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How to play a cheerleader in ‘Bring It On’? For Selma cast, it meant going to camp

THEATER PREVIEW

What goes up must come down, including cheerleaders. Those impressive stunts when one of them is tossed high in the air? Thanks to physics and the concept of terminal velocity, there’s a moment when the “flyer” — that’s the cheerleader term — is at her highest, then begins her inevitable descent.

“There’s that point at the very top where it feels like you stop and can see everything, and then you start to fall,” says Lexi Hamilton, a cheer veteran.

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Truman High School has a champion cheer squad in “Bring It On.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

In the Broadway musical “Bring It On,” which the innovative Selma Arts Center is tackling with its customary gusto in a production that continues through July 29, that top-of-the-world feeling is described in eloquent terms in the song “One Perfect Moment.” (Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music, Amanda Green and Miranda the lyrics, and Jeff Whitty the book for this 2012 show.) The main character, a 17-year-old named Campbell, describes it:

Then suddenly I’m in prep for the climb and here I go
High in the air, there is a moment just before you start to fall
Live in that one moment

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“Bring It On” is not a show you can do on a whim. It requires a cast that can sing, act and dance — all the usual musical theater requirements — plus most of them have to be competent and energetic cheerleaders. It’s one thing for a community theater dancer to slink around like a feline in “CATS” and look OK. It’s another for three or four of your “bases” (the cheerleaders who stay on the ground and lift the flyer into the air) to set up a basket toss and fail, thus cracking a few bones.

You can’t skimp on preparation.

The 33 cast members of “Bring It On” come to the production with varying levels of cheerleading experience. Hamilton, 20, cheered for nine years in school and coached for five years. On the other end of the spectrum, Kay Wilkins, 22, had zero cheerleading experience (though she always wanted to be one).

And then there’s 16-year-old Kenzie Stafford, who plays Campbell, a star cheerleader redistricted to a high school that — gasp — doesn’t even have a squad. Stafford was a cheerleader in 7th grade, but she reached a fork in the road early on: Should she pursue theater or cheer? “I went to auditions for ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ and I tried out for the cheer team the same day,” she says. I got into ‘Joseph,’ and I didn’t make the cheer team. So fate was definitely involved.”

In other words, she had some background in cheerleading but needed a strong refresher course.

Welcome to Cheer Camp.

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When planning for the show, director Michael Flores, a Selma Arts Center veteran, recalled his high school experiences on the cheer and dance team.  To prepare for football season, he would attend a summer cheer camp. He decided his Selma cast — only about half of whom had cheerleading experience — needed the same thing.

The camp kicked off two weeks before regular rehearsals began. Cast members reported to CheerForce Fresno, a local cheer gym. There they spent a couple of hours each day on conditioning (stretches, sit-ups, and running) and basic cheer and stunt technique.

Assistant choreographer William Davis is a former cheer coach and dancer ,and he took over certain sections in the dance numbers that contained a lot of hip hop and all of the stunting. “He definitely helped add in variety to our show and I am so fortunate to have his expertise on my team,” Flores says.

Was Cheer Camp tough?

“I went home and cried,” says Stafford. “I said, Mom, I can’t do it. I can do anything I put my mind to except this.’ I was terrified.”

She persevered.

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Kenzie Stafford, left, and Kay Wilkins play leading roles in “Bring It On.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

So did Wilkins, 22. After coming off a recent long run of honing her comic and vocal chops as Rosie in “Mamma Mia” — a role 25 years older than her true age, which she handled with considerable skill — she’s shifted to the pivotal role of Danielle in “Bring It On.” The character is the leader of the dance crew at Campbell’s new high school, and she’s a formidable social presence. (Now Wilkins is playing five years younger than her age. There’s nothing like being able to play a half-century range.) Campbell has to convince Danielle that cheerleading at Jackson High School is valuable and that competing against Truman High School (Campbell’s old school) is worth it.

“Bring It On” is a chance to relive a high-school dream for Wilkins. Her older sister was a cheerleader, and she definitely wanted to be like her. But the cheer uniforms were really expensive, and Wilkins had another option she loved: choir.

“The choir dresses were free,” she says.

Wilkins is not a flyer. (“Oh, no,” she laughs. A big laugh. ) And while she doesn’t have to be a base, or fling anyone in the air, in the actual show, she had to try it during camp as part of mastering cheerleading basics.

“I don’t know if it’s more terrifying for the flyer or for the people who are basing,” she says. “I had the weight of a human being in my hands, and I knew if I did anything wrong, I can not only hurt myself, but that person can fall. I have a lot of anxiety anyway, so I can’t even explain what the cheer camp experience was like for me.”

Along with the physical challenges, Flores asked all cast members to follow a special diet.

“We did our very best to put healthy foods into our bodies throughout this process. Being a dancer as well, and having done long hours of dance, I know that the best thing to do is eat as healthy as you can, especially doing really demanding physical activity like stunting and flying. It was solely to make sure the cast had the endurance and stamina to put on a physically demanding show.”

After three days of Cheer Camp, Stafford woke up in such pain she couldn’t touch her toes.

Meanwhile, Wilkins is amazed at how in shape she is as the show opens.

“I think we all lost a lot of weight,” she says. “I’ve lost 12 pounds so far.”

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It’s a Monday evening a couple of weeks before opening, and you can smell the new paint on the platform that extends out into the audience space in the Selma Arts Center. You’ve never seen a stage this big there before. It’s because of the size of the cast and the height requirements for the stunts, Flores says.

“I also really love how the action is happening intimately with the audience and really makes them a part of the story,” he says. “The floor is designed like a cheer mat — one you’d see at a competition — but there is no padding. We rehearsed with mats up until we got solid on each stunt.”

Does Flores consider the show dangerous at all?

“I wouldn’t say any of our routines are necessarily dangerous, but we do have to take stunting into consideration at all times,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of busted lips, so our stage managers always have a first-aid kit on hand at all times. I get a little nervous before every stunt, of course, but our cast is trained to know when to not do a stunt and to understand that if the setup is wrong no one is going in the air.”

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Kay Wilkins plays Danielle in “Bring It On.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

I’m sitting in the basement beneath the stage talking with Stafford, Wilkins and Hamilton about cheer camp. It strikes me that even with their varying experience levels, there’s a confidence and precision in their attitude and respect for cheerleading. It’s the same vibe I witnessed upstairs after watching a few minutes of rehearsal.

“It’s amazing what you can learn in two weeks,” Stafford tells me.

For Hamilton, the cheerleading veteran, success all comes down to a simple understanding among squad members.

“You have to trust that you’re not going to fall, no matter what,” she says.

One of the characteristics of high school is the feeling that the stakes can feel so high. Which they aren’t, of course. (At least according to adults.) Yet adults can also forget just how intense — and memorable — these formative years can be. That’s part of the appeal of “Bring It On.” In the conclusion to “One Perfect Moment,” Campbell sings:

I know that if I can just stick the landing
Then I’ll know that somehow my life will be fine
And I’ll go through the rest of my life understanding
What it feels like to shine
The future’s full of mysteries
So please let this be mine
My one perfect moment in time

In the decades to come, long after Hamilton stops being a flyer who can soar through the air and get an eagle’s-eye view of an audience with all eyes on her, the memory of that moment when she starts to fall will stay with her.

“It’s the best feeling,” she says.

That’s something to cheer about.


Show info

“Bring It On,” through July 29, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. Tickets are $19, $17 students and seniors.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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