Twirl Girl: Meet Blue Sapphire Rachel Reiss
While 21,000 students tailgate in preparation to pile into the student section in Beaver Stadium, Rachel Reiss has been awake since before the sun rose, getting ready to twirl in front of 107,000 people.
Reiss was selected in spring 2013 as the Blue Band’s featured twirler, known as the Blue Sapphire, out of a dozen applicants from across the country. A Wrightsville native, Reiss has twirled since she can remember.
“I really wanted to take tap lessons,” she said. “But when all the classes for my age group were full, I took a twirling class in the meantime.”
Baton remained her focus as she got older and she supplemented twirling with tumbling, gymnastics, ballet, and technique classes. Reiss started competing seriously in ninth grade on a team based out of Baltimore, which was an hour drive both ways twice a week. She went to a small private high school and never twirled at school.
She wrote her college essay about how she had a double life: her baton life and her school life. “Now everything is really intertwined and it’s definitely different,” she said.
Interestingly, Reiss was never in a marching band before coming to Penn State, but Penn State was always at the top of her list when looking at colleges.
“I just always knew about it (the Blue Sapphire) from when I was younger,” Reiss said. “I knew about (former Blue Sapphire) Bobbie Jo (Solomon) from the time I was really young and I really looked up to her. I just always knew about Penn State.”
Reiss auditioned to become the Blue Sapphire when she was a senior in high school. On the day of her audition, she had a five-minute prepared routine before she had to do an improv performance to march music, followed by an interview with a five-person panel.
Matt Freeman, the four-year featured twirler before Reiss’ time, was a sensation in Beaver Stadium. Reiss knew Freeman before she came to Penn State from the competition circuit. She contacted him when she was looking to audition and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
“He told me to enjoy every moment,” she said. “One thing he said to me that has really stuck with me was to not get caught up in everything else that’s going on to the point where you forget why you’re here.”
The Blue Band practices Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday for about two hours. When the rest of the band is practicing, Reiss is always twirling.
Blue Band President Pat Burke could not say enough good things about Reiss.
“Rachel’s role in the Blue Band as the feature twirler is extremely important and serves to highlight the visual aspect of our program,” Burke said. “She has consistently upheld our tradition of excellence and constantly represents the Blue Band well on and off of the field.”
When she practices with the band, Reiss first goes over the drill, listens to a recording of the music for that week and starts to visualize the choreography in her head. Then she applies that with the band and figures out how to put it all together before game day.
The costumes you see Reiss wearing in Beaver Stadium are all custom-made, and she has a hand in designing them. “It’s fun, at the beginning of the year, to sit down and work on all the designs,” she said.
“I’m my own entity,” she said. Reiss said she gets a lot of creative freedom because of that.
Reiss choreographs her own routines, which she said she’s gotten a lot quicker at and can now do in about an hour. Sometimes, especially this season, she had to adjust her routines to accommodate for the weather. If it’s muddy she’ll do less gymnastics and if it’s cold she keeps handwarmers in her pockets.
She still gets nervous, particularly for the pregame performance when they announce her name and she has a big trick when she first comes out of the tunnel.
“I squeeze people’s hands before we go on to try and get the tension out of my fingers,” Reiss said.
When she drops the baton — on the field or in competition — she initially gets mad at herself.
“It’s really easy to let that get to you so I have this mode I go into where I just forget about it,” she said. “If I get hung up on that I’ll be down on myself for the rest of the performance.”
Reiss spoke highly of Greg Drane, the band’s new director this year who succeeded Dr. O. Richard Bundy.
“I was very happy to have the experience to work with Dr. Bundy because he is such a legend,” Reiss said. “But I really like all the new initiatives and everything that he (Drane) has done this year.”
Reiss still twirls at the regional, national, and international level. In April 2015, she attended the World Championships in Italy and won the gold medal with her dance team, the Dynamics, in the Junior Dance Team division.
Outside of the Blue Band, Reiss is pursuing a double major in French and Entrepreneurship. After college, she knows she is interested in small businesses and local startups.
When asked to recall her favorite Blue Band memory thus far, Reiss smiled and remembered a day last fall with the former drum major Chris Siergie.
“We were taking our preseason photos at Childhood’s Gate in the Arboretum and Chris looked at me and said ‘You’re literally at Childhood’s Gate now Rachel,’” she said. “That was the first time I really connected with someone at Penn State and knew I was where I belonged.”