It’s a 90-year tradition where sisterhood is strengthened, friendships are made, life skills are learned, and memories remain forever ingrained in students’ hearts and minds.
Started in 1929 at this all-girls Towson school, Gym Meet is an entirely student-led school competition — a spirit-filled, laugh-out-loud battle of the high school classes. Although a few elements have changed throughout the decades, the core remains the same. That’s part of the appeal, students and alumnae say; while the event may seem quaint or even corny to outsiders, it promotes ideals that never go out of style.
“It’s about creating class spirit, leadership, fellowship and creativity amongst the classes and within the school,” says Mary Bartel, NDP’s physical education chairperson and Gym Meet moderator of 30 years, which she believes factors into Gym Meet’s longevity.
So, what makes this event different from your regular high school spirit week? A lot, actually. The process takes months of planning and weeks of tears and sweat.
Beginning in May, students select a Gym Meet manager and assistant manager for the following year. In the fall, each of the Gym Meet upper level classes choose a theme and a captain for each class as well as various committees to oversee specifics like routines, costumes, design and poster. Then, from early January to March, students prepare, practice and perfect their skills in five categories: march, song, dance, class poster and aerobics.
It’s a community effort by all — with every student taking on a specific role to help bring the event to fruition. When Gym Meet day arrives, the girls finally show off their efforts and perform in front of friends, peers, parents and staff.
And for NDP students, this process is a rite of passage. From the bright-eyed freshmen to the victory-seeking seniors, every class anticipates getting the chance to win the coveted Gym Meet Silver Cup, chosen by anonymous judges. The Silver Cup, which remains at school, displays an engraving of each class winner throughout the years. It’s fawned over like a precious Stanley Cup — a token of dedication, tradition and victory. It’s embedded with 90 years of history.
Seniors have the advantage in this friendly but fierce competition, with three years of practice and performance under their belts — mastering their craft in song and dance to take home a win. There are rare times, however, when juniors come in on top, including last year, when the juniors won the Silver Cup for the first time since 1985. Their Girl Scouts-turned-haunted zombies theme shined among the rest.
“We took a scary, not traditional Girl Scout approach, with all of us sitting by a fire, and then all of a sudden we start getting possessed,” says current NDP senior and Gym Meet manager, Katie Rogers.
This gear toward outlandish, quirky themes is the general trend. Decades of crazy laughter-inducing themes like “5,000 Spirits of the Layers of an Onion” in 1971, “’80s Magical Mystery Tour” in 1980 and “British Invasion: The Seniors are Coming” in 2008 have provided epic performances. Many of these themes still leave a lasting memory.
“I remember a class in the ’80s where they were supposed to be ‘building a salad.’ The girl playing the tomato was stuffed with newspaper and when she was dancing at mid-court, she lost all of her stuffing,” Bartel says. “She kept on dancing though.”
And with each year brings more experience and acquired skills to win the competition. “One thing that always amazes me is the level of creativity and improvement over the years,” Bartel says. “From freshman to senior year, you see an amazing, amazing advancement in every way possible. As the freshmen advance to be seniors, you can tell that a light bulb has gone off and they are finally thinking: ‘We got this.’”
Along with this age advantage, upperclassmen are also allowed to use their costume materials from the previous year. So by the fourth year, seniors have much more to work with than the freshmen.
With a budget of $2 per costume, the girls have to learn the art of resourcefulness. They rely on materials like trash bags, cardboard boxes and crepe paper to build their costumes. It awakens some serious creativity, like the 2018 freshman class that crafted spray-painted 2-liter bottles as scuba tanks for their “Under the Sea” theme. “People on Pinterest would be impressed by what these girls come up with,” says Val Thompson, a NDP class of ’99 alumni who was a Gym Meet captain for all four years.
As for designing props, only hand-held props are allowed: a rule that was instated in the ’80s after one class tried to jam a massive, intricate prop through the gym doors — and failed.
So without full props to “wow” the judges, the students must rely on their well-executed performances. And regardless of expertise or natural talent in the five categories, the girls still practice and show off what they’ve got. It’s a no-fear-of-embarrassment type of event.
“The atmosphere is so fun and you are with all your friends, so even if you are not super inclined in dance or aerobics, it’s still fun,” Katie says. “You just laugh at yourself, because there’s no judgment.”
But for some, hidden talents are put on display, which sometimes comes as a surprise to peers. “I still remember the class below me during their song performance. They sounded like a choir of angels. I also remember one girl making this amazing speech, and honestly, I hope she’s on Broadway now,” Thompson says.
Yet some of the event’s awe-factor starts before the big day even arrives. The week before Gym Meet is a full-on spirit week and celebration. Think high school Texas football. Imagine a “Friday Night Lights”-esque atmosphere where the energy extends throughout the town. Posters are put up throughout the community, cars are decorated, and the girls don their costumes inside and outside the classroom, building up anticipation for the big day. You don’t have to directly be a part of Gym Meet to know what it entails and what it means for the school.
“You’ll see all the girls in their Gym Meet uniforms after school at the Royal Farms, Smoothie King or the mall, and it just cues people in that it must be that time of year again,” Thompson says.
And when Gym Meet ends and the last trash-bag-turned-masterpiece gets put away, a collective sadness ensues. “I always call it the day after Christmas,” says Bartel. “It’s anti-climactic,” Thompson agrees.
Others, like Katie, find its lasting effects difficult to describe. “We try to put it in words, but if you ask a lot of people, they’ll say that Gym Meet can’t be put into words. It’s like a feeling. Taking part in it and actually doing it is what it’s all about.”
Bartel agrees and says that’s another reason for Gym Meet’s long-standing success: It’s entirely student-produced. “It’s about them. It’s for them. It’s run by them. And, they do a beautiful job,” she says.
For NDP, 90 years of Gym Meet is a significant marker. And for Bartel, getting to experience 30 years of this leaves her with heart-fulfilling pride. “I beam as an educator,” she says, misty-eyed and reflective, “It’s education at its best.”