Dutchess-based twirling club to send eight to world championships

Robert Leske is used to performing in front of massive audiences, often with around 60,000 people watching and expecting a flawless presentation.

This is actually the easy part.

“It’s a fun experience,” the Pawling native said of his performances in football games with the North Carolina State University Marching Band. “Here, it’s less important what you do than how you do it. There’s a lot less pressure, so you have fun.

It is very different when fixed eyes are not trained and are not so critical and do not determine a numerical value for execution.

No, explained Leske. The baton twirling in front of these excited fans feels like “a reward” for all the time spent focusing on the technical intricacies, seeking to impress the judges.

He did that well. Exceptionally well.

The 19-year-old is part of an elite group of local twirlers who will show off their skills next summer on one of their sport’s biggest platforms, competing at the world championships in London.

Leske qualified individually in three disciplines at the National Baton Twirling Association qualifiers last July in Indiana, and he will be joined by seven teammates from a club program based in Dutchess County with which he trained most of his life.

“I’m so excited to be able to share this experience with the group,” said Leske, who has already earned two world championship berths. “It’s always an honor to represent my country, but seeing my team succeed and get this far is the most rewarding part.”

Back to normal: Beaudoin and Leske gain places for the world championships after a year ruined by the pandemic

Bring back home: Leske and Beaudoin win medals at the 2018 World Baton Twirling Championships

Leske started twirling at the age of 5 and his skills were honed under trainer Allison Stuart with the Silver Starlites.

Calise Henry of Dover, Gracie Burton of LaGrange, Charlotte Genesi of Pawling and Madison Anderson of Hopewell Junction are the other Dutchess products who shone with the Starlites in the tag team competition at the Nationals to qualify.

They will be alongside Isabelle Andreo and Brooke Dixson from Carmel, and Ashley Sheil from Brewster when the team performs at the International Baton Twirling Federation World Championships next August.

Pawling native Robert Leske performs with the North Carolina State Marching Band at a college football game this fall.  Leske is a stick twirler who will compete in the world championships in 2023.

“It’s great for our community to have a home team that’s good enough to represent the country,” said Stuart, a Pawling native. “It’s a rewarding experience to coach them when they’re 5 and watch them develop to the point where they achieve goals at that level.”

Stuart was once an excited kid who got into twirling, and she joined the Silver Starlites when she was 6 years old. She competed twice at the world championships, including her inaugural event in 1990, and then played at Clemson University.

She’s now a senior deputy district attorney for Dutchess County, but twirling is still a passion. Stuart took over the Starlites in 2005 and now works alongside assistant coaches Lindsay Chuboda and Jessica Pulford, whom she has praised.

“I’m the deputy chief of the Special Victims Unit office,” she said, “so becoming a twirling coach afterwards is definitely an outlet.”

She was one of only three members of this club program to reach the international stage – along with Robert Leske and her older sister Annamarie – until this year. Seeing the growth of her team and the sport in general in the Hudson Valley, she said, “is very exciting.”

Gracie Burton, an Arlington High School student, shows off her medal from the National Batting Twirling Championships.  She was part of a local group that qualified for the world championships in 2023.

Robert Leske won a bronze medal in the men’s solo 2-pole category at the 2018 world championships, and Arlington High School student Micah Beaudoin won gold there as part of a juvenile duo that year. They qualified again in 2019 for the world championships to be held the following year, but COVID-19 canceled those plans that spring.

Unable to attend their usual practices, Leske found creative ways to continue training, individually and with his team. He built a platform in the garden to replicate the scene, said his mother, Teresa Leske. And teammates bought a linoleum floor to lay down, several feet apart, so they could practice group routines together while socially distancing.

“The kids that made this world team, they grew up together and have great chemistry, and they’re on their own,” Stuart said of the eight, five of whom are now in college and playing with bands. “We created the routine that they performed in May and they won national championships with it in July. It doesn’t take much for them to jibe.

Burton is an Arlington student who often performs alongside Beaudoin with their high school marching band. Beaudoin qualified for the world championships through the International Baton Twirling Federation championship last summer, but that organization has partnered with the NBTA to field artists for the national team. Thus, the classmates will once again be teammates at the world championships.

Arlington High School students Micah Beaudoin and Gracie Burton, stick twirlers with the school marching band, have both qualified to represent the United States at the 2023 World Stick Twirling Championships.

Burton and Sheil, as Starlite’s teammates, will compete individually in strut and 2 poles, respectively, and Sheil and Anderson will perform a duet. Leske, who also won a collegiate national championship earlier this year, will compete in the solo, 2-stick and 3-stick circuits in addition to senior team competition.

It will be the literal juggling act to complement the one he does now, managing his time with baton twirling while majoring in physics and chemistry at NC State.

Responsibilities can be tough, he said, but “but it helps to have good friends to keep me going.”

Time management and dedication to their craft are some of the hardest parts of becoming an elite competitor, Stuart said, which is all the more reason she’s so proud of her group.

“I always say, ‘Go show them what you’ve got’,” the coach said of pep talks given before big competitions. “They have already put in so much effort, spent so much time mastering these skills and worked so hard. All they have to do is show it. Go out and do your thing.

Stephen Haynes: [email protected]; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4

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