BLOG: The final performance
The stress, the sweat, the excitement - it must be Grey Cup week
"Thursday, Nov. 20th 1 p.m.: Meet at train station for group check-in."
In less than an hour I'd be on the train with the rest of the Ticat cheerleaders for my first Grey Cup experience.
I put two magazines in my purse then I added the two batches of peanut butter chip cookies I'd made the night before.
I double-checked the team attire list on my copy of the itinerary for the weekend to make sure I had everything. Lesley had printed one out for each of us so we knew where we should be, at what time, and in which outfit.
Clothing options for rehearsals or performances included promo-gear, full uniform, white socks, rolling bag, Skechers shoes, black gloves, black turtleneck, black vest, black warm-up jacket, and/or goose-down parka.
My favourite instruction was for a party we were to attend on Friday night. It read: Black dressy clothes for Maxim Party (tasteful).
Since she just had her baby boy only days before, it would be the first Grey Cup Lesley missed in years. Linda, my squad captain, was in charge.
I sat with Linda, Christina and Lauren on the five-hour train from Union Station in Toronto to Central Station in Montreal. A couple of hours into our trip, Krista came over to our pod of four seats.
"Okay Erika, can you hold up my jacket when we pass the Brockville station?" she asked as everyone gathered around. "My family and friends are waiting outside to wave at us when we go by."
I held up the bright yellow parka, and thought about how excited her parents must be to drag a group of people out into the cold when our train wasn't even scheduled to stop at the station
"My mom says my dad's trying to get them to moon us," said Krista, as she held the phone to her ear. We laughed.
We arrived in Montreal and made our way through the underground tunnels to the Marriott Chateau Champlain, where all the cheerleading teams were staying.
The Alouettes cheerleaders welcomed us in the lobby with Grey Cup 2008 gift bags. After all the bags had been divvied up, three of the Alouettes girls approached me.
"Are you Erika?" asked one, who later introduced herself as Julie. I noticed her Quebecois accent immediately and thought back to my years at McGill. Had she been in my class?
"Yes," I nodded.
"We read your column. Everything you write, we feel," said Marie-Eve. Then Elizabeth described one of her favourite parts of my last blog.
I'm sure that I had a ridiculous smile on my face, but already I felt welcomed and encouraged that other girls felt the same way I do about cheerleading. I laughed and thanked them for reading, and they left to attend to their many hosting duties.
As soon as I turned around, Christina had her video camera rolling, saying I'd already been recognized. Andrea jokingly called me "the famous cheerleader."
I didn't have time to revel in my brief moment of celebrity, as we had to meet in full uniform in the lobby before our first performance. The 18 of us, clad in our matching yellow coats, braved the cold for our 10-minute walk to the Sheraton hotel.
Our first appearance was at the Spirit of Edmonton room.
We were met by one of the organizers who directed us up the escalator and to a room in the back.
"Okay, you have five minutes, girls," she said.
And that's how it started. We took off our jackets, stretched our legs as fast as we could and rushed into the ballroom to perform.
Rather than a stage where the audience watched from the front, there were people fully surrounding the designated dance space, which was basically a clearing in the floor. This impacted the performance in a variety of ways.
Firstly, we had to perform fully when facing any and all directions. As competitive dancers, we're used to having a few seconds while facing the back of the stage to unscrew our smile and catch our breath, or even subtly blow stray hairs out of our face. Not so when there is no backstage. This was not an easy feat in a seven-minute routine.
Secondly, there's the fact that people were trying to dance with us. Although at us is a better description. One man wearing nothing but a kilt with scribbles from what looked like permanent marker all over his torso was especially enthusiastic when our music started. I've never had to work so hard to stay focused, but I was surprised to find that it was energizing rather than distracting.
Thirdly, the floor was either slippery or sticky. When people like Kilt Man were dancing, keeping the beer inside the cup was far from their first priority. This meant pirouettes were challenging and kneeling was a hazard to a uniform needed in presentable condition for eight performances over the weekend.
Finally, fans were taking pictures inches from our faces in the middle of the routine. If the singing and dancing wasn't enough, the bright flashes were sure to catch our attention. A man approached me after our dance saying, "Do you know this person?" holding a close-up photo mid-routine. "That's me!" I exclaimed, surprised.
The whole thing was very much an interactive performance. Everywhere I looked people were smiling and moving along with the music.
And of course it carried on after our dances. Fans — and I mean CFL fans and not solely Ticat fans —approached us for photos and autographs for the posters we were selling. Even on the street it was as if our yellow parkas drew people in.
Perhaps our biggest draw was for the Cheer Extravaganza on Friday night. Though not a competition, each cheerleading team takes their turn to dance.
The venue was the Molson Ex Pavilion, a heated tent in the midst of Grey Cup Village. Unlike the team party rooms, this was a real stage with blinding lights, smoke and lighting tricks, and plenty of cameras responsible for the DVDs we'd purchased in advance as souvenirs.
During rehearsal, Linda sat out and watched to see how we looked.
"Jen K. looks like she's having so much fun the whole time, so make sure to smile and show that you're having fun, too. That's what will set us apart from the other squads," she said.
And once the show began, it was impossible not to smile. The music was loud, the crowd was excited, and I even had friends and family in the audience.
"I feel like we should have brought you flowers like at a recital," said my friend Alex outside the tent. "Did you hear us screaming for you?"
Unfortunately I couldn't hear her above the pandemonium that was the Molson Ex Pavilion, but that was nothing compared to Olympic Stadium on Sunday night. I guess 66,308 people have that effect.
From our 9:00 a.m. arrival at the dome until we were sent to the stands at 4:30 p.m., our day alternated between blaring music and silence.
There was pre-game rehearsal, in-game rehearsal, and half-time rehearsal.
"There are cameras everywhere so stay smiling and try not to complain about the long day," said Linda. "I know everyone's tired, but now is the time to be extra nice to each other."
We were split up from our own teams during the half-time rehearsal. We practiced lining up to form a tunnel for fans to come on field for the Theory of a Deadman performance.
I attempted to make conversation to pass the time, but I was mostly trying to stay awake. The sore muscles, poor diet and strange pickle-coloured bruise on my right knee were starting to take their toll.
My solution was to devour the Subway sandwich provided by the organizers and take a nap on Christine's knee once back in the change room. I awoke to the flash of a camera and the unhappy news that I twitch while I sleep.
It seemed that only moments later we were on the turf for the pre-game show.
It was cold. It was loud. Everyone seemed very far away. Even the field seemed miles longer than good old Ivor Wynne. I remember it as I do early-morning dreams. Lots of colours and sounds, but no clear details. I couldn't make out any faces.
Except for Lisa's face. This girl was literally bouncing through the halls as we made our way back to the dressing room to wait for our in-game dance. Beaming ear-to-ear, blonde hair blowing in the artificial breeze. A natural cheerleader.
"I love the fans!" she'd say over and over. "No one else was waving at first, but I couldn't stop waving!"
Her excitement was contagious. Everyone was pumped when we hit the field at the three-minute mark of the second quarter for our in-game dance with the other Eastern teams.
When I got back to the dressing room, there was a text message waiting on my cell phone from a friend who was in the stadium. "You were on the big screen!"
And finally we were back in normal street clothes, cramming into the elevator to head up to our seats for the final 20 minutes of the game.
"We were just down there on the field, and now we're so far away," said Krista, sitting beside me in the stands.
Before long, we were back on the bus to our hotel room. The 96th Grey Cup was officially over.
And so was my season as a Tiger-Cat cheerleader.
I remember a few months ago I complained to my mom about how I didn't want to live at home while all my friends were off traveling Europe and exploring the world.
"Well as soon as you're done with this cheerleading stuff, you can go wherever you want," she said.
Her words left me genuinely saddened.
I came into this as a joke-a free dance class and a story for my friends at school. And now I'm going to look back on our routines in Grey Cup's Tigertown as the most exciting performances of my dancing career.
I also have a newfound loyalty to the dedicated fans at Ivor Wynne Stadium, who are as supportive of us as we are of the team.
But most of all, I've come to respect Lesley and all of the girls who work so hard to earn the reputation of a talented and professional squad. The way we were received in Montreal made me appreciate the opportunity to be part of this team.
We killed it.
Oskee Wee Wee…