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Going for golden

Nearly 100 women vie for only 30 spots on the MU Golden Girls dance team, bringing glitter and grit to this year’s tryouts.

On any given day, the basement of Mizzou Arena is a dreary maze of hallways, covered in shades of gray. The walls are gray. The floors are gray. The exposed pipes running overhead are a shade of (you guessed it) gray. But for one weekend in April, a small corner of the building teems with color.

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At the Golden Girls annual tryouts, nearly 100 dance squad hopefuls fill the corridors with sequins and a rainbow of sports bras. Yes, they bring makeup and hair spray and engage in plenty of primping, but they also generate an atmosphere undeniably befitting of the sports arena: competition.

“Everyone definitely brings their A-game,” says Brittany Brown of St. Peters, Mo., an incoming MU freshman who ultimately did not make the team. “It’s really hard when you’re in that room. It’s so hot, your body is working overtime, and there are so many things you have to think about. But it’s showtime.”

During tryouts April 23–24, 2010, a total of 98 women competed for 30 spots. Nobody was safe — even the dancers already on the roster had to try out again.

“I do not believe in a sense of entitlement whatsoever,” says Coach Shannon Fry, who has led the team since 1998 and was a Golden Girl herself from 1990 to 1994. “Everything these girls get, they earn.”

Some prospective team members don’t make it past the tryout clinics — information sessions where applicants gain insight into what to expect at tryouts and life as a Golden Girl. Fry, a straight shooter, doesn’t sugarcoat her expectations. A sampling:

• “I’m sure your moms are great. I just don’t want to deal with them.”
• “If you plan to come to college and be a crazy college girl, do not try out. I have no tolerance for that kind of thing.”
• “Our fans expect an athletic group of girls, and I do too. It’s tough — if you’re not in good shape, you’re not going to make it.”
• “The first reason you should come to Mizzou is because you want to come to Mizzou. I appreciate it if you want to be a Golden Girl, but you have to want to be here.”

Of the 96 applicants who showed up for clinics, only 75 participated in the first night of tryouts. Of those, 27 returned the next day to compete against 23 members of the 2009–10 squad.

Each day of tryouts lasts about five hours. During that time, dancers learn one dance and one pom routine and perform them, two at a time, in front of the judges. On the second day, each applicant also choreographs her own 30-second freestyle dance. During the performances, judges evaluate the dancers’ technique — leaps, turns, kicks, etc. — and look for “crowd-pleasing” potential.

“I really look for girls who are great performers,” Fry says. “We’re the performance aspect — the pageantry — of the game. They need to be good dancers, able to do straight-arm pom and wear the uniform, but they may not be the best dancers. Sometimes you can just look at them and tell.”

At the end of tryouts, two dancers who were formerly on the team weren’t invited back. Nine new dancers joined the squad.

“This is my fourth year trying out,” says team captain Elize Schlueter, a senior from St. Louis. “It’s still intimidating because all the girls coming in have been in the studio three days a week.” Teammate Amy Trader, a sophomore of Columbia, adds: “It’s almost harder trying out again because you know what you have to lose. We’re all nervous and intimidated in different ways.”

For the new team, the hard work is just beginning. To prepare for performances at football and basketball games, the dancers will spend three to four hours on Tuesday evenings practicing in their studio and three hours on Wednesday and Friday nights rehearsing with Marching Mizzou. In addition, team members also perform community service projects throughout the school year.

“School comes first, then the team,” Fry says. “Being a Golden Girl is a full-time commitment.”

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