The late summer sun blazed down on the practice field at Paul VI Catholic High School, and with 37 dancers and cheerleaders crouched down and sweltering in full uniform, Pam Pelano was still merciless.
"You guys," she barked with the authority of a drill sergeant, "do it like you mean it, please."
And as the opening strains of "In the Mood" blasted from a boombox, Pelano ran her young dancers through their precision paces once more, getting ready for the team's historic trip to China as the sole U.S. representative in the China International Band Festival next week.
The Paul VI students launched into daily three-hour practices last week to develop four routines for the festival, which will take place Sept. 15-19 in a 65,000-seat stadium in Dalian, China. Performances before large crowds are nothing new for many of the team members, who have danced in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and in various college football bowl parades.
But 65,000 people in China, plus network feeds to the United States and around the world?
"I don't know anyone that's even been to China, especially for free," said senior Cindy Cinalli of Centreville, a team co-captain, noting that the Chinese government is paying all expenses for the team and coaches. She said practices are "usually hard, but they've been a lot harder now, because this is such a big crowd and such a big event."
In one routine, the music switches into Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca," which is senior cheerleader Pat Trainor's cue to sashay through the dancers as if he were naked in the rain (as the song says). No word on whether the Chinese will recognize Trainor's re-creation of the Latin sensation's hip-shaking slither, but Trainor, the only male member of the team, said he's been studying Martin's videos to be the best pop star he can be.
"You have to have a dance background and know your stuff," said Pelano, who's been coaching the dance team since 1986. The team has been one of the area's top squads for years, most recently winning first place over 32 other teams in the Redskinettes Metro Competition at the University of Maryland this summer.
About 70 students tried out for this year's Paul VI squad, which consists of 17 varsity and 10 junior varsity members. Pelano added nine cheerleaders for the China trip and one alumna dancer to the front row: Jen Scanlin, a third-year student at Ohio State University, where classes don't begin until later this month.
Pelano won't just be screaming orders once the team arrives in China, though. She'll be performing, too. A professional part-time singer, she submitted a tape to the Chinese, who have asked her to take a more visible role. So Pelano will front the dance team on Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," with Trainor stepping out front a second time for another provocative pelvis workout.
The Paul VI team was chosen over about a dozen other squads after a nationwide search by Culture to Culture International, a Fairfax-based company that sets up technical, cultural and scientific exchanges with China.
"We approached a lot of teams," said Sheri Yi, president of Culture to Culture, and Paul VI's administrators and parents were the most enthusiastic, plus the team was highly qualified, she said. Some schools were reluctant to allow students to miss 10 days of classes, but Yi said Paul VI administrators recognized the opportunity as one-in-a-lifetime for the students.
Terry Wang, president of the New World Bilingual Institute in Fairfax, who helped with the process, admitted that with Paul VI's eagerness and its tie to Fairfax, "we put in an extra good word for them" with the Chinese authorities. Wang said the Chinese expect crowds of 60,000 each night, and that Fairfax Cable Access Channel 10 will be traveling with the group to broadcast its performances and feed video to American networks.
PAUL VI DANCE TEAM & CHEERLEADERS
Varsity: Christy Bates, Clifton; Lauren Bentley, Vienna; Cindy Cinalli, Centreville; Becky Clark, Oak Hill; Lauren Crook, Springfield; Michele Goodman, Annandale; Mary Hayes, Woodbridge; Abbey Horen, Fairfax; Jackie Kane, Vienna; Carey Lair, Reston; Maddie Leahy, Burke; Becky Navarro, Centreville; Kathleen Ralston, Centreville; Julia Von Maltzahn, Alexandria; Theresa Wetzel, Oakton; Libby Woltering, Clifton; Marisa Young, Oakton.
Junior Varsity: Maureen Apollo, Annandale; Katelyn Brehony, Fairfax Station; Sara Buckheit, Fairfax; Jen Cusato, South Riding; Ashley Gilbert, Clifton; Jenn Gilbert, Clifton; Lauren King, Montclair; Nora Passamonti, Annandale; Liz Shelton, Springfield; Jackie Tvrdik, Burke.
Varsity cheerleaders: Katie Ameen, Centreville; Briean Cargill, Herndon; Kara Eisenbarger, Fairfax; Jenna Goulart, Centreville; Kristen Logan, Herndon; Aura Novak, Manassas; Anne Moore, Herndon; Meredith Peterson, Centreville; Pat Trainor, Fairfax.
CAPTION: Anne Moore, 14, stands on the shoulders of Kara Eisenbarger, 16, left, Jenna Goulart, 16, and Kristen Logan, 17, during practice.
CAPTION: "Do it like you mean it, please," shouts Pam Pelano, the coach of the St. Paul VI dancers, during a three-hour practice.