Volunteers extraordinaire

CHAD SCARSBROOK -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

They have to have serious athletic talent to make the team. They practise twice a week and a third time on game day. They are required to have a gym membership and keep in shape on their own time. They need to be loyal and accountable to their teammates and be ambassadors for the Winnipeg Football Club.

And if one of the above is missing you can expect them to be running penalty laps at practice -- pom poms optional.

The Blue Lightning Dance Team, you see, are much more than just 30 pretty faces.

"Their role is to help educate the audience," Blue Lightning head coach Dena Clark was saying recently during cheerleading practice. "I think it's the hardest thing for the ladies to stand on the sidelines if our team is losing and the fans are saying a whole lot of negative stuff. The hardest thing for them is to still reach up into the audience and create that positive energy. That's what their role is."

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to shake pom poms for the Blue Bombers. Auditions begin in January and the women will have to prove to Dena that they can learn routines, group sideline dances, as well as solo dances. They also have to give a formal interview, display their public speaking skills and get at least 90% on a written exam. The test covers everything from basic football formations to the differences between the CFL and NFL to where the first-aid kits are in the stadium.

Forty selected women move on to the boot camp section and if they're not physically fit, they can kiss being a cheerleader goodbye. After the camp, Dena selects the most electric 30 women for the Blue Lightning.

"We look for natural ability, for those who can pick up the moves and have the ability to dance," said Dena, who's been coach since 2003. "But they are still cheerleaders and they need to interact with the audience and execute moves in a unique environment."

Twenty-four of them dress for games while the six others go into the stands "doing public relations," according to Dena.

They're also expected to volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per season for promotions, fundraisers, charity gigs and other appearances.

"The ladies are putting in, on average, 12 1/2-16 1/2 hours a week for cheerleading on top of work and school," said Dena.

The season ends for the cheerleaders in the second week of December making it a virtual year-long commitment.

"If it's one of those things you like to do, you find the time to be able to give it 100% because it's what you enjoy doing," said Shauna, 24, a business manager who has a degree in kinesiology and a diploma in communications.

Shauna is just one member of the Blue Lightning who has to juggle work responsibilities and a social life to be on the team.

"A lot of people don't know that this is a volunteer position," said Jackie, 28, now into her 10th season with the team. "Lots of people think we get paid and a lot of girls have real full-time jobs and some are still students. We've had police officers, lawyers, people in the air force -- you name it. We're very educated women."

That's one stereotype that's probably followed cheerleaders since they first stepped on the field.

"People don't realize that in order to be committed, be on top of games and practice and have a personal life and jobs -- if you weren't intelligent you couldn't organize yourself to juggle those things," said Lori, a 29-year-old rookie who works full-time as an occupational therapist and part-time as a gymnastics teacher.

With Dena taking over the controls of the Blue Lightning, the team has brought back stunting and tumbling and are now a mix between a dance team and a cheerleading squad.

"Comparing all the (CFL cheerleading) teams to each other is like comparing apples to oranges," she said. "The reason we don't have a competition is that some teams have a mandate from up above that they're more aesthetic enhancements to the game ... (whereas) Edmonton is more of a U.S. college team where they do full-out stunts. I want the cheerleaders to be one component of the game day atmosphere. Whether people are buying a ticket to see the game, the mascots or enjoy the dancers -- everyone has their own reason."

And the women have their own reasons for being a part of the exclusive squad.

"I love to perform," said Shauna, who was an international-level gymnast, was a cheerleader at the University of Winnipeg and has a background in hip-hop, jazz and ballet. "I love the adrenaline rush of being out on the field during a CFL game. I love being with all the girls on the team and putting together performances that really entertain the crowd."

"I'm surrounded by a group of incredibly talented women coached by an amazing coach and the fans in Winnipeg are awesome," said Jackie, a finance manager who's been team captain the past four years. "Game day is still a rush. It's still as much a rush now as my first game."

Whether a veteran of 10 years or a rookie, the women are equally enthusiastic.

"I didn't realize the fans would be so enthusiastic to see you," said Lori, who stepped onto the Canada Inns field for the first time earlier this year. "They make you want to cheer them on and cheer the team on ... Being able to perform in front of the best fans in Canada was a huge drawing factor."


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