing my baton in the air, as high as I could, so I had time to spot it in the air, bounce it on my knee, to get it back up as high as I could and catch it behind my back. Probably the funniest thing that happened to me was one time when we were performing at a school during a summer performing arts show and my baton landed in the orchestra pit. The trumpet player caught it. He just brought it over to me, and I continued with my routine.”
Joanie’s twirling team was named “Criterion, which means “a standard by which you set things to” - a standard Joanie still lives by. During team and solo competitions each team cheered on their competition. “The Silver Knights were really the best team in the competition, but they cheered us on. And the team hosts would always have people in the stands to support all the soloists and teams. It was lots of fun. We learned team camaraderie. Our team was better than some and not as good as others, but we had a lot of fun.’
Since Joanie’s baton twirling team was a summer performing program of Chicago Park, and not part of the high school extracurricular activities, they marched behind the Kelly High School band during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, not in front of it. “I didn’t mind. We had lots of fun.”
Joanie also marched for the VFW Drum Corps when her uncle was Commander of the VFW Post. This gave Joanie the opportunity to march in parades and give twirling demonstrations during meetings and installation ceremonies. During one VFW Convention, it began to rain during a parade. Not only did it rain, but there was thunder and lightning, but, “We marched anyway. I remember another Post’s poor pom-pom squad’s pom-poms were lumps of wet tissue paper by the end of that parade.” During the same parade, the red dye from part of Joanie’s costume began to soak into the white fabric part, all while she continued to march.
“It’s fun to just remember those times, and how we handled any situation. We always got through it. I still love parades.”
During those years of marching in parades, and performing and participating in team and solo competitions, Joanie belonged to the National Baton Twirling Association, which was the basis of the competition shows. The program did not provide costumes. Joanie made all of her costumes, her favorite being one of red-white-and-blue with blue sequins. She learned how to sew in order to make her costumes, and she had to pay for everything herself, so she worked at Sears. Joanie topped off her solo act by wearing a tiara, saying “I was never a princess but I wore a tiara anyway.”
She continued to twirl with the Chicago Park District team until she turned 21, “aging out” at that time, but not before having won three team trophies, one of which was first place.
“I had to begin focusing on a job instead. I did start taking private tap dancing though, beginning in 1999, and continuing until about a month before Bob and I moved to Minnesota. I danced in four recitals and at shows we put on for nursing homes around Christmas. Bob sequenced the music for the performances, which was from the big band era. At my last recital, the studio owner had me, the oldest student, following the baby ballerinas. Talk about a tough act to follow! After we moved here in 2005, I danced a couple of times in talent shows in Brandon and then hung up my shoes.”
Now retired, Joanie had a varied realm of opportunities and experience in the career field. Continuing with The Little Majorette theme, she wasn’t afraid to try new things and learn along the way. Her varied interests include archeology, interior design, furniture and home restoration.
“My first job was at Sears in Chicago. I worked at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago as the secretary of the medical education department. I worked at the headquarters of Budget-Rent-a-Car. I worked for a short time at a fashion warehouse, seeing mass production of clothing. When I found new positions it was either to advance myself, or because of mergers and downsizing, so I just moved on. Finally, I was hired by an attorney as a legal secretary and that’s the career field I stayed with for 26 ½ years, until I retired. Just like the Little Majorette, Joanie learned and continued marching along.
Joanie met her husband Bob when she booked him for a fraternal organization’s Christmas party in Chicago. She “didn’t know Bob from Adam“... but upon meeting him the night of the party, they discovered that they both had graduated from Kelly High School. She also discovered that she went to many of the polka dances that Bob was playing in with his band. Striking up a conversation at each dance, they soon began dating and married in 1989.
When discussion of Bob’s retirement began, both Bob and Joanie agreed that they wanted to settle somewhere quiet and away from the city.
“We wanted to see the stars and the sunsets. And when we found our little spot on Devil’s Lake by Brandon, we knew this was it. Not knowing a soul here, we picked up, packed up, and here we are. It was kind of a culture shock at first, but we became involved with the community because that is important to us...wonderful neighbors and friends, Bob and Jackie Wagner took us under their wing. We take nothing for granted and we love seeing the stars at night, something we never really had a chance to notice in Chicago. Here we have a new appreciation for everything.”
Joanie also moved her now 93-year-old mother from Chicago to an apartment above the Alexandria Senior Center. “She’s still living independently. She’s been a strong woman all of her life.”
Even though arthritis in her fingers keeps her baton twirling at bay, Joanie picks up her baton every now and then anyway. Nothing holds Joanie back. A little book by the name of Little Majorette seems to have influenced Joanie throughout her life. This little majorette will keep on marching, keep on twirling, and keep on keeping on.