Marching grew rapidly in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially a sport for young women of working years, it extended to a younger age group. By the late 1950s juniors (aged 12–15) were competing at national championships and by the late 1960s ‘midget’ teams (aged 8–11) joined them. The administration of the sport became less male-dominated after Norma Mangos was elected dominion president of the New Zealand Marching Association in 1959.
As well as competing for championship points and trophies at local, centre, island and national competitions, marching teams took a prominent place in local and national events. Teams appeared regularly in street parades, at agricultural and pastoral shows, and at civic welcomes for royal visitors.
New Zealand’s most successful marching team
The white tunics and red tartan of the Wellington-based Lochiel team dominated the public and competitive face of marching. Formed in the late 1950s, and active competitors until 2003, the team had a remarkable record of 26 national titles. Much of the team’s success was due to Colleen Pobar (coach from 1966) and the dedication of team members including the multi-championship winning leader Jodene Tuau.
Champion Dunedin team Blair Athol toured Britain in 1952. The team’s attempt to promote the sport beyond New Zealand was ultimately not successful – a form of marching developed in Australia but along different lines. However, the tour laid the ground for a succession of international performances by New Zealand’s top teams. Wellington’s Lochiel team is the best known. Invited to participate in the prestigious Edinburgh Tattoo in 1978, the team undertook a series of international tours in following decades.
Changes in the sport
In the late 1970s and early 1980s marching reached its height, with between 300 and 400 teams competing. By 1992 the numbers had dropped to under 200. Like other sports and recreation organisations, the New Zealand Marching Association struggled to attract new members, and to hold on to the large retinue of volunteers that supported the sport as judges, coaches, chaperones and fundraisers. Rival recreation and leisure pursuits, changing patterns of work, different weekend routines, shifting aesthetics and new opportunities for women in sport all contributed to the decline in traditional team sports.
Although marching teams began to ebb in popularity, the place of ‘marching girls’ in New Zealand culture became secure. Fiona Samuel’s celebrated 1987 television drama series The marching girls and Maggie Rainey-Smith’s 2005 novel About turns are just two of several sympathetic and at times nostalgic portrayals of marching teams.
A new name for the national organisation, Marching New Zealand, and a simplification of the administrative structure signalled a major overhaul of the sport in 1998. Greater flexibility in march routines updated marching for the pop-music generations of the 21st century. By the 2000s there was a flourishing masters’ grade (older women) and new beginners’ grades. Forty-two top teams vied for honours at the 2012 national championships.