Volume 2 , Number 10
October , 1997
...and They All Danced
by The SCROOMtimes Staff
You know them as the cheerleaders, the people that have to be upbeat even when the home team is being shelled 15 to 0. The ladies that could be Rhodes Scholars and still have to spend each day of their working lives being met with "Shake it, baby," from the drunk in section 106. The women that spend hours each week practicing routines only to see half the audience head for the exits when they take the field. If being a member of a dance team is a thankless job, then being part of the dance team for a Roller Hockey International franchise has to be one the most under-appreciated jobs in professional sports.
Oftentimes over the past four years of watching RHI action at my local arena, I have wondered why the dancers put up with the rude fans, the catcalls and the small crowds. I recently got a chance to find out firsthand when I sat down with the San Jose Rhinestones and talked to all of them for this article. Some of what I learned surprised me, other things I had expected.
I was most impressed with the overall sense of professionalism that each of them exuded. It would be very easy for the Rhinestones to not take this job seriously. While they are paid for their work, all of the dancers must maintain other jobs as well. Most of the outside jobs involve dance instruction and one, Sonia Duffin, is the Director of Santa Clara University's dance team. If they were to merely go out on to the floor and move in a semi-organized way, I'm sure the fans would be satisfied. That wouldn't be professional, however, and if the Rhinestones are anything, they are professionals. They practice several times a week for two hours at a time. The routines are different for each game, and they perform several routines per game. Oftentimes they will have two, even three games a week. They are onstage throughout the matches, cheering on the team and signing autographs for the fans.
The Rhinestones were born four years ago during the San Jose Rhinos' inaugural RHI season. It was, according to the accounts of the two members of that first year's squad that are still on the team (Jamie Ripley & Heather Kent), not an easy year. "Those first costumes were scary," says Jamie. The first costumes, in fact, were black lycra pants and team t-shirts, making them look more like team groupies than professional dancers. There was little money for things like costumes that first year. There was also little precedent for what they were doing. Hockey teams do not traditionally have dance squads (dancing on ice being a fairly difficult activity) so they had to look to basketball dance squads for inspiration (in fact Cindy Hays & Heather Kent once danced for the now defunct San Jose Jammers CBA franchise). Even that caused problems because a basketball court is smaller and isn't surrounded by a wall. This makes getting on to the surface for their numbers far more time consuming and limits the number of dances they can do each game.
All of these problems are the concern of Karen Slack, a former Rhinestone who is now Choreographer, Press Secretary, Director, Costume Designer, etc. for the team. If it seems that Karen does it all, that would be because she virtually does. She has designed all of the team's costumes, from the "scary" ones of the first season to this year's universally praised outfits. When it comes to choreography, Karen gets some help from friends on the 49er's Gold Rush and the Raiderettes, though she still designs most of the routines herself. Karen also handles the promotional appearances for the team. She tries to keep the team away from the typical "cheerleader promo" situations. As Megan Smith says "Karen doesn't want us to do promos where we're just standing around." If you had to pick one driving force behind the growing popularity of the Rhinestones it would have to be the hard work and dedication of Karen Slack.
Along with the outside promotions, the Rhinestones also help out the booster club by handing out fan appreciation items before some games. They also run a "future Rhinestones camp" once each month during the season. At this camp youngsters learn a routine, hang out with the Rhinestones and get to appear during halftime of a Rhinos' game. There is a nominal fee for the camp to cover the cost of the t-shirts and tickets to the game. The purpose behind all of these activities is to build awareness for the Rhinestones and for the sport of Roller Hockey in the San Jose area.
Although they are now big fans (of course!), the members of the Rhinestones were not always roller hockey fans. Karen Lorenz remembers "when I first heard of it, I thought it was a roller derby sort of thing,". Their first game was an education - Jolie says that the first game she saw "was the coolest thing". But it is safe to say that they have become fans of both the game, and the players. "They do support us when they get the chance", Cindy Hays says, and the relationship between the groups is getting stronger as the franchise grows. Heather Kent likes the fact that "the last three years the players hosted a barbecue at the apartments where they live. It gave everyone a chance to get to know each other." Hopefully this will carry over to the newwer players on the team - Cindy says that "some of the players last year were more forward about coming up and talking to us."
Now that the Rhinestones have settled in, it's time to get some work done. Their new uniforms are a definite improvement over the first ones - although they have their drawbacks. "You have to do major sit-ups to wear these outfits," Jamie Ripley says. They also have music to select and routines to learn. On the subject of the music, they don't get to choose their favorites, crowd pleasing must be the rule of the day. One of the favorite standards is the old disco chestnut "YMCA" - "We don't particularly love the song like everyone else does but it is a great crowd thing," Karen Lorenz says. And sometimes there is no music at all - Cindy Hays's worst moment was when they played the wrong version of our music... we were just sort of stuck out there." Luckily that hasn't happened lately.