Acadamy Starz twirl their way to the top

3/3/2017 | Chris Maza

Category: March 2017

Kayla Rufo (left) and Haily Mereschuk (right) practice a routine.
Reminder Publications photos by Chris Maza

With a successful January, the Academy Starz are picking up right where they left off.

The competitive baton twirling team at The Academy of Artistic Performance posted an impressive performance at the Miss Majorette of Massachusetts competition, getting the 2017 season off on the right foot.

“We actually swept the competition,” Coach Brittany Locke said. “In everything we entered as a team and as individuals we placed as high as we possibly could. In the intermediate 13-15 division, we had three girls and they placed first, second and third.”

With girls competing at a high level at number of different levels – novice, beginner, intermediate and advanced – the Academy Starz also boasted the biggest winner in Mollie Dion, who won the highest division to become the advanced Senior Miss Majorette of Massachusetts.

The Miss Majorette of Massachusetts competition is the first qualifying event for the national competition, which takes place every year at the University of Notre Dame in July.

Baton twirling, according to Brittany and her mother Nancy, the director of the studio, is becoming increasingly popular across the nation, and that groundswell of interest is on display at the national competition,    

“Kids from all over the country swarm Notre Dame. It’s a movement that not that many people know exists or that it exists at such a level. There are kids from places all over the country – girls from everywhere from the local recreation department to spending hours upon hours in the gym,” Nancy Locke said.

She added the sport’s expansion has included the college ranks, especially in areas where big-time college football is most popular, opening up more opportunities for girls who twirl.

“There’s a giant push now on college twirling. In the last few years it’s grown a lot,” she said. “New England is a little tougher because we don’t have that big football component, but it’s growing everywhere.”

With several girls qualifying and more hoping to do so at upcoming events, Brittany Locke said they’re very happy the girls were able to continue on a path to success they’ve achieved year after year.

“It was kind of a nice way to start the season,” Brittany Locke said. “We ended last season with a team national championship at Notre Dame. They were the junior national twirl team champions three years in a row.”

The team also had the national champion in the beginner division two years ago.

The level of excellence isn’t a surprise. Nancy Locke, who founded the academy 43 years ago with a friend to offer everything from theater to vocal coaching to competitive dance to baton, was a national champion baton twirler herself as a teenager and was inducted into the National Baton Twirling Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

While guided by the mother and daughter team, the troupe of dedicated athletes mostly have themselves to thank for their success, Nancy insisted.

“I always tell them they’re going to be as good as they allow themselves to be,” she said. “If they put in the work and have the dedication, they can do great things.”

Dion, an 18-year-old Agawam High School senior, is a perfect example of the dedication of which Nancy speaks.

Dion has always been a part of the sport, twirling since she was 2 years old and by the time she was 7, she was traveling an hour and a half to practice with Nancy Locke before moving to the area. Over that time, Dion said the experience has taught her an enormity about life and herself.

“I like the sense of excellence it’s given me that I can being to all of the other aspects of my life. I like that unique edge it’s given me,” she said.

But the Lockes also stressed you don’t have to have twirled your entire life to find success. Kayla Rufo, Dion’s Agawam High School classmate and previously a dancer at the studio, has been part of the team for just two years, joining her younger sister Marissa. This year, she finished first in the senior beginner division at the Miss Majorette Competition.

Beyond the success in competition, she said the program has been a blessing.

“When my sister joined the team, I wanted to do it and it gave me a team, it gave me a sense of commitment, I learned how to manage my time better and now it’s something I can share with my sister and my mom,” she said.

It’s also opened up other doors. Kayla, along with Mollie and fellow high schoolers Haily Mereschuk, Jamie-Lyn Cavallon, and Emily Seng, twirl with the Agawam Marching Mohawks. The Academy Starz have also performed at the Harlem Globetrotters’ local appearances, UMass athletics and the New Britain Rock Cats.

With a shared goal and a sense of camaraderie, the Academy Starz aren’t unlike any other sports team. In addition to competing, they’ve shared experiences, traveled together and forged friendships.

“I love seeing everyone here and the bonding and the traveling,” Marissa Rufo said. “Really, everything about it. I just love it.”

Some enjoy being able to go somewhere and do something in which they can become completely engrossed.

“I love being on the team because it almost acts as a stress reliever,” Cavallon said. “You come here and you have people who are happy and good friends and it just distracts you from the outside and life in general.”

And for others, the team has been a support system as well. Dion admitted her early years of high school were not easy, but the team and the sport were something she could lean on.

“I was upset and I talked to my coaches who reminded me that I did have friends and it’s all of the people in this room. These are my friends, my family,” she said. “The team has brought a lot of opportunities and I love the sense of family it brings; these girls are like my second family. We might all be different ages, but I always feel like we can come together for each other and be there for each other.”

For more information on the Academy Starz or The Academy of Artistic Performance, visit their website,, their Facebook page,, or call 539-4225.

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