Photo courtesy of Irving Lopez
Colorful silks trailing from metal poles flying through the air as their handlers zigzag across a discreetly yet meticulously marked canvas floor to their next positions. Wooden rifles spinning three, five, then seven rotations in the air before landing with a powerful pop right back into the hands of the performer who tossed it. Dancers weaving their way across the tarp before casting their steel-bladed sabres up high, each precisely half a second after another.
Veteran color guard performer Irving Lopez, best known for his performances in Independent World Class winter guard team Fantasia and his facetious Instagram account @punkrockirving, gives his take on this sport of the arts in an exclusive interview with PTF co-Editor-in-Chief Angela Yang.
[Interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
ANGELA YANG: How would you explain “color guard” to somebody who’s never heard of it?
IRVING LOPEZ: Oh man! I hate this question already. If you're a guard person yourself you already know how hard it is to explain flags, rifles, sabres and dance on a field or gym floor to someone without it sounding weird or lame. The best way I try to describe it is like this: color guard is a performing arts activity that at times accompanies a marching band.
We are dancers who use equipment such as rifles, sabres and flags to express the motions and sounds of live or pre-recorded music. That's the real way of saying it, but most of the time regular people who don't know won't get it. So usually I say: You know those flags in a marching band? Yeah, that's what I do but at a much more difficult level. Then I proceed to show them a video because I know they still won't get it!
YANG: When and how were you first introduced to guard?
LOPEZ: I was introduced to color guard in an odd and unexpected way. Most of the time kids are introduced to guard through their middle or high school program. However, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and went to a high school that always cut the performing arts programs. So essentially there wasn't even a marching band at my high school. I found out about color guard through a youth arts program I was in that taught kids how to sing and dance. Our coach at the time also did color guard and asked me and a few of the other kids if we would be interested in joining. He showed me a video and I thought it was pretty cool!
YANG: Describe the experience of learning to handle the equipment.
LOPEZ: I was 12, I believe, when a flag was put into my hand. It was really exhilarating to me. I was always awful at sports, but this time I finally was good at something right off the bat. Within the first week I was already tossing doubles on flag. A year later I was introduced to rifle, and man, it was like love at first sight. I was so obsessed with rifle and wanted to be the best that I could be. I had a bit of a hard time with sabre, and I still don't consider myself a good sabre spinner but that—well let’s just say I tried to avoid it when I could.
YANG: What do you think are the most challenging aspects of color guard?
LOPEZ: There are so many challenging things about color guard, and it's always different for everyone. Here are just a few of my challenges:
I think trying to explain to your friends and family how important this activity is to you. At times to them it just seems like a rinky-dink activity, but they don't know how much hard work you put into it and the passion that comes with it.
Practicing. Specifically, outside of rehearsal. Yes, people that show up to rehearsal are great obviously, but the members that practice outside of rehearsal are the best. They are the ones willing to go the extra mile. I have to admit my first few years of guard I didn't practice at all outside of rehearsal, and eventually it caught up to me. I know it's hard just thinking of rehearsing on your own when there is this hot new Netflix show or you want to be on your phone, but it is so worth it, especially when you're trying to get better.
Figuring out how to perform is always so difficult, because you are so embarrassed about how you will be looked at or just feel uncomfortable. Most of the time, students don't do it because they feel stupid. Once a student is able to figure it out and perform in front of people and their peers they have already taken a huge step in the right direction to becoming a great color guard performer.
Patience. Patience is everything in color guard. Many students, including myself at one point, want everything handed to us on a silver platter. So when all of a sudden you're an alternate or don't get on that weapon line that you really wanted, you feel cheated and decide to give up. That is totally fine, but at the end of the day maybe it is for the best, because those that will suck it up and roll with the punches are usually the ones with the dedication to accomplish their goals. I remember my first year at [World Class drum and bugle corps] Blue Devils; I didn't make the rifle line, and that was one of the hugest blows to my guard career. I felt so cheated. I was bitter, but then realized I was in one of the best color guards in Drum Corps International and needed to be proud that I was there, so I bit the bullet and did my time on flag line, which ended up being a great experience! After that season I was so determined to make rifle line, I practiced all the time, as hard as I could. Then when judgement day came, I was picked to be on the rifle line! I have to say that was one of the happiest days of my color guard life, and it was even better because I actually worked hard for it—it was not handed to me. So be patient and work your butt off. People are not just going to give you things. You have to work at them.
YANG: What makes it all worth it to you?
LOPEZ: Us color guard performers know how hard it is to get a certain phrase or toss down. What makes it all worth it is putting ourselves out there in front of family, friends and sadly sometimes enemies and showing them what we've got. So for me some of the best moments that make it all worth it is nailing a huge trick toss at finals in front of so many people and hearing their cheers. I live for moments like that.
YANG: When and why did you realize you wanted to pursue guard professionally?
LOPEZ: I think the deciding factor for me was just seeing other guards in World Class that I love kick ass on the floor. I remember when I first saw the Northern Lights, this all male group that was around for three years. They were so beautiful and strong at the same time. I wanted to be just like them; it was exactly what I needed to see at that point in time of my life.
YANG: Which independent teams have you been a part of and for how long?
LOPEZ: Brace yourself, it’s a long [list]!
2003 - 2008: Project "L" Winter Guard
2006, 2008: Gold Drum and Bugle Corps
2006 - 2007: SoCal Dream Drum and Bugle Corps
2009 - 2010: Diamante Winter Guard
2011: Corona Winter Guard
2009 - 2011: Blue Devils Drum & Bugle Corps
2012, 2014, 2015: Santa Clara Vanguard Winter Guard
2017: Fantasia Winter Guard
YANG: Can you tell us why you left Fantasia?
LOPEZ: I was just contently done. I absolutely loved Fantasia and all the people that I met there. I just got to a certain point where I realized everyone was way younger than me and were so much more talented than me, which is great. I just felt content. Up to that point I had done everything I wanted to do. I accomplished all of my color guard goals and more. I did 13 winter guard seasons, so I definitely put in my time. I will always miss it, but it is definitely time for the next generation to take over, which makes me really happy.
YANG: How do you prepare the night before a show, and what goes through your mind when you’re on the floor seconds before the big run?
LOPEZ: Extreme anxiety. Not joking. I am always so nervous the night before and right before I go on the floor, which is another reason why I decided not to keep marching. Before I go on a floor my palms sweat like crazy, my body becomes weak and I suddenly start doubting myself. However, I did my best to push those negative thoughts out of my head. I am sure I am not the only guard performer who feels this way. You are always afraid of failure. The thing that I do as best as I can is try to think of the best outcome possible. That's all you can do. Thinking negatively about your show is most likely going to give you negative results.
I also really get in the zone right before I go on the floor. I know a lot of people like to hug and say "have a good show" but I am the quiet one who doesn’t let outside factors distract me. When we walk in and I hear screams and people saying my name I don't look at them. I don't want to find people in the stands, I just want to pretend like they are all strangers to me. I feel like I always have the best outcomes when I do that, staying focused on the end goal, which is having a great show.
YANG: What are you feeling as the show is in progress, and how do you maintain confidence throughout all the difficult maneuvers the team is expected to pull off?
LOPEZ: Great question! I know when the show is being written it is so hard to keep your spirits lifted because you just want to go out there and perform already. The thing that you always have to remember is that there is a process that your coach has for you, and it is your duty to follow it for you and the rest of the team to have success. There will always be difficult maneuvers and tosses the team has to get through, but as long as everyone is on the same page and giving each other confidence, there is nothing a team can't do. When people are checked out, then a group will not do so well. When an entire team is trusting the process, usually there is a great outcome. So I always say, think of the end goal. It will all be worth it then.
YANG: What keeps you motivated to keep training when things get tough?
LOPEZ: When I was marching, what kept me motivated was the people that I was marching with and my coaches. If I dropped at a show or ruined a phrase at rehearsal or at a show I felt like I let my entire team down, and I never want to do that. So I push through those hard times of long rehearsals, I wake up early to rehearse on my own before work, I look at videos of myself to see what I can do better so I can be the best that I can be for my team. I never want anyone to say, "Oh, we lost because Irving dropped his solo," or, "If only Irving was a team player we would have done much better." So for me, I do it all for my team; they inspire me to push when I can't push anymore.
YANG: Color guard expenses can really add up. How do professional teams finance everything?
LOPEZ: I am probably the wrong person to ask this. I hate dealing with money. However, I will say that teams really do need that booster mom or financial person to take care of all this. We would be lost without them behind the scenes.
YANG: You’ve managed to integrate guard life into the social media world. How do you feel about all the exposure you get?
LOPEZ: I hate it and I love it at the same time. I hate it because I have put myself in a position where people are able to point and judge. A lot of people who have never met me (and a few that have) base their judgement on me upon what they see on my Instagram. Many of those people think I am this big, ego-driven, arrogant guy in the guard world, but those who truly know me know that I am the complete opposite of that. To see their hate comments does hurt, especially when they’re from people you thought were your friends. It makes me start doubting what I am truly doing, but then I always remind myself that not everyone is going to like what I do. I can't please everyone.
People love to hate on things that they do not understand or are jealous of. However, I love it because of all the people who outweigh the negativity. I started being goofy on my Instagram because it was different and fun. Eventually this content that I pushed out spawned so many positive messages and comments. Every day I get comments from people of all ages telling me how much of a smile my funny videos gave them. Even in person I hear kids tell me that I've inspired them to keep working hard and accomplish their goals. Comments like that make my Instagram presence so worth it. If I can bring a smile to someone's face or inspire them, then my videos have truly done their job.
YANG: What advice would you give to a high school student aspiring to eventually perform with an Independent World Class team?
LOPEZ: Just hold on to that goal. It's not going to be easy, but work hard for it and it will happen. Take in the comments your coaches tell you and make sure you apply them so that you are able to become a better performer and spinner.
YANG: What do you think makes a good team?
LOPEZ: Organization, hard work and positivity.
[Lopez also shared his video on how to audition for an independent guard, see below.]