Employee Q&A: Twirling Coach Shirlee Bertolini

Employee Q&A: Twirling Coach Shirlee Bertolini

By Alexis Blue
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Bertolini with members of the 2005-2006 UA Twirling Line.
Bertolini with members of the 2005-2006 UA Twirling Line.
Shirlee Bertolini became the UA marching band's first featured twirler in 1954.
Shirlee Bertolini became the UA marching band's first featured twirler in 1954.

Shirlee Bertolini

Coach, UA Twirling Line

Number of years at the UA

Favorite part about working at the UA
"Working with the kids; working with the girls."


They call her the "Grande Dame" of the University of Arizona marching band. Coach of the UA Twirling Line, Shirlee Bertolini is in her 55th year at the UA.

Bertolini became the first twirler in the band in 1954. After earning her psychology degree in 1958, she went on to coach the UA twirlers, increasing the team to seven members, enough to spell out the word "Arizona" on their uniforms.

Of the 110 competitions Bertolini entered during her twirling career, she won 107, and she has taught twirling and judged competitions throughout the United States and internationally.

Today, the UA Twirling Line is the largest collegiate twirling team in the country, with 16 members. The twirlers perform at football games with the Pride of Arizona marching band and on the court during men's and women's basketball games. They've been Arizona state champions the past two years.

No doubt the music has changed a bit since Bertolini's days in the twirling spotlight. As her twirlers practiced a routine set to the rock music of the Foo Fighters, Bertloini took time out to talk with Lo Que Pasa in the Jim Click Hall of Champions, where a display case holds the first baton she ever twirled at the UA.

When did you first pick up a baton?
I think I was 9, 10, 11, somewhere around there. ... Somebody in the neighborhood was twirling and that caught my eye.

How did your twirling career begin at the UA?
Jack Lee was the band director and he wanted to have some females (twirling) in the band, so he judged a (twirling) contest in Michigan and I happened to have won this contest and he offered me a scholarship to come to the University of Arizona to be the first twirler. I came with two of my partners who I had been twirling with in Detroit and the three of us came out as a team – two males and myself – in 1954, 55 years ago. I was a senior in high school. When I graduated, I got on a train with my two partners and we came out to the University. He (the band director) didn't have any twirlers (at that time). 

I hear you challenged the band director on wearing shorts?
When I came here, no female could wear shorts on campus. I twirled in a band uniform and it was very, very difficult, and when I would come to practice I would have to wear long pants, so I begged and begged and begged and finally they allowed me to wear a band uniform, but with shorts.

What's your most memorable performance as a twirler in the band?
The first Super Bowl (in 1967) in Los Angeles Coliseum. ... We (the UA marching band) performed with the Grambling (University) Band from Louisiana. 

Do most college bands have twirlers?
Most have a few twirlers but few colleges have teams.

How has twirling changed since you started out?
Tremendous changes. It involves, now, doing multiple things under aerials (when the baton is thrown in the air) such as walkovers, cartwheels, multiple spins – lots of gymnastics.

How do you recruit girls for the program?
I judge competitions all over, and our program is so well known that they usually contact me. ... They contact me even when they're freshmen in high school and then they come for a visit and I meet with the parents and the students.

How many competitions does your team do?
We're doing more and more, three to four (a year), which is a lot. ... They did nationals at Notre Dame this year and they placed fifth place in the nation.

Do you choreograph the routines?

The girls choreograph everything. I try and help them if they're having a problem, make sure that everything's running smooth, (and I do) lots of administrative work.

Tell me about your scholarship program.
I have a scholarship in my name. Whatever my compensation (UA pay) is, I give back to the twirlers in the form of scholarships, which cover books and other things.

You've coached a lot of girls over the years. Do you stay in touch with them?
Oh yes. Christmas cards, birthdays, weddings, babies, anniversaries, everything. It's wonderful. Lots of physicians, lots of lawyers, lots of everything.

Were any of your own children twirlers?
I have two sons and six grandchildren. Both of my sons twirled and they both graduated from Amphi High School.

What are some of your favorite memories from your twirling career?
I could write a book. I can remember when we did our halftime shows at the bullring down in Mexico, when they used to have the bullfights in Nogales in the '60s. And when the rodeo came to town we'd go in the middle of the arena, mud and all, and do our halftime shows. ... And we used to go to every away football game, every one. But as the years went on and money became harder to come by (and) everything was more expensive, we had to cut back on travel. ... We did the Coca-Cola Bowl in Tokyo; that was a fun one. That was in 1986. And I've done a lot of bowl games in Hawaii.

In all your years here did you ever think of going to another school to coach?
Oh, never. My heart is here.

Any plans to retire?
Not really.

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