2023 Cascadia Winterguard: Small but Mighty!

2023 Cascadia Winterguard: Small but Mighty!

Cascadia Winterguard was an Independent A Class finalist at the 2023 WGI World Championships. Incredibly, they achieved this level of success with a group of just five performers. We sat down with Ryan Valencia, Director of Cascadia, to learn how his team skillfully orchestrated a show with so few members and no floor.

The Origins of Cascadia

The idea for Cascadia originated in 2017 at WGI Championships when a group of friends (Ryan Valencia, Jonathan Brown, and Anthony Riederer) began discussing the need for an independent winter guard in the Portland area. Ryan says, “We had all performed in DCI with various groups and with the Northern Lights winter guard, but there hadn’t been an independent guard in the area for several years.  Having performed, taught, designed, and judged in the Pacific Northwest, we saw a need for an independent group, and we wanted to provide a competitive team experience for performers coming out of high school.” Thus, Cascadia was formed.

Ryan explains, “We chose the name Cascadia because it represents a union of the different states in the Pacific Northwest. The message of coming together was important while still identifying us as uniquely PNW.”

The team performed in 2018 and then again in 2019 and 2020. Each year, the cast size ranged from 10 to 16 performers. When COVID hit, the team had to take a break from performing. But they came back strong in 2023, making finals with a team of just 5.

Ryan says, “2023 was unusual in terms of size but not a total surprise.” He explains, “We got started late in the season with auditions, and as a newer group coming back after the pandemic, we needed to build trust in the organization again, almost like starting completely over.” Cascadia held 2023 auditions the first weekend in December and rehearsed only on Sundays throughout the month. Ryan says, “The late start allowed potential performers to complete their college responsibilities before jumping into their winter commitment. We began the design process in January, with our first competition in February. We were committed to making sure the members had an amazing experience on and off the floor no matter how many there were.”

Designing With a Small Team

Ryan admits, “Fielding a team with five performers was initially nerve-wracking; however, the close connections the team could make with one another made all of the difference.” Ryan says, “As we settled in and started developing the show, you could feel a true connection and trust between the performers and staff. Feeding off that energy and showcasing each performer’s strengths helped guide the design process.”

You must focus on your performers to design for any team, but particularly for a smaller group. Ryan explains, “We needed to craft something that fit the team, not necessarily an idea or piece of music we had pre-conceived.”

The music for 2023 was carefully selected based on the team. “Concept and music choice meetings narrowed us down to something with an organic feel that would be recognizable and accessible,” Ryan says. “The activity embraces an extensive range of design choices, but we wanted to do something less esoteric in terms of music and concept. Utilizing a modern full orchestral piece would not serve the program well with only five performers. We went with ‘More than Words’ by Extreme because limiting the number of voices and instruments represented in the music allowed us to more clearly craft the phrasing and development as we moved through the piece. Plus, who doesn’t like a little 90’s nostalgia right now?”

Ryan explains how their music choice guided other design choices like costuming, flag silks, and props. He says, “Our music led the way for our costuming (red flannels and hand-painted leggings), reflecting the era of the music while still identifying the team as clearly from Portland, OR. Obviously, the concept of words and conversation was a driving visual inspiration. We created one set of custom print flags with lyrics from the song, and the white chairs both helped fill and define the space. The chairs were a clear representation of the ongoing conversation between the performers, the judges, and the audience.”

Uniquely, Cascadia chose not to use a floor in 2023. “We chose to maximize resources by using the black floor as a canvas to build the show aesthetic from. Every local competition and WGI event always use the black floor as a base, so we knew we’d have something consistent,” Ryan says. An advantage of not using a floor is that they didn’t have to deal with the challenge of folding a floor after every rehearsal and competition with just five members. Instead of relying on floor markings for drill, Ryan explains that the members relied on the staged props as visual cues for spacing.

Benefits and Challenges of a Smaller Team

Not too much changed in the approach Cascadia used toward rehearsals in 2023 with a smaller team. Ryan says, “Our approach stayed consistent, focusing on building the foundations of the show each rep and maximizing the performer’s abilities.”

The team typically had two staff members at each rehearsal. Ryan says, “Samantha Ray and Ricardo Alexander were fabulous with the team, and Sarah Aimonetti served as peer leader. Cascadia was also lucky to have some amazing people working behind the scenes to help keep things running in so many ways. We have much love for Jon and Buchanan!”

The success Cascadia had in 2023 had a lot to do with its dedicated staff and thoughtful and strategic design. Ryan says, “In planning the show, we were thoughtful to build naturally easier logistics into the design. We minimized equipment and limited props.” Without these design considerations (or with having to fold a floor), the season would have been much more challenging.

Ryan also explains that it was a bit challenging for the team to keep the right mindset in the beginning. He says, “When starting off, it was key to keep morale high and not focus on being pegged as a ‘small group.’ We rather focused on building an enjoyable program that the audience could connect with.”

There were also many benefits to having a smaller team. Ryan says, “Our size enabled the performers to do individual run-throughs for each other.” Additionally, the team’s size made it easy to be efficient at competitions. Ryan says, “At regionals and world championships, we always had fun conversations with the volunteers running check-in, warm-up zones, and floor entrance about the size of the team and our lack of floor or large props. At WGI, we started to have the volunteers anticipating our arrival because they’d heard ahead of time about our streamlined setup. We’d like to think we gave them a little break during the long days!”


Ryan encourages other directors not to be discouraged if they end up with fewer students than expected in one season. He says, “Do not be discouraged by the size of an ensemble! It’s important to build and keep a consistent rehearsal approach, focus on building the program around the performers, and make sure to take time to enjoy the memories along the way.”

Additionally, Ryan encourages all directors to keep their eyes open and constantly strive to learn as instructors. This is especially important if faced with a different size team than expected. Ryan says, “Keep watching and absorbing art! No matter the source or medium, good design is good design. There might not be many examples of small winter guard teams to watch as inspiration, but there are a lot of exciting small dance ensemble performances that show off how staging and choreography reinforce and support each other.”

Cascadia is excited to continue performing in 2024, and they are looking forward to seeing what is in store for them at their next audition! Ryan says, “Cascadia Winterguard is looking forward to a wonderful 2024 season and would love any eligible performers to join us for the journey! We’ll be back at WGI in 2024 with or without a floor.”

Cascadia also recently joined into a strategic partnership with the Northwest Youth Music Association in an effort to continue building the marching and performing arts in the PNW. See Their Announcement Here!

Check out Cascadia Winterguard at www.cascadiawinterguard.org and Instagram @CascadiaWG