Behind the Curtain: A Look at Indiana's Lesser Known Tradition

Taking a Peek Backstage of Indianapolis' Top Show Choirs

<p>The Zionsville Royalaires won a national competition at Heart of America Orlando</p>

The Zionsville Royalaires won a national competition at Heart of America Orlando

The crowd leaks into the aisles at Franklin Central High School’s crowded auditorium and the house lights dim. A group in vibrant, colorful costumes emerges from the dark wings to dramatic music, crashing thunder, loud cheering and sporadic, flashing stage lights.

As the spotlights brighten upon the group, the anticipation is finally over for these performers. For the next fifteen to twenty minutes, their powerful singing and fluid, synchronized dance moves will captivate all in attendance. Most of the top Indianapolis show choirs are in attendance, and every movement must be strictly calculated to come out victorious. This sensational scene is typical for high school show choir competitions across Indiana.

The Indianapolis metro area features many top show choirs, including some from Zionsville, Carmel, and Fishers.

Show choir is an integral part of the Indianapolis cultural scene. Throughout the calendar year, thousands of people cram into venues across the metro area to see some of the most prestigious groups in the nation present shows that rival Broadway productions and inspire a whole new generation of performers.

Show choir is a performing art that combines choral singing with choreographed dance and costuming, usually with a specific theme. Over time, choirs have expanded to include extensive choreography, flashy costumes, spectacular lighting effects and large bands as their shows inch towards emulating a full-scale Broadway production. 

Thea Bendaly, a sophomore in Carmel High School’s all-women group, the Accents, explains how these shows mesmerized her in middle school. 

“Since the seventh grade, I have been obsessed with show choir." Bendaly remarked, "I remember watching old performances on YouTube and looking up to these performers with such high regard. They were my middle school heroes, which reminded me of the impact show choir actually makes on people.”

The Indianapolis show choir circuit attracted hundreds of fans this past winter to watch some of the best groups in the country compete for the title of grand champion. Like many sports, competition is a substantial part of show choir. However, unlike sports, it is not uncommon to see competing groups cheer for one another. Bendaly discussed this unique bit of show choir culture.

“Show choir is the only extracurricular activity in which competitors can become friends.” Bendaly said, “I believe that some competitive sports and extracurriculars encourage an atmosphere of anger or egotistical competitiveness, but show choir encourages a community of teenagers who love to perform.”

While show choir is a competitive event, many performers realize that the performing art is about more than just winning. For Mirii Nunokawa of Center Grove High School’s varsity mixed-gender show choir group, Sound System, competing is about the commitment required to produce a compelling show.

“For me, competing means that I get to see all of the sweat and tears I’ve put into all of the practices come together to make an amazing show," Nunokawa said.

Center Grove High School in Greenwood, IN, has a rich history of show choir with their varsity groups, Sound System and the Debtones.

Sound System works upwards of fifteen to twenty hours a week during competition season to preserve its rich fifty-year history of winning competitions. Thus, for Caroline Kendall of Center Grove Sound System, nothing can top that winning moment that caps off a season of hard work.

“Getting on stage with fifty five of your closest friends and seeing all of the work pay off when the audience cheers for you is incredible,” Kendall shared. “However, absolutely nothing comes close to winning in your division because it was a team effort, and everyone played a role in getting the win. There is no feeling like seeing your choir’s hard work get rewarded.”

For sophomore Samantha Webb of Center Grove High School’s varsity all-women group, the Debtones, winning was less important to her than the process of developing a top-tier show alongside her fellow performers.

“I don’t find that winning is all that matters," Webb admitted. "Now it’s definitely a plus to win or be close to winning, but it’s more the teamwork beforehand, that makes it competitive. We all equally want to win, but if we have that drive to win, that’s what makes it better.”

This drive for victory and continual improvement brings crowds to watch these high school performers. Starting humbly from a show choir competition in Fort Wayne, Indiana, show choir quickly gained popularity, encouraging many new groups and contests to become established across the Midwest. This popularity encouraged show choir’s immense growth and continual improvement at the highest levels.

The crowds can be intimidating for some performers, but not for Kaylee Whitaker of Center Grove’s junior varsity all-women group, the Accents. 

“It’s surreal,” Whitaker said. “People always ask me, ‘How are you not scared of performing in front of large crowds?’ And my answer is that I feel at home in front of an audience. I’ve always felt born to be on stage.”

For senior Caroline Kendall, performing in front of a large competition crowd is all about the recognition from the other competing groups that frequently fill the seats.

“It is an honor and a privilege [to perform in front of huge crowds]," Kendall said. “I am always blown away by what choirs bring to the stage, so it means a lot to me when they give my choir the same reaction.”

The most impactful facet of show choir is its effect on inspiring the next generation of performers to carry on its legacy of entertainment as well as embrace the same friendly yet competitive spirit that makes the performing art so distinctive. Performing on some of the same stages she watched on YouTube in middle school, Bendaly notes the meaningful influence her performance can have.

“Being able to perform in front of huge crowds, in venues that I have only seen in videos, has reminded me that everything I do in competition will one day inspire someone else, someone just like me, to pursue show choir and to pursue performing," Bendaly said.

Carmel High School's all-women's group, the Accents, included an uplifting message in their show.

Nathan Ensley is a photographer and writer for The Campus Citizen, IUPUI's student news publication. He is a freshman majoring in Informatics and watched a great deal of show choir this past year

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