Colorado-based dancers bring a taste of Americana to the world of alpine ski racing
EAGLE COUNTY — It’s unlike any cheerleading squad you’ve ever seen.
On a warm, nearly cloudless Sunday afternoon in mid-September — the definition of Indian summer in the Rockies — auditions for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships cheerleading squad were minutes away. A small cadre of judges, photographers and videographers milled about Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, while professional dancer Kris Ashley prepared to put squad hopefuls through the audition ringer.
And “ringer” is hardly an exaggeration. Nearly five months before hometown superstars like Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin tame the alpine gates, the Vail Valley Foundation tapped Ashley to bring an equally impressive roster of athletes to town. The job for the squad’s director and choreographer is simple: Find 10 Colorado-based dancers to be part of America’s first-ever slopeside cheerleading squad.
While Ashley ironed out last-minute details with her crew, the audition dancers slowly filed into the amphitheater, spreading out across the venue’s lush lawn to stretch and chat. A few seemed understandably nervous. The afternoon was nothing short of a high-octane job interview with freestyle dance and on-the-spot choreography standing in for a resume synopsis.
The all-female hopefuls arrived with pristine makeup and hair — it’s the sort of dance-world minutia Ashley requested in the statewide casting call — but beneath the glitz, they were ready for nearly three solid hours of dancing: tights, tank tops, dance shoes, baggy sweaters.
“This is going to sound cheesy, but I look for a beautiful person, inside and out,” Ashley said while waiting for the final few dancers to trickle in. “I don’t just like to see how they dance. I like to speak with the girls one-on-one to learn who they are.”
When the 10 audition dancers took the stage, Ashley was admittedly surprised. The New York native and recent Summit County transplant is familiar with casting calls on the East Coast, where upwards of 100 dancers vie for a few spots.
The Vail turnout was minuscule in comparison. But as the group gathered in a semicircle around the director, Ashley snapped into coach mode. After dancing professionally for 14 years — including nearly four years with the New York Knicks and six years with her rock-infused dance company, Candy Janes — she has an eye for talent and passion.
The auditions began at 3 p.m., and within five minutes, Ashley had led the group through the opening steps of a dance routine “with high energy and a little bit of sass” — her personal vision for the squad.
At first, the audition dancers hardly made a sound. It was the group’s first introduction to the rapid-fire 2015 tempo, and it was brutally quick. Ashley gave everyone a few seconds to breathe, then dove straight into the next eight counts of choreography. The auditions were under way.
Setting the stage
The 2015 cheerleaders are a cornerstone of the Vail Valley Foundation’s vision for the championships, one steeped in all things Americana. (Oddly enough, the Sochi Olympics boasted cheerleaders at the Nordic races, of all events.) They’ll be in the thick of the action, flitting from the finish line to the awards stage to village after-parties during two weeks of downhill racing.
“From the beginning, we really felt that we had this great opportunity to show the world how America celebrates major sports,” said Vail Valley Foundation President Ceil Folz, who admits she was a high school cheerleader. “We’ve looked at NFL games, NBA games, finding the things that make them so fun and so us. Instead of bringing the rest of the world the typical European traditions, we wanted to give it our face.”
As Folz hints at, it’s a far cry from the usual cheerleading atmosphere, with touchdown routines and gymnastics moves. Ashley is on the same page. She’ll shy away from pyramids and basket tosses — not to mention short skirts — to hone in on the type of all-around dancers she and Vail Valley Foundation want. Each day, the cheerleaders will simply keep ski fans warm by leading a new “dance of the day” routine.
For audition dancers like Helena Marshall, of Avon, 2015 can be a stepping stone. The 24-year-old Ohio native hasn’t danced seriously since moving to the Vail area — several attendees mentioned the lack of adult-minded studios in the area, one of several hurdles Ashley will face in the coming months — but she eventually wants to audition for an NBA or NFL squad.
“I’m excited to see where and what we will do. You’re on the mountain, and I’ve never done that before,” said Marshall, who’s also an avid skier. “But I want to be out, in town, just a part of the World Championships. Even before I moved out here, people were looking forward to it.”
At a little past 3:30 p.m., Ashley finished running the group through the audition routine. She let them rest before switching on AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It’s in line with her rocking take on choreography, and come February, the cheerleaders will dance to everything from rock to hip-hop to sports anthems (think “We Will Rock You”) by the 2015 marching band, another slice of the Americana theme.
Until February, Ashley has her work cut out. As she watched the dancers pick through the routine with music, she admitted it will take another audition to cast the squad. In two weeks, she’ll head to Denver for a final audition.
But the Vail crew was already starting to loosen up and find a rhythm. A few removed baggy sweaters while a few others began laughing as they worked on little touches to set them apart.
“I can’t teach you to smile,” Ashley told the group. “I can’t teach you to have energy and interact with the audience and look like you’re having fun. If you’re focused on your performance, every part of it, you’ll connect with the audience.”
Then it was back to work.