Published: August 14, 2007

Basic in-sync

Don't hold your breath!One of my favourite channels is PBS High Definition. When Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s (Big Macs, etc.) founder, Ray Kroc, died a few years back she left $225 million to PBS. They had the foresight to invest heavily in HD right away, and some of their programming is sensational.

There are a number of documentaries on obscure topics that have interested me. There’s a series called, The Pursuit of Excellence. There was one on ferrets and another on hairdressing (honest) that were excellent. I’m usually fascinated by “world championships” for anything off the beaten-path . . . like pipe bands.

A “Pursuit of Excellence” show that also got my attention was one on synchronized-swimming. It showed the nearly all-female participants (there was one poor male swimmer who was supremely talented but not allowed to compete due to rules preventing men from taking part in contests) being really obsessive about it. The documentary made me appreciate this unusual sport, its artistry and the desire and commitment that top-level participants have to it. Some families even move thousands of miles to be closer to the best synchronized-swimming clubs, like one in Santa Cruz, California, with this dictatorial director barking at the poor people on the team.

Sound familiar?

But what really caught my eye was synchro-swimming’s similarity with modern tenor-drumming. I mean, some of the moves are close, especially the ones where arms go up in a robotic fashion, and then the drummers suddenly go into that slow-motion thing. I wonder if the two camps ever compare techniques. If they don’t, they should, since tenor-drummers’ arms and sticks rise above the band, as if the other drummers and pipers were at water-level.

I’m sure those moves have names in both synchronized-swimming and tenor-drumming, and I apologize for not knowing the specifics of either. I completely respect both idioms, but when judging I’m only concerned with what the tenor-drummers play, not how they look. At other times I enjoy watching them and admire the diligence and commitment to excellence that they give to their craft.

There’s a famous Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1980s that parodies synchronized swimming. I’m sure that it rubbed the swimmers who commit their lives to the sport the wrong way, but it made me laugh.

And there were a few silly videos strung together by pipe band people that took the piss out of Scottish country dancing. It sort of missed the mark with some because Scottish country dance aficionados probably think what pipe band people do is daft, too. Of all people to ridicule an obscure art, piping and drumming zealots might want to be the last. Then again, screw ’em if they can’t laugh at themselves.

I’m hoping that PBS will do a “Pursuit of Excellence” documentary on pipe bands. Part of the reason why the BBC has decided to make TV shows out of the World’s must be because they discovered that the obsessive event is quirky and amusing to outsiders. I’m certain that there are many non-pipers and drummers who get a good laugh out of the whole thing.

My all-time favourite author, Vladimir Nabokov, once wrote something to the effect that the definition of truth is the pursuit of knowing all that can be known about one specific thing. While I can’t help but shake my head at the absurdity of synchronized swimming, of piping, of Scottish country dancing, of drumming, I have a lot of time for anyone who strives to understand completely and excel entirely at anything.

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