In an auditorium in Iowa, that bastion of show choir, the crowd eagerly anticipates ICT Flight Showchoir taking the stage.
Parents who travel hundreds of miles to see the show come dressed entirely in their choir’s apparel. They wear buttons with the logos of their favorite choirs.
Like at a basketball game, kids hold up large, cardboard cutouts of various singers’ faces.
By the end, the singers’ throats are hoarse, the result of both performing and screaming for other choirs.
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This is far from your average choir concert.
“It’s an alternate universe – it really is,” said Kristina Sims, director of Flight. “But it’s so fun.”
In the national show choir circuit – a massively intricate network of choir nerds from around the country – Flight is the scrappy newcomer.
Despite only being in its third year of existence, it’s placing high in regional competitions, and last year it won the FAME Aspire Award for Most Promising New Program – which in the show choir world is akin to winning an Oscar.
But in Wichita, few know the choir exists.
“That’s the weirdest thing,” Sims said. “When we step outside of Wichita, people really know who these kids are. … Then in our own community, not many people even know that we exist, just because it’s so new.”
What is show choir?
Show choir is far from what you may traditionally think of as “choir.”
It’s a theatrical experience, where the singers have choreographed dance routines for every song. The choir is a self-sustained unit, featuring seven teens who provide the accompaniment for its singers – on piano, drums, guitar, bass and brass.
So think “Glee” in real life, without all of the camera cuts, multiple takes and sound mixing.
Show choirs – typically populated exclusively by high-schoolers and sometimes college kids – are almost always affiliated with a school.
There are several school-based show choirs in the Wichita area – Clearwater, Augusta and Circle, to name a few – but they don’t participate in the national competitive circuit like Flight does.
The only other regionally competing show choir in Kansas is from Atchison High School, according to Sims – and Augusta has occasionally competed regionally.
Show choir music is traditionally custom-arranged and choreographed. All of Flight’s music is specifically arranged for the choir by local composers and choreographed by a Los Angeles-based professional dancer, Sims said. Sims flies the choreographer to Wichita to teach the dances, she said.
“We bring them in to have that training, growing and artistry, but keep it at an affordable price because we understand we’re in the Midwest and people have other priorities,” Sims said. “It’s really cool that they get to work with someone so well connected in the dance industry.”
The 43 singers/dancers in Flight come from 17 different area schools – Maize, East, Collegiate, Valley Center, Northwest, Kapaun Mount Carmel, Bishop Carroll and Wellington, to name a few. High school singers audition for the choir, which typically limits membership to around 40 to 45. That’s all the room they have on the bus, Sims said.
Keegan Johnston, a 16-year-old member from Maize High School, said the diversity of the group actually lends it more cohesion in competitions.
“There is a massive difference between us and other show choirs,” Johnston said. “We’re all here because we choose to do it. We love to be in Flight and we auditioned for it, whereas other show choirs, they do it as part of a class. They of course picked the class … but it’s still part of school.
“I think because we actually want to be there, I think that shines through when we’re performing and people see that.”
A ‘second home’
It’s not hard to spot a Flight member in public – he or she will typically be decked out head-to-toe in Flight apparel, Sims said.
During a recent interview, Johnston was wearing not only his black Flight hooded sweatshirt, but also his blue Flight T-shirt underneath.
“The Flight kids love apparel more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life,” Sims said with a chuckle.
The apparel helps create a sort of identity for the choir, which prides itself on being a “second home” for its members, Johnston said.
Riley Green, 14, wanted to join Flight because of its reputation for being welcoming and friendly to new members. She goes to Maize High School.
“It was mentioned as a family atmosphere, and that was something I’d always wanted to be a part of,” Green said. “I didn’t really understand the concept of a family from 17 different schools being so close, and then I got there and everyone was so welcoming, so sweet, so compassionate and accepting.”
Flight singers are used to being around one another for multiple hours on bus rides to competitions and in hotel rooms. The choir charters a bus to take its members to competitions, which usually costs around $3,000 per trip, according to Sims.
They’ve made a splash on the show choir scene not only because of their talent and dedication, Sims said, but because they have become known as a genuinely nice group. It was the Flight singers’ idea to bring doughnuts to their competitors before every competition, and that has become a tradition.
On the back of one of their T-shirts, it even reads, “Professionalism … and donuts.”
Sometimes their newfound success on the show choir circuit surprises them.
Some show choir superfans online have taken to calculating some sort of hazy formula to rank show choirs across the country, Sims said.
“I don’t let them follow that stuff, because I think it’s catty and stupid,” Sims said.
But some of the Flight members were stunned to see themselves ranked 14th in the nation in a “pre-season poll” on a show choir fan site this year, Johnston said.
“I was kind of like, when did this exist, and how is it measured?” he said. “They try to quantify it as if it were a sport or something.”
Singers from other choirs seek Flight kids out, Sims said, as they are starting to obtain “new kids on the block” mini-celebrity status on the circuit.
It doesn’t get any funding from a school, like most other show choirs, but survives on a shoestring budget. Students pay roughly $800 per year to be a part of the choir, and Flight subsidizes the rest of the money through fundraising, according to Sims.
The choir is currently seeking corporate sponsorships, Sims said, but it’s all volunteer work for her.
“We do a lot of praying that we don’t go under,” Sims said.
‘Hoop and holler’
In the Iowa auditorium, a competing choir starts a chant for the Wichita choir before they take the stage.
“Flight, flight, flight, flight, flight, flight – everybody!” they chant, to the tune of LMFAO’s “Shots.”
Flight takes the stage, its members smiling out into the darkened auditorium to the screams of loyal fans and kids in competing choirs.
“It’s not a quiet concert where you sit and listen,” Sims said. “They want you to be verbal, to be encouraging, to hoop and holler.”
Flight is competing in Iowa this weekend for the final time this season, but next week, Wichitans will have an opportunity to see Flight in action.
On March 12, the choir is putting on a farewell concert, combined with its middle-school “Flight Junior” show choir, and the Butler Headliners at Maize South High School.
For details, visit www.ictflight.com.
ICT Flight Showchoir Farewell Concert
When: 4 p.m. March 12
Where: Maize South High School, 3701 N. Tyler Road
What: Show featuring new local high school show choir ICT Flight, its middle-school “Junior” choir, and the Butler Headliners
Admission: $10 adults, $5 students and seniors
More information: www.ictflight.com