View from the Sidelines: An interview with Ottawa Cheerleader Kelly Marie

They’re a vital part of every Redblacks home game, adding to the party like atmosphere by keeping the crowd entertained and leading cheers. No, I’m not talking about injured players on the sidelines, but rather Ottawa’s Cheer and Dance Team. In an effort to understand a bit more about what it takes to put on a great performance, I caught up with Kelly Marie, one of the many talented and beautiful members of Ottawa’s Cheer Team. An Ottawa native, Kelly has been a member of the Redblacks’ Cheer team since 2015. When not dancing up a storm on sidelines of TD Place, Kelly works full time as an events manger and marketing co-ordinator.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you decided to try out for the Redblacks Cheer team.

I’ve always been a fan of performing, whether it was dancing, singing or acting. From an early age I took classes in a variety of disciplines of the performing arts. Growing up I danced at the Kanata Ballet School and upon high school graduation I started participating in drop in classes around Ottawa. Last spring, after cheering for other sports teams in the city, I decided to make my move to cheer for the Redblacks. I auditioned and made the team. I’ve really enjoyed every minute of the last two years, cheering on my team and participating in various community events.

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Before joining, did you know anyone else on the team? If not have you made some good friends?

The dance and cheer community in Ottawa is fairly small and close knit. I knew a few of the girls through mutual cheer and dance friends. It’s amazing to see how quickly friendships develop over the course of a year. We wind up spending so much time together that we get to know everyone very well and we grow to care about each other like a real family.

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How do you juggle school/work/practice?

Though I work regular full time hours, I’m fortunate that my company is flexible and understanding. Typically practices are held later in the evening, so normally there’s no conflict. Where the flexibility comes in handy however, is with community events and on game days. Sometimes I’m able to work longer hours on one day in order to leave early or arrive later on another one. When you’re doing something you love, there’s always a way to make your schedule work!

Describe the atmosphere at TD Place on game day as someone who is at field level.

In 2014, I was able to watch a few games from the stands and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. However, stepping onto the field and cheering from the sidelines is a completely different and exciting experience. There’s so much going on but at the same time, we have to focus and pay attention to our coaches and captains. We need to get through our routines and engage the crowd while at the same time dodging camera crews, players and anyone else moving sporadically along the sidelines. The one thing it never is, is boring. We get to interact with our fans, whether it be up close and personal or waving and smiling from a distance. R-Nation is always so respectful. Everyone loves what we do and supports us 110%. I’ve had fans come up and compliment us in so many different ways whether it’s a comment like “You guys are amazing!” or “What a great performance” or even “I wish I could do half of the things your guys do out there!” We have some of the best fans in the league. R-Nation doesn’t support us just on game days either, but also at community events and on social media. Many of our girls have sky rocketed through different online competitions because of R-Nation’s support.

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What was the highlight of the 2015 season for you personally?

For the regular season, the highlight for me was definitely the home opener. Stepping out onto the field was amazing. There was such a buzz in the air and seeing all the fans cheering and waving and as we ran out to perform was unlike anything I had experienced up until that point. But even better than the home opener was Greg Ellingson’s 2 and 25 catch that took the Redblacks to the Grey Cup. It happened maybe 15 yards up the field from where my pod was positioned and we went crazy as he ran right past us into the end zone. The last minute of the East Final was a blur as we all realized that, although we were going to the Grey Cup festival in less than a week’s time, we would now be representing one of the competing teams and would get to cheer on our team from the sidelines during the game!

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Did you actually go to Winnipeg for the Grey Cup? If so, what did you enjoy most about it?

I did indeed go to Winnipeg for the Grey Cup. It’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget. Being the representing cheerleaders from one of the competing teams meant our schedules were extra busy. One thing that I was most impressed by was the reception we got from fans across the league. Everyone was excited to see us and watch us perform. We did so much during the trip that it’s hard to pick one part of the festival itself that was better than the rest. However, celebrating with R-Nation at Earl’s for the Redblacks party was wonderful. Another trip highlight was being on the sidelines for the game itself. It was so exciting to cheer on the team. I loved every minute of that experience and I am so proud of how our team left everything that they had on the field.

What would you say to those who want to try out for the team but may feel too shy?

Just go for it. Life is too short to not go for the things you want. If that isn’t enough, I’d remind them that through the entire audition process, you have returning members there to help. We all want to make sure you do your best and feel comfortable. We know firsthand that in this stage, if you make a mistake it’s about how you recover. If the vets see you struggling in a mock audition, they will cheer you on to let you know that it is okay and to just keep going. I think that’s one of the best things about our audition process. As competitive as it is, we’re all friendly with each other and we want to see everyone out there do the absolute best they can!

What kind of characteristics does someone need to be a good cheerleader?

Well, I’d note that there’s a difference between a good cheerleader and a great cheerleader. Good cheerleaders are those that are outgoing and cheerful and who perform the material exceptionally well. They take corrections and apply it to their next run of a performance. They listen well, and they conduct themselves professionally in all circumstances. As much as athletic ability is important, we want to make sure all our cheerleaders are healthy and active. Everyone on our team and many who come out and audition for the team fall into this category. What makes a great cheerleader though is someone who goes above and beyond. Someone who makes sacrifices and helps their fellow teammates for the sake of the betterment of the whole squad. It’s also someone who isn’t afraid to step up and manage a crisis as it happens without immediately running to their coaches.

Our coaches look for athletes who are coachable and handle changes to their positioning or choreography without stress, or complaints. They want men and women who are personable and outgoing. We’re very involved in the community so they want to make sure that we are well spoken, approachable and enthusiastic. It’s all about that perfect balance.

As a cheer team veteran what role do you play in helping rookies become comfortable on the team? 

There’s a fine line as vet between being overbearing and being helpful. I know each person has their own style as to how they act and perform. I’m the type of person who will offer help to anyone who needs it. I want to see all my team members succeed. I will also stay back later or take the time to help anyone who may seem unsure or nervous in different situations. The main goal is to make each new transition smoother, so any tips and tricks, or bits of knowledge we can pass on is always great to do. We want to make sure when the rookies step out on that field for the first time, they are confident and ready for whatever is thrown at them!

Are you in the cheer team calendar and where can members of R-Nation get their hands on a copy?

As of right now, the coaches have not decided on who will be in the 2016 calendar, but the decision should be coming soon. Once all the images have been shot, the graphics have been put together and the printing is completed, every member of the team will have copies to sell before and after games. You’ll also be able to get copies of the new calendar at Redblacks’ events and for sure they’ll be available for purchase in the Redblacks’ store! We actually still have a few copies of last year’s left, so in the meantime, if anyone wants one, they just have to email the cheer team.

What do you enjoy doing away from cheerleading?

If I’m not at work or at practice I’ll either be at the gym working out, catching up on all my favourite comic book shows (iZombie, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, etc.), or spending my time with my friends.

How do you unwind after a stressful week?

I really enjoy spending time with my family so a nice dinner is always a great way to start relaxing. We like to joke, laugh, sing, dance, and cook together. When I want some time to myself, I’ll set myself up a little spa night of my own (with candles, a bath, and hair and face masks). Reading a book, watching some of my favourite shows or treating myself to some ice cream or some other kind of sweet treat also does the trick!

Who is your favourite player on the Redblacks?

I’ve really been impressed by Antoine Pruneau. He has been so committed to not only his team, but the amazing city we live in. I’ve seen him all over Ottawa throughout the off-season, giving back and spending time with the fans. It’s always great to see professional athletes who not only show their love for their sport, but also for the team and the city they play for.

What’s something most people probably don’t realize about cheerleading?

I think most people don’t realize how much time, work and effort goes into being a professional cheerleader. Many people think it’s a matter of showing up, looking good and doing some choreographed moves. What they don’t see is the behind the scenes stuff. The sweat, the passion and the dedication. We all do this because we love it. We work tirelessly to make sure everything we put out on that field is no less than perfect. We’re athletes who work just as hard as any other, except we have to smile, look pretty, not show any pain and make our performances look effortless.

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There are so many stigmas that still surround cheerleading and I know that I personally try to show that we are more than those stereotypes. As a team, I feel the Redblacks’ Cheer and Dance Team proves to R-Nation, the city and the rest of Canada that we are a group of intelligent, dignified, and elegant athletes.

Lastly, and most importantly, North Side or South Side?

Why make me choose? I love all of R-Nation equally! Both sides have such amazing energy and a number of great, loud fans.

Thanks so much for your time Kelly and we look forward to seeing you out in the community and on the sidelines of TD Place soon!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).