A show choir (originally known as a "swing choir") is a group of people who combine choral singing with dance, sometimes within the context of a specific idea or story.
Show choir traces its origins as an activity in the United States to the mid-1960s, though cultural historians have been unable to determine the date and location of the first "true" show choir group. Two groups of touring performers, starting with The Young Americans in 1962 and followed by Up with People in 1968, traveled extensively throughout the country in the 1960s and 1970s, performing what could be called the show choir concept. When students and directors of the day saw these organizations, they would, in turn, start similar groups at their high schools.
Two collegiate groups which also influenced the show choir idiom are Indiana University's Singing Hoosiers and the University Singers of Ball State University. These groups are credited with being catalysts for the proliferation of swing choir/show choir groups in the Midwest during the 1970s. At the time, both groups took part in extended performance tours of the United States as well as international locations.
The first high school swing choir invitational in the world was held during the 1974 school year at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, hosted by the school's swing choir, The Minstrels. The Minstrels felt they and other young groups might learn and profit by observing some of the area's most distinguished song and dance choirs performing in an open competition. They felt it would help stimulate a wider interest in and appreciation for swing choirs by making it possible for many groups to perform the same day before a large audience.
Marion High School (Indiana)'s "The 26th Street Singers", under the direction of teacher F. Ritchie Walton, introduced a new brand of song and dance at the competition. Instead of the swing choir traditional of standing still through songs, with drum-break dance transitions between songs, The 26th Street Singers performed a full set of songs, fully choreographed with modern, tap and other dance styles, each song setting up the next in sequence. Walton's innovations led the group to take the trophy in 1974 at Bishop Luers, and he has been attributed by many as being "the father" of the high school show choir movement, influencing groups to transition from "swing choir" to "show choir" as a genre.
The 1974 Bishop Luers idea worked so well that the following year saw double the number of high school groups invited to the contest, several showing up with adaptations in style known today as specifically "show choir". In 1976, The Ambassadors of Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana took the championship trophy after a two-year run by The 26th Street Singers, and the competition grew more and more in popularity and competitiveness. By 1979, twenty show choirs from around the Midwest accepted the challenge of coming to Fort Wayne to compete for trophies and medals. That year, more than 600 students and 1,500 parents attended the contest.
The local PBS station broadcast the early years of the Luers Midwest Swing Choir Invitational, and in 1983 the program aired on PBS stations around the country. That led to international exposure and growth in show choir competitions around the country. Today, a large number of competitions are held at high schools and other venues throughout the nation from November through April.
Show choir is primarily a high school activity based in the United States. It is a continually evolving art form, however, and show choir is regularly expanding to new areas. Many middle schools and junior high schools now have their own show choirs as well, particularly throughout the American Midwest. There has also been an increase in collegiate level show choirs over the past decade.
While there is no standard requirement for the number of performers, show choirs typically contain between 30 and 60 singer/dancers.
Show choirs traditionally wear a costume, though the definition of what is considered a costume in show choir is very broad and ranges from jeans and a t-shirt to extravagant period costumes or flashy dance-wear. It can be very conservative (such as tuxedos and ball gowns) or very edgy (such as modern or revealing clothing). Additionally, many larger show choirs include two or more costumes in their show. Participants typically wear stage makeup and shoes conducive to dancing (often "character shoes"). From the costumes to the stage makeup, show choir members often look uniform during most shows.
The choir usually has a backup band (or "combo," if it includes horns) providing instrumental music to complement the voices. The instrumentation varies from song to song, but a common show choir band consists of guitar, bass, drums, trumpets, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, piano, and synthesizer. Many larger show choirs typically have a larger combo to accompany them. The band is usually out of sight, however some band members have come out on stage to be featured during the show.
The amount of props varies between choirs: some may have a large number to enhance the visual aspect of a show, while other groups use none at all. Similarly, some show choirs use basic theatrical lighting changes while others do not. The duties of caring for and distributing the props may be the responsibility of a technical crew. These are generally fellow students, and nearly always are dressed in black so as to remain hidden from audience view. This technical (or "tech") crew may distribute the props while on or off stage, and may, if the music or choreography so dictate, distribute the props as part of the show (examples: by acting as a character, dancing with the performers, or in an appropriate costume).
Aside from choreographed dance movement, body language plays a key role in a show choir performance. Many show choir directors encourage the use of "facials;" expressive movements of the face that assist in conveying the message of the song being performed. Facials may include dramatic representations of smiling, frowning, looks of surprise, or other emotive responses.
Many show choirs participate in competitions, sometimes called "invitationals" (though most are not invitation-only events). These competitions are often held at the high school where the "host group" attends, though some events are held at auditoriums or other facilities that can accommodate larger crowds and provide better acoustic performance. The show choir hosts usually do not compete in their own competitions as it is considered an inappropriate conflict of interest. However, they will typically perform a non-competitive "exhibition show".
Competitions can be as small as a showcase of a few groups from the immediate geographic area or they can feature many groups from multiple states. Because of the vast difference in sizes of the competitions, they can last a single afternoon or span an entire weekend. Competitions may separate competing choirs into different divisions. These divisions are often determined by age, skill level, size of the school or choir, and/or gender of the participants. The different divisions may take place at a different time, day, or at a different location or venue, though usually within the same school or close geographic area.
Some states' high school music associations require that a competition be sanctioned by their guidelines. In some states—most notably Iowa—if competitions are held without a sanction, the host school or district can lose privileges from the music association for a number of years. Due to the differences in rules between state music associations, controversies can arise stemming from rule violations that may not have been made clear.
Although competitions are a showcase for the arts, they also function as fundraising events for the group who hosts. Show choir competitions can bring in large amounts of money if well-planned, well-publicized, and well-attended by performing groups and spectators. Because many competitions can run an entire day or more, most competitions offer concessions for sale and take in profit from those sales as well. These funds go directly to support the group, while the events are run by volunteers from the host school. The largest of show choir competitions can draw between 3,000 and 7,000 spectators over the course of the event.
Whereas competitions reward groups based on their performances, another kind of show choir format exists called a "festival." Sometimes the term festival is used incorrectly when referencing a competition or a non-competitive event, as the traditional festival usually has a rating system for each choir (versus a traditional head-to-head competition).
For approximately the past 25 years, "National Competitions" have become a prized destination for many show choirs. These events, typically held in a tourist destination such as Orlando, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Hollywood, California; Branson, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois or New York City draw choirs from all over the nation and offer the opportunity for groups to compete against other choirs from outside their normal circuits. These competitions are hosted by for-profit companies (not affiliated with any high school) that sell complete trips and packages to the participating choirs. These competitions are generally hosted in state-of-the-art venues with professional stage, lighting and sound. Some of these events offer a performance from a designated "host choir" as well, though their duties are usually little more than to provide an exhibition (non-competitive) performance for the competing groups. Choirs who take home top honors at a "national competition" often like to declare that they are the "Best in the Nation," though no such award exists from any official governing body. Some national competitions include: Show Choir Nationals, FAME Events, Showstoppers (now defunct). From 2011 onward, FAME Events has declared their system to crown a "true national champion" through regional qualifying events and then a national finals. Wheaton Warrenville South "The Classics" were crowned national champion at the FAME National Finals in both 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the National Finals were held in Chicago, Illinois. John Burroughs Powerhouse was named National Champion.
Many show choir members are selected by audition where only students with acceptable singing and dancing ability can join. A fee is also usually involved to cover the high expenses of travel and wardrobe (see technical aspect), as well as the services of professionals, such as arrangers and/or choreographers. Show choirs may practice during school hours, outside of school hours, or a combination of the two depending on the level of support from the associated school. Show choirs, like any activity, require dedication and practice to improve performance.
In some places, there are also community show choirs which are not associated with any particular school. While these types of groups are much more rare, they follow much of the same structure as that of their school counterparts. There is some controversy about community show choirs, however, as they are often accused of "draining" kids away from their own school programs, leaving both groups with a compromised roster both in number and in talent. However, because community show choirs often do not have to adhere to the strict rules of a school district, they are often more free to push the creative envelope on stage.
Characteristics of a performance
Most show choir "shows" or "sets" consist of a variety of songs, often including several choreographed, fast-paced pieces and one slower piece performed with limited or no choreography. This slower number—usually a ballad—exists primarily to showcase the ensemble's singing ability. In California, it is a requirement that at least one minute of any one set be sung a cappella (it is usually one full song in the set), though this is not a standard in the rest of the country. More often than not, the a cappella selection is also the ballad, as it is much easier to sing unaccompanied while holding relatively still. In the Midwest, it is becoming popular to set one song aside as a "novelty" piece, designed to make the audience laugh.
Within a song, vocal lines typically alternate between unison or octave singing, and two-or-more-part polyphonic harmony. Songs are chosen, adapted, and arranged from a variety of sources including popular music, jazz standards, and Broadway musicals, but rarely make use of classical music. Original music has also been performed by a very small number of groups. Additionally, there is often at least one solo in each performance by a standout singer in the group.
Competitive performance sets range in length, but are usually timed to total just under seventeen minutes on the West Coast and twenty minutes in the other regions. Shows consist of, but are not limited to, approximately five songs.
In the media
The cable television network MTV announced in October 2006 that it would tape an eight-episode reality TV series, Show Choir, following Morgantown, West Virginia's Morgantown High School show choir. The show was scheduled to premiere Spring 2007. It has yet to air, and no plans have been announced to reschedule that program.
In Nickelodeon's Spectacular!, the main character, Nikko, joins a show choir.
Show Choir!: The Musical by Mark McDaniels and Donald Garverick made its premiere at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival. The original musical comedy was awarded two awards for Overall Excellence. There was a subsequent staged reading in 2008 and in 2010, the show played a sold-out run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. In 2011, the musical made its international premier in an acclaimed production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In November 2009, the television series Rachael Ray featured the Wilmingtones Show Choir of Wilmington High School in Wilmington, Ohio, as a part of the Thanksgiving on Main Street special chronicling the lives of those affected by the DHL crisis.
In 2009, MTV visited Showchoir Camps of America for a week to do research and ended up shooting a pilot for a new potential reality show. Twenty two students from different states and schools were picked to be featured in the pilot during the week the camp was held. The group was called "The Gifted Others." This pilot set-up and helped create the show concept for MTV's reality show, MADE: The Real Show Choir.
In January 2010, Lawrence Central High School's "Central Sound" from Indianapolis, Indiana was featured on MTV's MADE: The Real Show Choir as they prepared to compete at FAME Events' Chicago competition.
In April 2010, John Burroughs High School's "Powerhouse" from Burbank, California performed on The Oprah Winfrey Show on an episode featuring the cast of Glee.
In April 2010, Lance Bass (formerly of *N SYNC) was a celebrity judge at The Southern California Show Choir Invitational hosted by Chula Vista High School.
In 2011, John Burroughs High School's "Powerhouse" from Burbank, California was flown to Hong Kong to perform by the board of tourism of Hong Kong.
Many newspapers and news networks across the U.S wrote articles focused on the similarities and differences between Glee and the real world of show choir they portrayed. Interviews were conducted in multiple states including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois and Ohio.
In October 2010, Parade magazine featured an article centering around Waubonsie Valley High School's "Sound Check" (IL) show choir, detailing similarities and differences to the nation's top show choirs and Glee. Other Schools noted by Parade were: Totino-Grace High School's "Company of Singers" (MN), DeKalb High School's "Classic Connection" (IN), and Clinton High School's "Attache" (MS).
Parade Magazine held a nationwide competition for America's Favorite Show Choir, in which the public voted. Touch of Class from Chantilly, VA won the 2010 competition. In November 2011, "Happiness, Incorporated" from John F. Kennedy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa won the vote.
- Reuters/Hollywood Reporter via Yahoo! (Oct. 4, 2006): "MTV to probe 'Underage' newlyweds, 'Show Choir'
- WBOY.com (May 25, 2006) "Lights, Camera, Action at MHS!" by Lauren Hills
- Monongalia County Schools (untitled article on Show Choir)
- "The 'Glee' effect: Singing is cool again". CNN. November 15, 2010.
- Matchan, Linda (April 24, 2010). "In perfect harmony with ‘Glee'". The Daily Comet (Thibodaux, LA). The Boston Globe.