This article was written by Scarlett Steakley and was printed in the Summer 2006 issue of The Baylor Line.
What’s it like for a student organization to develop and eventually perform an act at Sing, Baylor’s annual student talent show? The Line went behind the scenes with a fraternity known for its laid-back approach to the big show to find out.
ALL-UNIVERSITY SING is a venerable tradition at Baylor. Held each spring, the competition pits student organizations against each other in a contest of musical, theatrical, and dancing talent. A panel of judges picks the top eight acts, and audience members vote for their favorites, too. Think American Idol but with more than a thousand performers and a lot more makeup. Most groups participating in Sing put their hearts and a great deal of time into the effort. They plan for months and even a year ahead in hopes of being honored as the first-place act. They dance and sing for hours each night. They arrange music, paint backdrops, and agonize over choreography, all for that one seven-minute act. Not the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. For them, Sing is all about spending time with their fraternity brothers.
“I think the main reason that we do Sing is because it separates us from the fraternities that choose not to,” said Jon Dutton, a Waco senior. “I just have a good time doing it. If I chose not to, I wouldn’t get to see my friends.” Generally, if group members decide to participate in Sing, they are working toward one goal—to become one of the eight acts chosen by the judges to perform in Pigskin Review, held in the fall during Homecoming. But the SAEs take part in Sing just for the fun of it all—whatever happens with the judging is simply a bonus. Rand Lionberger, a Houston senior, claimed he wouldn’t want to win a spot in Pigskin Review because it would just add more work for everyone in the fall. “It’s fun to do once, but to do it twice becomes a job. We just don’t take anything too seriously,” he said.
They don’t participate in Sing to add another responsibility to the already stressful life of a college student. They do it for enjoyment—a wonderful concept that all too often is a casualty to the competition. The SAEs’ laissez faire attitude has not always won the judges’ hearts. In fact, the fraternity hasn’t made it to Pigskin in more than ten years. Although there is a legend that they did win first place one year, no one in the current roster remembers which year it was. This year, SAE chose “Jock Jams” as a theme. The act incorporated songs reminiscent of high-school pep rallies and began with Dutton, a well-known campus fixture, announcing, “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble.” The rest of the group circled the stage in yellow and purple basketball jerseys—matching their fraternity colors—to begin the act’s choreographed dance moves. While KOT might have their patented “KOT turn,” the SAEs have “the type-writer”—where alternative lines move opposite from each other either from the left or right using what they call “quick feet.”
“We don’t have rhythm. We basically choose themes with songs that are easy to dance to and that make people laugh,” Dutton said.
This year’s songs included “Eye of the Tiger,” “Whoop, There It Is,” and Van Halen’s “Jump.” And if you’re thinking that it sounds like halftime at a basketball game, then you understand what SAE is going for.
The group usually brings members of other Baylor organizations into the act. This year, to complement their Jock Jams theme, they extended invitations to ten Baylor yell leaders. The yell leaders, of course, leaped at the opportunity Laura Puckett, a sophomore from Rowlett and a Pi Beta Phi pledge, said she wanted to participate because she had never performed in Sing—and performing is what she loves most. “I liked it because it was really laid back,” she said. “Coming from cheerleading, where nothing’s laid back and everyone has to be perfect, I thought this was really fun.” The fraternity’s preparations for the big show were so casual, in fact, that the yell leaders weren’t asked to join in the practices until a week before the first Sing performance.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Most groups participating in Sing stick to a regimented schedule of three-hour practices, held five days a week. Not SAE. “We practice an hour, four days a week,” said Dutton. “If that,” added Cullen Amend, a Houston senior.
Long hours of Sing practice aren’t a factor for the SAEs. They chose to make practice as short—and as loose—as possible. Hard-core practice sessions just wouldn’t work for them the way they do for the majority of Sing participants. It’s not in the SAE genetic makeup. “They’re definitely not lazy. They just see Sing as another opportunity to bond with their frat brothers and to laugh and have fun,” said Puckett, the yell leader.
The SAE Sing chairs—students who are charged with guiding their group’s preparations—aren’t guys who have a particular love for performing or singing. They are usually somewhat randomly picked by the group. This year’s lucky four were Chase Laguarta, Eric Fuller, Hunter Fendley, and Mason Schwarz.
“If you’re a new guy, you get nominated and then everyone basically peer-pressures you into it,” said Fuller, a Waco junior. “But Sing is really a group effort from the whole fraternity.”
Fuller said the chairs were nominated in April 2005, but they really didn’t begin planning their act until several months later. We went to all the [ Sing chair] meetings, but they were extremely awkward because we were so much more laid back than all the other acts,” said Fendley, a Houston sophomore.
The chairs’ first task was to determine a theme. Two of the top ideas were “A Tribute to Phil Collins” and “House Party: One-Hit Wonder,’ which was actually an attempt to meld two previous themes together. Finally, in November, the guys made their decision. “The theme ideas were basically all the same, so we decided not to stray from the formula since it’s been working so well,” Fuller joked.
SAE began practice in mid-January, less than two months before Sing. Their practice venue was the roof of the parking garage next to Baylor’s business school. It was free and nearby and thus, for this easy-going fraternity, just right.
The guys hired a Baylor student, senior Greer Fulton, to paint their backdrop. The Sing chairs noted that they are able to pay their outside labor well because, unlike most groups, they don’t use much of their Sing fund for intricate costumes and props.
While the design for their backdrop was in Fulton’s capable hands, it—like everything else—was a last-minute project. They began painting it the week before the opening Sing performance. “The backdrop was wet the day we had to turn it in. We just finished it for our stage time, so we had fans blowing on it during our practice,” Fuller said.
The on-stage practices in Waco Hall are typically the ones that Sing chairs try to make the most structured and efficient—primarily because each group is allotted a minimal amount of time to, well, get its act together. It’s important to use the time there wisely. While SAE Sing chairs did make important lighting decisions, the rest of their stage time was as carefree as any other practice.
Their last on-stage practice took place on a Sunday night, starting at 10:00 p.m.—one week before their debut Sing performance.
“Man, I love these late-night practices,” Cullen Amend sar-castically shouted. “How do we always end up getting the latest possible stage time?”
At 10:15, the group still hadn’t performed one dance move. Several clumps of guys were chatting about their weekend, and others were cutting up and laughing.
By 10:38, the four Sing chairs decided it was time to get down to business. “This is our last time to be on stage guys—like, for real,” one chair yelled.
Fortunately, the group had hired Baylor student Christen Burditt to assist them in the dancing department. With the patience of a saint, she finally corralled the performers into going over a particular part of the act. Surprisingly, they were ready to learn. Their dance moves weren’t the sharpest and most technical, but, then again, they don’t want to be taken too seriously. Amazing dancing would undermine the whole gig.
Meredith Schwartze, voted to be SAE’s sweetheart in May 2005, participated in the act with the rest of the fraternity. “Every other group is so serious, but they actually want to have fun when they’re doing Sing,” Schwartze said of the SAEs. “They do work hard, but they’re really just out there to ne and get to know each other better.”
All-University Sing began in 1953 when Mary Wiley Mathis—known by Baylor students simply as Mrs. Mathis—decided that student organizations should have a creative outlet. Sing acts were originally on-stage choir concerts with no choreography. But over the years, Sing evolved into a performance that is less choral and more Broadway. And along with the evolution of Sing came the evolution of the groups in Sing.
The SAE fraternity wasn’t always so casual about their Sing act’s ranking. In 1973, SAE, then called Phi Kappa Alpha, placed second. The 1970s were Sing’s most illustrious—and expensive—period; some groups would spend as much as $45,000 on their act. Consequently, winning became an obsession. SAE members were often devastated when they didn’t win first place, feeling that all the work and money they had given to the act was wasted. In the last decade, SAE’s acts have been low on investment and high on enjoyment. One theme was “One Hit Wonders,” with the act built around such songs. Not a complex concept. In 2003, the group’s act drew elements from the movie House Party, and featured a break-dancing DJ and 1990s-style costumes.
The fraternity brothers claim to be Sing’s most low-maintenance participants, but their performances still include all the normal elements of a top Sing act—even the makeup, which SAE sweetheart Schwartze applied prior to each performance. Some members decided to go with the makeup, and some opted for the natural look. “Out of the five Sing acts I’ve been in, I only did makeup once,” Amend said. “Well, I did makeup every time,” said Dutton, perhaps a bit defensively “I mean, I was the announcer, front and center?’
It’s unique memories like time in the makeup chair that keep these frat guys coming back for more. Their place in the hierarchy of Sing acts makes no difference to their morale. “That’s an under-lying theme—the people who don’t do Sing in our fraternity are also the people who don’t do anything else,” said Amend. “I could name ten people who didn’t do Sing, and I’m not as close to them as I am with the guys in Sing. The people who participate in our intramurals, Sing, and float are all generally the same people.”
The guys have mixed feelings about the prospect of being picked to perform in Pigskin Review. “I mean, that’d be so cool if we got Pigskin, because those people really do work so hard, and we just waltz in there with barely any practice behind us,” said Amend.
In every organization, there’s bound to be some conflict during the lead-up to Sing. The SAEs’ only minor friction came during the practices, but even those testy moments were hardly noticeable. “We actually practiced four days a week, like most other groups, but now it’s going to be hard to do Sing with my sorority because these guys were so easy-going,” Schwartze said.
Jon Dutton’s favorite moments were the times before the performance, when the members met at a house and spent time together with “just the guys.” “This year we met at my house and hung out for at least an hour before we had to go to perform,” he said. “It was like a great fraternity get-together.”
Most members agree the peak times are the actual Sing performances. “When you’re on stage before the act and the lights go off and you can hear the crowd yell, ‘SAE, SAE, SAE; it makes all the bickering about practice worth it,” Amend said. “That’s the most fun.”
The SAEs are known for their exuberance prior to a performance. They enjoyed cheering on the groups before them, as well as sharing their excitement with the guest performers that they incorporated into their act. The guys worked hard to make each group member feel encouraged and excited. Schwartze said one of her favorite moments was when the guys would sing an original “pump up” song to get the group ready for the performance.
As predicted, SAE did not make the top eight acts. Kappa Omega Tau won for their performance of “Up the Ladder.” Kappa Kappa Gamma placed second with an elaborate rendition of the 1943 Missouri State Fair, complete with a ticket booth and Ferris wheel and a show-stopping version of “Singing in the Rain.” The fraternity Kappa Sigma came in third with “Down at the Barber Shop.”
Of course, as expected, the SAE performers took the results in stride, putting a different spin on their also-ran status.
Puckett said she felt she gained a new group of friends after participating in SAE’s act, which shows just how dedicated these members are to making the best out of the time spent preparing for Sing. For them, the heart of Sing is cultivating their friendships.
“What these guys really want out of their performances is to make the audience happy and see smiles during their act,” said Schwartze, their sweetheart. These Sigma Alpha Epsilon members don’t desire a Sing act that wins over the judges’ scores. They create acts that are meant to win over the audience’s hearts. There are very few things to complain about when you’re a crowd favorite.
Scarlett Steakley is a student editorial assistant for the Baylor Line.