If you’re in the dance and flag line of the Gulf Coast High School Marching Band, you’ll be wearing Maybelline Painted Purple 24-Hour as your eye shadow or you won’t be on the field. Or in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The dress code is that strict.
Still, precisely matched eye shadow is the simplest part of Friday night in sequins and jazz shoes. You can always borrow cosmetics; you can’t bluff the skills. In dance line tryouts, qualifiers include a Rockette kick close to 180 degrees — eye-high — as well as multiple executions of splits and the ability to learn a routine on the spot. You’ll have to do it all at some point.
“When someone’s sick or injured, we redo all the spots to make it work. We’ve had games where at halftime we’ve had to change the show,” explained co-director Alison Shoemaker. This year, there have been three injuries already, “but usually the girls just power through minor injuries.”
Shoemaker shares what has to be a work of love — even though they’re paid — with Kelly Rhoades. Shoemaker is a full time accountant who danced her way through college teaching and performing. Rhoades is guest services, volunteer & intern services manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. After Rhoades helped found the Gulf Coast High School dance team, the FGCU Dancing Divas even hired her as their first choreographer. The two of them total 20 years experience as dance line instructors here.
Performing in a high school dance line is like climbing a mountain in a business suit. There are long gloves; tights that, in theory, will not develop a snag; bodice-skirt combinations that have to sparkle no matter how you abuse them and tan jazz shoes that will march miles of football fields, stages and parade routes.
If your heart is set on being a featured dancer, be able to do midair back flips and splits as well.
The flag line specializes in upper-body strength feats such as a prayer toss — joining the hands above the head as one throws the 4½-foot-high flag and yanks it down in time to catch it in an unfurled wave. Dropping is not an approved option.
Some girls, although none have said so here, learn to do it wearing a helmet.
All team members are expected to do conditioning work year-round. There are 49-minute strength and flexibility classes five days a week at school in addition to 2 ½-hour rehearsals with the band Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Friday performances and weekend competitions. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has added a rehearsal every week or two, with a different formation to be learned for New York’s narrower streets.
Flag and dance lines must smile through every minute of all this.
On a recent Tuesday, the teams were executing back flips and spine snaps, all of them with their hair pulled back into perfect 18-inch-long ponytails. Is there a hair code, too?
In a way, there is: Those waving silken manes are hairpieces clipped vigorously inside a twinkling rhinestone band that hides a knot of their natural hair. The costume addition isn’t only for Macy’s, but for the Sharkettes’ Florida football-night fans.
“The humidity is horrible for girls’ hair,” Rhoades explained. “Hair pieces are wonderful to have that polished look.”
“When you look at the great teams, the overarching image is uniformity,” Rhoades said.
“Uniformity is the biggest component we’ll be looking at for Macy’s,” Shoemaker said. “All the kicks have to be the same height.”
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade regulations have thrown their Southwest Florida perfection a curve ball, however. Warm-up suits are a requirement for all dance and flag lines in what can be brutal New York November weather. So Shoemaker and Rhoades are designing one that works with the lines’ strenuous moves. Hallandale-based Algy, a dance costume company, is working with them. Eventually, the team members will have to rehearse all their moves inside those suits.
Shoemaker hopes the warm-up will only add $100 more to each girl’s cost for the 69 flag line members and 45 dancers.
“As the uniform is custom-made, each flag and dance member is required to purchase her own,” Rhoades said, responding to an email request for prices. Already the total uniform cost, including shoes, jewelry, accessories and an extra pair of tights, is around $365.
Both Rhoades and Shoemaker also hoping a junior Sharkettes opportunity — in which girls ages 8 to 12 can learn a routine and march with them at the Oct. 2 game — will bring in part of the needed money. Rhoades and Shoemaker will direct that, too.
The two get a chuckle out of the request for a mission statement. They see their jobs more in terms of a goal.
“For every performance our goal is to get a standing ovation,” Rhoades said. “It’s a challenge on our home field, because the fans have seen so much of what we do already.”
The two study videos of California dance studios and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders for choreography inspiration. Do parents occasionally weigh in on moves they consider too wiggly?
They can, but they haven’t had complaints, said Rhoades: “We really do try to uphold the highest level of professionalism for high school.”
IF the immediate goal is perception, the long-term results reflect character building: teamwork, discipline, focus and strength.
“We teach the kids to be responsible. If they don’t have gloves and shoes it’s their job to get them. And they have to be on time or they run laps,” Rhoades said.
“We’re really good at acting ‘in the moment,’” said Hannah Sabes, 17, current dance line captain. Part of her work is drilling discipline into her teammates. “One of the toughest things to instill is 100 percent performance in everything, including practice. It takes a lot of stamina.”
“We have to be clean on the field,” added Allison Gramer, 17, flag captain. “When you’re indoors practicing, you don’t have the elements of the wind and the crowd in front of you.”
Brittany Oldfield, a former Sharkettes dance captain who is now on the dance team at University of Central Florida, recalls her major lesson of working with the Sharkettes as learning to think of a common good.
“It really helped me learn how to work together with other people,” said Oldfield, an environmental sciences major. “I changed to thinking in a full-team aspect, rather than just thinking about myself.”
That spirit endures. She’ll be watching for the Gulf Coast High School Marching Band flagline on Thanksgiving Day: “I wouldn’t miss it!”
For more information
Gulf Coast Marching Band: www.gchsharkband.com