Guns and Glitz

By Mike Hixenbaugh

The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH

A tattooed Navy SEAL stepped out of his heavy-duty pickup truck, spit out a stream of brown tobacco juice, slung a canvas backpack over one shoulder, then paused to allow a group of giggling girls in black leotards to pass in front of his vehicle.

The bearded commando peered over his sunglasses and raised an eyebrow before following the dancers into the sparkling glass building a few blocks from the Oceanfront.

In the lobby, some of the world’s most lethal combatants lined up for a glance at the latest in modern war fighting gadgetry. On the other side of a black rope, girls wearing neon pink wigs nervously practiced triple pirouettes.

A quirk of scheduling brought together two exclusive and incredibly disparate worlds Thursday at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. It was a bizarre mix of big guns and tutus, camouflage face paint and glittery eyeliner.

On one half of the convention hall: The Warrior Expo East – a gathering of tactical war fighters and the companies that make their gear. And on the other: The Showbiz National Talent Competition – a glitzy children’s dance contest that draws competitors from across the country.

The juxtaposition wasn’t intentional, but in a building that draws dozens of events and thousands of visitors each year, it wasn’t the first ironic pairing, said Courtney Dyer, the building’s general manager. He recalled receiving a few complaints when a train and toy show recently coincided with a gun show.

“We had dads with little boys, and we had dads with older boys,” Dyer said. “I think this sort of thing demonstrates the flexibility of the building – we draw diverse groups of people.”

Retired Adm. Eric Olson – the man who led U.S. Special Operations during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – delivered the opening remarks at the start of the Warrior Expo. The former SEAL commander warned of numerous geopolitical threats facing America in the years to come – from climate change to biochemical weapons to cyber warfare.

In an adjacent ballroom, as Olson was concluding his speech, “The Humpty Dance” thumped from huge speakers. A group of teenage boys from New Jersey gyrated on a smoke-filled stage. A small girl wearing a blinking crown imitated the boys’ edgy dance moves in the back of the dark room and shouted along to the early ’90s hip-hop track – “Do the Humpty Hump!”

Commandos in one room examined the latest line of folding specialty knives and took turns trying out the next generation of night vision goggles. On the other side of a movable wall, moms lined up to buy their kids glow sticks while uncomfortable dads slouched in chairs in the back of the room.

Sound-blocking partitions initially seemed to keep the two incongruous communities from blending. Then something unexpected happened: As the morning wore on, the distinct line between gruff warriors and smiling dancers began to blur.

Petty Officer 1st Class Curtis Mathews was among the first men in uniform to succumb to the pulsing lights, throbbing beats and flashy dance moves emanating from the ballroom next door. After scoping a few new aviation safety products, the Navy parachute rigger walked into the dance competition and bobbed his head as Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” blared. On stage, little girls in glittering gold leotards danced alongside little boys dressed like comic book superheroes.

Mathews smiled.

“I have a 2-year-old girl, and I’d love to get her involved in something like this,” he said before forking over $20 and adding a pink tutu to his bag of war fighting freebies.

Soon, curious commandos were crossing over into the dance room, looking for a break from macho weaponry and tactical gear next door.

Privates 1st Class Javier Saaverdra and Adan Ramos – a pair of young Marines training for urban combat scenarios in southern Chesapeake – were enamored by a pistol mounted with a holographic, laser-guided scope. “Cool stuff,” Saaverdra said.

Before heading back to their barracks, the Marines decided to check out the dance competition for a few minutes while they ate some ice cream.

The men smirked as a group of children performed a hip-hop dance routine set to a remixed version of the “Speedracer” theme song. Saaverdra shook his head and complained that many of the girls were far too young for the clothes and makeup they were wearing.

Some 45 minutes later – long after they had finished their ice cream, as yet another group of dancers took the stage – the two young men with buzz cuts still hadn’t left.

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