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We danced as one

Gresham High's Rhythmettes go from the bottom of the heap to the top in a year of change, bonding and beating the odds
by: John Klicker, Hillary Dube, front and center, gives it her all at the OSAA Dance and Drill State Championship, along with teammates, from left, Erica Heine, Shelley Dietz, Jolene Rice and Adriana Chepiga on Saturday, March 15. The team placed second in the 6A Large division.

What a difference a year can make. The Gresham High Rhythmettes dance team downsized from about 40 members to 15 and catapulted from second-to-last place in 2007 to winning second in state at the March 15 competition.

Dancing to 'What's Going On' by 4 Non Blondes and uniting under the theme 'New Beginnings,' the more compact team beat previous powerhouses Lincoln High and Lake Oswego High, taking second only to Tigard High at the Memorial Coliseum event.

'It was kind of a shock that such a small team could make such an impact at a competition. Basically everything for us was a totally new journey this year,' said Co-Captain Adriana Chepiga. 'It felt good, because we were all really close as a team, like sisters.'

The 'New Beginnings' theme was certainly fitting for the Rhythmettes this year, as they made the big leap from a show team (usually consisting of 30 to 60 members) to a dance/drill team (usually 20 or fewer members). The change, which created a junior varsity and varsity team, resulted in a close-knit group of top talent.

'Having a varsity team was good for us; we were all dedicated,' Chepiga said. 'We'd all been doing it for a really long time, and we all knew what hard work is. We were all so close and motivated each other to be the best we could be.'

Then came the curveball.

The girls found out a few months before the state competition that despite their small team, they would be competing in the 6A Large division. So few teams would be competing at state that brackets had been expanded. Gresham High would now be competing against teams of more than 50.

Coach Jennifer Wilson said it was hard to break the news to her team.

'We found this poster with a poem on it that we brought in to the girls, and we used it as inspiration. It said, 'The bend in the road is not the end of the road, unless you refuse to take the turn.' We told them, 'This is our journey. This is our new beginning,' ' Wilson said.

The Rhythmettes got to work, and their work quickly began to pay off.

At the January Rogue Valley competition in Grants Pass, the team placed first. At the February Tigard High School competition, the team placed first. It was first place again at the February Mt. Hood Friends competition. But the team still hadn't competed against any big teams.

Then came the Metro competition at Centennial High, where the Rhythmettes beat out Lincoln and Lake Oswego high schools for another first-place finish.

'That was huge; that was the turning point,' Wilson said. 'We started saying '15 is the new 50.' '

Coming into the state competition, Gresham High had an unprecedented string of 'firsts' behind them. They had done the hard work. They were ready.

'We had all firsts going into state, but we had never gone up against Tigard,' Wilson said.

Nevertheless, Wilson said she was confident in her team.

'We truly were a family, that's what did it for us this year,' she said. 'The dancers were tight, the dancers and coaches were tight, and the coaches and coaches were tight. They wanted something, and they went after it. We did everything we could, and they provided what they needed too.'

After all the teams had performed, it was time for the judges' announcement.

'We felt good about our performance, but we didn't know how well we did compared to other teams, so we were all very nervous. We held each other's hands, and our stomachs were all churning,' Chepiga said. 'When they announced our name, it was an indescribable feeling, there were so many emotions going. There was joy, and people were jumping up and down and hugging each other.'

The achievement felt all the greater because of the odds against them.

'We all felt very accomplished, because we kind of changed the way things work,' Chepiga said. 'Usually teams of 15 don't go up against teams of 50, but we proved to the whole dance world that it's possible.'

Coach Wilson said she is already looking ahead to next year, and what this win means for Gresham High's dance program.

'It's been a really good experience for us, and we're looking ahead to next year and tryouts, and having more interest in our program,' she said. 'It's a new era for Gresham.'

And for Chepiga and the other seniors on the team, it's an emotional goodbye.

'Out of all my years on dance team, I have to say, this one was the perfect way to end my senior year,' she said. 'It was really emotionally hard to perform the last night, because we all knew there wasn't going to be team such as this one again. The biggest thing this year was the bond we shared. We didn't dance as individuals. We danced as one.'

Dance team standouts

• Adriana Chepiga and Rebecca Flynn made All State.

• Kaitlin Harding won sixth place in the Drill Down competition.

• Shelley Dietz and Jolene Rice won scholarships through the Farmers Scholar Program.