There have always been two huge passions in Sandra Northmore’s life; football and dancing.
As far back as she can remember, Sandra has always loved to dance. As for her love of football, that can be traced directly to her father, who fostered that interest by taking her to games at Lansdowne at the impressionable age of 12. “My father had three daughters and he figured, by taking us to the game, one of us would eventually fall in love with it.”
In addition to teaching her the nuances and rules of the game, Sandra’s father passed down some game day rituals to his daughter. Sandra says that she insisted that they never leave before the clock hit zero, because as she quickly learned, you just never know what could happen in the CFL. “Sometimes we’d be losing by a lot, but we’d make a game out of calculating what needed to happen for us to comeback and win. How many touchdowns, 2 point converts, an interception or a fumble, etc. The best was when the Rough Riders actually managed to pull it off” says Sandra. Another thing they always did was buy game day programs, which Sandra studied until she had it memorized. “Eventually I could tell you the numbers and stats of any player on the team, even the backups”.
Sandra considers herself lucky to have been able to watch great players like Condredge Holloway, Tom Clements and Tony Gabriel, but one of her favourite memories is from the 1980 season, when Gerry Organ kicked a 52 yard field goal in the pouring rain as time expired to send Ottawa into the playoffs.
As the years passed and she kept going to games, Sandra started thinking about the possibility of trying out to be a cheerleader on the Rough Riders’ dance team. “Given how much I liked football and my passion for dancing, it seemed like the perfect combination for me.”
Despite being nervous, Sandra overcame her fears and wound up joining the dance team in 1982. To this day, her first experience of stepping onto the field where she had watched so many games remains vivid. “I was in such awe of walking on the same ground where so many of my favourite players had played. Looking up at the stands, seeing the fans going crazy throughout the game and hearing the roar of the crowd on big plays gave me goosebumps.”
Sandra went on to spend the following six seasons cheering on the Rough Riders in the rain, snow and cold and loved every minute of her experience. She quickly realized that being a part of the dance team meant much more than just showing up on game day. “We practiced for two hours three times a week in order to nail down our extensive choreography and cheer sequences. And in addition to working the games, we were also involved in a lot of off field promotion too, marching in parades, representing the team at local festivals and so on.”
A side effect of spending so much time with her fellow cheerleaders is that the dance team developed into a sisterhood, with friendships being forged that remain strong to this day. “Though I didn’t keep in touch with everyone, whenever I run into former teammates, we pick up right where we left off, it’s like no time has passed at all. We were all so enthusiastic and outgoing, which made it easy for us to get along.”
Sandra recalls that trips to Hamilton, Montreal and Toronto to cheer on the Rough Riders were big bonding moments for the dance team. But as much as she enjoyed the road trips and the special memories they created, for her, nothing ever beat pumping up the home crowd.
“We were fortunate to have some great choreographers like Donna Staub, Sherry Casey and Ann Holtz; they did amazing work in getting us prepared and ready for game days. There were four squads situated around the stadium, two on the North Side and two on the South Side, which would rotate every quarter. We danced between plays and whenever music came on. One big issue we had to deal with is that back then, the stadium sound wasn’t always the best, so sometimes we struggled to hear the music. That meant we often danced without hearing anything, instead relying on one person to count out the sequence.”
Sandra also points out that though it was a dance team, the women had to demonstrate football knowledge. “We had cheers like ‘First and 10, do it again!’ and other very football specific chants, which is why after making the team, we had a pass a written quiz that tested our football IQ.”
Originally from Ottawa, Sandra moved to the Muskoka region 20 years ago, but still makes an annual trip back to her hometown to see the Redblacks play.
Now 53, Sandra is a semi-retired grandmother who has enjoyed passing down her love of the game to her daughter, who is now a passionate fan herself. Earlier this year, Sandra was extremely pleased to receive an email from the Redblacks’ organization inviting her to participate in a retro cheerleader night.
“In a million years I never thought I’d ever be back on the field cheering. It was such a huge thrill and a bit of a personal challenge to get back out there again, almost 30 years later. In order to feel confident in front of 24,000 people you definitely have to be in shape. The current team did such a good job making all of the cheer alumni feel comfortable. I had an absolute blast and loved being able to relive the ‘80s for a night.”
Asked what she misses most about her time as a cheerleader for the Rough Riders, Sandra doesn’t hesitate at all. “Being on the field in the thick of the game. You’ve got the raw emotion of the players in front of you and screaming fans, ringing cowbells, waving flags and shouting behind you. That will always remain a thrilling memory.”