Debbie Ammons, age 8, wearing a peacock blue jumpsuit bedizened with 500 rhinestones and complemented by a matching blue hair ribbon and blue eye shadow, calmly rested her little chin on her baton and waited backstage for the call.
As she waited for her turn in the dance twirl finals of the United States Grand National Baton Twirling Championships here Thursday night, all that went on around Debbie was loud, bright and nervous.
Just hours before, two of Debbie's lesser competitors ahd thrown up while performing in the center of the Scope Arena here. The incidents, which were much regretted, required mops and caused delays.
Before Debbie finally got the call to the Arena's center stage to perform her coquettish dance twirl there was a problem locatng twirl judges, several of her competitors reapplied hair spray and Debbie's mother, Jeanette Ammons, had started to weep with pride.
Debbie came in fifth out of five dance twirlers in the finals. But she didn't drop her baton, complain about the judging or throw up.
The 8-year-old's cool performance placed her among the best of more than 5,000 baton twirlers from all 50 states, Japan, Germany and the Netherlands who converged this week on Tidewater Virginia for the chance at a national title. It also pleased Debbie's teary-eyed mother.
In a sport where mothers often push their daughters into twirling a baton in the first place, where mothers spend hours driving daughters to baton lessons, where mothers spend days sewing rhinestones on "superstretch" fabrics, pleasing one's mother is no small feat.
"It is much easier to be patient and accepting when it is someone else's child," said Maxine Papadopoulos, a formnr twirler and mother of the nation's best twirler, Marci Papadoupoulos, 14.
Marci, who won three individual twirling titles this week and who for two years has dominated the sport as Chris Evert once dominated women's tennis, began instruction with the baton when she was five. With her mother as coach, she practices nearly eight hours a day.
She can juggle three batons, throwing them as high as 30 feet in the air while doing cartwheels and dance steps. She can roll a baton around her shoulders, arms, elbows, hands, waist and lower back as though it were held against her body by magnetism.
"My hope is to compete in the Olympics," Marci said yesterday.
But twirling is not an Olympic sport -a problem that the people who run the United States Twirling Association and who put on the championship here this week say they are trying to correct.
The USTA has spent $50,000 this year for sports public relations experts from Chicago who say they are searching for a new image for twirling. They want&to erase the popular conception of twirlers as air-headed majorettes with big bosoms. They say they want to replace that image with what they call the truth about twirling -- that it's a demanding, precise sport with spectator appeal.
Jack Crum, executive director of the USTA and a former college twirler says he would prefer that the contestants get rid of all their sequins, makeup and gaudy outfits.
"Gymnasts don't wear rhinestones. I don't see why twirlers should. I think it detracts from the sporting image," said Crum.
Twirling's sporting image, however suffered considerably here his week with the presence in the Scope Arena of merchants hawking items ranging from Austrian rhinestones to stuffed monkeys to T-shirts.
Victor Cote, founder of twirling's oldest and largest supply company, Cote Majorette Supply of Morrisville, Pa., says he brings his rhinestones and "strut" shoes and whatnot to the championships because the mothers want him to.
"Mothers come to me and buy new rhinestones for their daughters' costumes. They can't get these items (rhinestones-studded cloth that sells for up to $40 a yard) where they live. They're up half the night here sewing the new rhinestones in place," Cote says.
Costumes with talented rhinestone patterns can cost as much as $300 each and most twirlers have a different costume for each twirling event, including solo twirling, two-baton twirling, three-baton twirling, dance twirl and strut.
The cost of costumes, when combined with travel expenses for four or five major twirling events a year and twirling lessons (which cost about $2o an hour, not counting airplane fare for coaches who are frequently flown in for lessons) comes to combined yearly twirling bill for many families of $4,000 or more.
Laari Kent, a mother from Sacramento, Calif., said her husband pays about $4,000 a year to send her and her 12-year-old daughter Annetta around the country for twirling competition. "My husband hauls dirt, sand and gravel for a living. He does a lot of sweating for little Annetta and she respects him for it," said Kent, 33, who says she would twirl too if she could "wear one of those little costumes.
Anneta came in third Tuesday in dance twirl competition against 49 other 12-year-olds. She recentlyy won second place in solo twirl in California state competition.
While Annetta competed Thursday, her mother sat with other Californians in the 19th row of the Scope Arena and yelled her daughter's praises.
"She was so much prettier than anybody else out there. I mean her body was so much prettier," Kent told her friends.
Kent said later on that she at first did not want Annetta to go out for twirling.
"I tried to stop her when she was 5. I wanted her to play the piano -- something nice and noncompetitive. I even hid her baton from her, but she wanted to twirl.
"She practices three hours every day after school then she comes home, eats dinner and goes to bed. If she has time, she does homework. Of course, she's on a special diet, no sugars, no soda pop.
"Since since school then she comes home, practicing five to seven hours a day in the dead sun. It builds up her endurance.
"You know who really suffers though: we mothers. The hours we spend on costumes. The worry. We sit up here nervous stomachs. We feel like throwing up ourselves sometimes.
"I was always second place, only my daughter is going to be a winner," said Kent.
With the arcane and seemingly arbitrary juding process that, decides who is and who is not a winner at twirling championships, enthusiastic parents with losing children sometimes get mad.
It happened here Thursday afternoon. A fireman from Neeham, Mass., complaining about the juding for his 17-year:old daughter in dance twirl, excoriated USTA executive director Crum for unfairness. Crum, appearing embarrassed at the father's outburst, told the fireman to cool off.
That night a quieter and more typical protest occurred when Marci Paoadopoulos came out to compete.
The mother of one of Marci's competitors rubbed her sweaty palms against her bluejeans and then pressed her hands together, as if to pray. That woman's 9-year-old daughter, who was sitting next to her, spoke for both of them: "Come on, Marci, don't win -- for a change."
Marci, performing flawlessly, easily won the strut. Her mother frequently tells Marci that she should not listen to the psychological tactics of other twirlers who call her invincible. CAPTION: Picture, The Calverton, Md., Cavaliers perform a routine; by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post