By Amelia Mugavero

All my life, I have been performing in front of audiences and preparing for a career where I would be in front of a camera. Through a variety of internships, journalism experiences and classes, I have tried to find creative ways to entertain my audience. As the feature twirler of the University of Illinois, I have performed in front of thousands of fans at each home game. However, I did not know that by the end of fall semester of my senior year, I would have performed in front of 65 million Americans at the 89th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City - an experience that will forever be the highlight of both my journalism and twirling career.

The Marching Illini was given the exciting announcement a year and half ago that we were selected to be in the parade. We later found out that we were the largest band in the parade and would be bringing in Santa Clause as the grand finale of the parade. No pressure right?

Director Barry Houser had been working the parade for years and did not flinch at the news. He immediately put the band to work to prepare for parade day. All season, we had the parade in the back of our minds as our major performance of the year, even though we had many games and performances before then. In November, we kicked into gear and the band started memorizing music and learning our drill for the televised performance in Herald Square. On top of that, we also practiced marching for the two-and-a-half-hour parade route through the city, perfecting marching in unison and building our stamina. Whether it be rain or shine, we were out there every day as a band, practicing and putting in hard work for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

All too soon, our band of 400 students and staff were in New York City, where we would spend a week experiencing the city and doing several performances leading up to the parade. Plus, we did have some free time to roam around the city. I have been to New York before, but I feel there is never enough time to soak it all in. Thankfully, Illinois has amazing alumni in the broadcast profession who graciously allowed me to visit the set of both the Today Show and Fox News! Later that night, myself and members of the Illinettes dance team grabbed a bite of famous New York-style pizza and saw a Broadway Show.

Orange room


Thursday arrived and our alarms woke us up at 1 a.m. to start our day. The reason for the early hour was because we had to get 400 band members on busses to do a practice in Herald Square for NBC, eat breakfast, change, and then get in line to wait several hours before the parade even started. The time passed quickly and we were walking down the packed streets with people cheering us on for miles. It was amazing to see people dressed in orange and blue, or complete strangers wanting a picture with us because we were simply in the parade. I personally had the honor of leading the band with my fellow feature twirler, Chase Dorn, and act as ambassadors for the sport of twirling in front of all the cheering fans, as well as our friends, family, and twirler-family watching from their homes. 

At the end of the parade, the big performance in Herald Square was set up with seven different NBC cameras shooting only a few feet from our faces and hundreds of people viewing live in person. We led the band to the marking at the front of the square, called the ‘Red Ready Line.’ Once the large balloon in front of us cleared the square, the announcer waved his flag and that was our cue to start moving forward. I tilted my head high and pranced down the square in line with the band as they played the original song, “Blues for Christmas.”

In less than two minutes - after some tosses, elbow pops, kicks and an illusion - the performance was over. I had to stop myself from not shedding a tear walking out of the square after just doing a perfect performance in front of millions of people across the nation. At that point, I was stunned by the grandeur of the whole performance and turned to my friend and asked, “Did we really just do that?” As she smiled and hugged me, I thought about just how thankful I was that my mom put me twirling lessons years ago.


If you were to talk to me three seasons ago when Illinois brought back the feature twirler position after a ten-year hiatus, I never would have thought that being the feature twirler for the Marching Illini would give me the chance to perform at several games at the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field, be in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, Ireland, or get the chance to be in the national spotlight through football games and bowl games. Of course, the experience at Macy’s was the cherry on top to my whole experience as a college twirler. Growing up, people told me twirling will come and go, but the memories you make along the way is what will stay with you forever. As a college twirler, I admire all my fellow feature twirlers around the nation, as well as the band members I have become close with through the seasons. I know that these bonds are what make once-in-a-lifetime experiences like New York so magical.

I am incredibly thankful to have chosen the University of Illinois and I cannot think of a better way to have spent Thanksgiving this year than with the band that has given me the greatest gift I could ever ask for: a true Illini family.