With their short skirts, white boots and high hats, marching teams provide one of New Zealand’s most distinctive sporting spectacles. Marching as a competitive pursuit for girls and women was invented in New Zealand, and marching teams have been popular both with participants and the crowds watching them in parades and displays.
Marching began in Inglewood in the mid-1940s when Peggy Klenner put a notice in her shop window: ‘Wanted. 16 smart girls to form an Inglewood Marching Team. Only girls without glasses will be eligible. Please apply within.’1 She was overwhelmed when more than 100 people indicated interest. By the mid-1950s the Inglewood Vanguards team, coached by Bernie Plumb and led by Rachel Josephs, was topping the Taranaki competition and winning places at the national championships.
Marching displays by girls and boys were a popular feature of school concerts and social gatherings as far back as the 1880s. During the South African War (1899–1902) young women dressed in uniforms and performed military drill at patriotic fundraising events. These activities may have influenced the later emergence of formation marching by teams of young women. Marching competitions became a feature of workplace annual sports days from the late 1920s. Teams of workers from shops, offices and factories, and YWCA teams, devised their own uniforms and spent hours perfecting elaborate and highly synchronised manoeuvres.
During the Second World War, with encouragement from physical welfare officers in the Department of Internal Affairs, marching teams were established throughout the country and marching developed as an activity in its own right. Recreational marching was seen as useful in keeping up workers’ morale and promoting physical fitness amongst young women. Drill sergeants and officers in the Home Guard provided instruction in march formations using military forms adapted to a more ‘feminine’ style. Brass and pipe bands provided the music.
There was an ambivalent and at times hostile attitude to marching from the cultural elite. For writers A. R. D. Fairburn (in 1952) and Bruce Mason (in 1976) the enthusiasm with which New Zealanders embraced the spectacle of young women performing military-style drill was disturbing. In their eyes it smacked of a cult and an over fondness for militarist trappings.
The New Zealand Marching Association was formed in August 1945, and the first national championships took place the following year. In its early years championship events were attended by senior public servants and politicians. Such direct government interest in marching’s success was unusual. Soon marching had a high profile.
Marching teams eventually consisted of 10 members, including a leader who issued whistle commands. The team’s aim was to give the impression of moving as one, with energy and discipline. In competitions, as well as being assessed for the precision of their marching, teams were judged on the suitability of their uniforms.
As a summer recreation, marching offered girls and young women an activity that was physically exacting rather than strenuous, requiring skill and concentration rather than sweat and strength. There was no need for specialist equipment or grounds before a team could get started. Team membership provided social opportunities and a sense of belonging.
Team members and their supporters could be inventive when designing uniforms. Compared to the boxy gym frocks worn at school, hockey and netball uniforms and the even more hated rompers, marching outfits could be attractive. Intended to create a dramatic impression, with sharp angles and straight lines, they were as much a costume as a uniform. Tartans, epaulettes (ornamental shoulder pieces), lanyards (ropes and cords), towering busbys (tall fur hats), cockaded hats (decorated with a knot of ribbons), Glengarry bonnets (traditional Scots hats) worn on an angle, chevrons and braid, white boots and gauntlets or gloves helped define team identities.
Team names provided similar creative scope. They drew on a mix of Scottish, parade-ground and Hollywood inspirations. Often names were expressed as a diminutive. Cavaliers, Guards, Grenadiers, Sargettes, Glennettes, Weldonettes, Kilties and Brockettes are some of the best known.
Marching grew rapidly in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially a sport for young women of working years, it extended to a younger age group. By the late 1950s juniors (aged 12–15) were competing at national championships and by the late 1960s ‘midget’ teams (aged 8–11) joined them. The administration of the sport became less male-dominated after Norma Mangos was elected dominion president of the New Zealand Marching Association in 1959.
As well as competing for championship points and trophies at local, centre, island and national competitions, marching teams took a prominent place in local and national events. Teams appeared regularly in street parades, at agricultural and pastoral shows, and at civic welcomes for royal visitors.
The white tunics and red tartan of the Wellington-based Lochiel team dominated the public and competitive face of marching. Formed in the late 1950s, and active competitors until 2003, the team had a remarkable record of 26 national titles. Much of the team’s success was due to Colleen Pobar (coach from 1966) and the dedication of team members including the multi-championship winning leader Jodene Tuau.
Champion Dunedin team Blair Athol toured Britain in 1952. The team’s attempt to promote the sport beyond New Zealand was ultimately not successful – a form of marching developed in Australia but along different lines. However, the tour laid the ground for a succession of international performances by New Zealand’s top teams. Wellington’s Lochiel team is the best known. Invited to participate in the prestigious Edinburgh Tattoo in 1978, the team undertook a series of international tours in following decades.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s marching reached its height, with between 300 and 400 teams competing. By 1992 the numbers had dropped to under 200. Like other sports and recreation organisations, the New Zealand Marching Association struggled to attract new members, and to hold on to the large retinue of volunteers that supported the sport as judges, coaches, chaperones and fundraisers. Rival recreation and leisure pursuits, changing patterns of work, different weekend routines, shifting aesthetics and new opportunities for women in sport all contributed to the decline in traditional team sports.
Although marching teams began to ebb in popularity, the place of ‘marching girls’ in New Zealand culture became secure. Fiona Samuel’s celebrated 1987 television drama series The marching girls and Maggie Rainey-Smith’s 2005 novel About turns are just two of several sympathetic and at times nostalgic portrayals of marching teams.
A new name for the national organisation, Marching New Zealand, and a simplification of the administrative structure signalled a major overhaul of the sport in 1998. Greater flexibility in march routines updated marching for the pop-music generations of the 21st century. By the 2000s there was a flourishing masters’ grade (older women) and new beginners’ grades. Forty-two top teams vied for honours at the 2012 national championships.
Cheerleading is a more recent addition to New Zealand’s sporting and recreational life. It is derived from United States models in both the display and competitive forms in which it has flourished since the mid-1990s. There is some confusion between the two quite separate forms of cheerleading.
Female cheerleaders, typically wearing revealing costumes and waving pom-poms while performing dance moves, have appeared at major fixtures of men’s professional sports as part of the entertainment offered to spectators. Although this type of cheerleading is popular with many, some people object to what they see as skimpy costumes and raunchy routines.
In 2009 New Zealand team the All Star Cheerleaders set a new world record for a cheerleading ‘basket toss’, throwing ‘flyer’ Kate Mann 5.1 metres from ground level. This bettered the previous record by nearly 2 metres, and Mann, at the age of 12, became one of the youngest people to hold a world record. The triumph was brief – the record was broken the following year by an Australian team.
In competitive or sport cheerleading cheerleaders of both sexes perform a set of highly skilled gymnastic routines, featuring lifts, tumbling and pyramids, in order to score points against tightly defined judging criteria. Team members include ‘flyers’, who are tossed in the air by the team and ‘bases’ who support pyramids and throw the flyers. Competition routines are performed to music.
The All Stars Cheerleaders, founded in Auckland in 1999 by Kimberley Ramsay, dominate the sport in New Zealand. The sport operates on a commercial basis.
Teams of up to 24 have performed nationally since 2003, and with considerable success internationally. The first international cheerleading competition held in New Zealand was the All Stars Cheerleading Internationals, held in Auckland in October 2006.
In 2012 there was no national governing body, and not all teams participated in national championships. However, estimates suggested that 1,500–2,000 people were involved in competitive cheerleading in New Zealand. The majority were girls and young women, but boys and young men also participated.
Some primary and intermediate schools offer dance-style cheerleading as one of their activities for girls – despite the opposition of some parents. All Stars Cheerleading also run school programmes, and their first junior cheerleading team was formed at Whenuapai School, Auckland, in 2000.
Macdonald, Charlotte. ‘Moving in unison, dressing in uniform: stepping out in style with marching teams.’ In Looking flash: clothing in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Bronwyn Labrum, Fiona McKergow and Stephanie Gibson, pp.186–205. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007.
Macdonald, Charlotte. Strong, beautiful and modern: national fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2011.
Mangos, N., and J. Stayt. New Zealand: marching down under. Wellington: New Zealand Marching Association, 1984.
Williams, Jill, Val Browning and Charlotte Macdonald. ‘New Zealand Marching Association 1945–.’ In Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand : ngā rōpū wāhine o te motu, edited by Anne Else, pp. 437–439. Wellington: Daphne Brasell Associates Press/Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1993.