Wisa Opton is one of several former Blazer Dancers who will visit the Portland VA Medical Center as part of the Vets 4 Vets program.
‘Tis the season where giving is foremost in the minds of a lot of caring people.
It’s with that spirit that Sunday’s “Vets 4 Vets” holiday visit to the Portland VA Medical Center is born.
The first part of the group’s handle is a bit of a misnomer. The former members of the Trail Blazers’ dance team range from their late 20’s to late 30’s, hardly old enough to qualify as veterans — except in the parlance of professional sports, and perhaps, professional dancing.
This band of retired ol’ gals — I say this affectionately, of course — has turned our country’s military veterans into their special project.
“Vets 4 Vets” debuted in 2011 and since then has made about 15 visits to veterans hospitals, care centers and military bases in the Northwest, speaking with men and women whose service to the country sometimes gets forgotten.
“I feel privileged to be able to talk to them and hear what they’ve done,” says Wisa Opton, 39, a West Linn High and Portland State grad who lives in Salem. “For them, it’s nice to talk about the things they experienced — some of those experiences, that is. It’s good for them to be able to talk about the cool things they did, the happy memories.”
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO – Wisa Opton is one of several former Blazer Dancers who will visit the Portland VA Medical Center as part of the Vets 4 Vets program.
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO – Wisa Opton is one of several former Blazer Dancers who will visit the Portland VA Medical Center as part of the Vets 4 Vets program.
The group was organized by John Curry, 56, a cameraman at Blazer games for 30 years and a man who served in some capacity with the U.S. Navy from 1976 to 2008. Over the years, one of the extra responsibilities of the Blazer Dancers has been volunteer work. Curry had shot footage of a show the Blazer dancers performed for U.S. troops in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2003.
“When we got back, (then-Blazer dance coach) Dee Dee Anderson called and asked if there were anything they could do locally,” Curry says.
Curry put together a visit to the VA Medical Center, which became a regular endeavor of the Blazer dance team.
In 2011, Curry called Opton — a member of the Blazer Dancers from 1993-96 — with the notion of creating a group of former Blazer dancers to visit with local veterans.
“I loved the idea,” Opton says. “One thing I missed about being on the (Blazer dance) team was doing volunteer work, specifically visiting hospitals. And it was a chance to get everyone together and do something as a team again.”
Curry and Opton put together a group of about 15 former Blazer dancers who wanted to help.
“We all have a soft spot in our hearts for service men and women,” Opton says. “It’s a really good way to give back to the community and to visit and meet some really neat people. ”
Over the past two years, with Curry’s organizational work, “Vets 4 Vets” has made its presence felt at hospitals, care centers and veterans-related events. Curry, Opton, Desiree Goode and Amy Friendy form the group’s board of directors.
Opton, who has also been a member of the dance squads for the Arena Football Forest Dragons, the WNBA Fire, the National Lacrosse League LumberJax and the Blazers’ Hip-Hop Squad, calls herself the “Crash Davis of sports dance teams in Portland.”
When she first pondered the idea of visiting veterans, “I was like, ‘Nobody cares about a bunch of over-the-hill moms who are coming in to say hi,’ ” she says. “I was a little doubtful they would care, but I was wrong. We’ve gotten a great response. They are very appreciative that we would take the time to thank them for their service to our country. They say, ‘This means a lot to us.’ ”
The women wear camouflage-style “Vets 4 Vets” T-shirts on their visits to meet with the veterans, speaking with people who have served from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and more recent wars and conflicts.
“I have a soft spot for the older guys, the World War II vets or the men who served in Korea,” Opton says. “We’re losing a lot of them every day. I have loved meeting them and hearing their stories. It absolutely blows me away that these guys were such young kids, and the things they did in the war. We can’t even fathom what they dealt with. I’ve heard some of the most amazing stories.
“The other thing that stands out is when we talk to Vietnam War vets, who are just getting recognition now. It’s heartbreaking to talk to some of these guys. On our first visit to the Portland VA Medical Center (in 2011), I told this gentleman who was a Vietnam War vet, ‘We’re just here to say thank you for what you did for our country.’ He started crying and said, ‘You are one of the first people to tell me that.’ ”
The “Vets 4 Vets” made an appearance at the military mall at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Wash., meeting with family members and children of service men and women. They did a grand opening at Fort Withycombe in Clackamas. Several of them participated in a five-kilometer run, with proceeds going to the “Wounded Warrior Project.”
“I’ve gotten to sit in the cockpit of a Chinook helicopter,” Opton says. “I’ve put on a helmet with night-vision goggles. I’ve put on a backpack that weighs 60 pounds. I spoke with a World War II vet who, when he was 19, flew reconnaissance over China for mapping purposes. It’s been a really interesting experience for me, and for all of us.”
The veterans look forward to the visits, says Anne Marie Murphy, outreach coordinator for the Portland VA Medical Center.
“The women are so wonderful,” Murphy says. “It’s one thing just to visit our veterans. But they are just sweet and nice people, with great personalities. They talk to the veterans, take pictures, sign posters. We appreciate that they think of the veterans, and the guys just love them. It really makes their day.”
So far, “Vets 4 Vets” have been there just to speak with the veterans and family members. They would like to do more.
“We haven’t put together a dance production,” Opton says. “That’s one of our goals. We’d like to perform.”
Everything the “Vets 4 Vets” group has done as been out of pocket. They are in the process of fund-raising and finding sponsors so they can do more.
“We’d like to give care packages to families of service men and women who are overseas,” Opton says.
All “Vets 4 Vets” needs to do more is donations and sponsorship. Those interested can visit their Facebook page (Vets 4 Vets) or their website (vets4vetsnw.com).
I think it’s a great cause. So does Opton, who says she has gotten back as much as she has given.
“Some of the most gracious people I’ve ever met are veterans and their families,” she says. “It’s been just a pleasure — a really rewarding experience.
Ok, I cannot be the only one who is SUPER excited about this. If ever a group deserved a second chance, it’s this one. It is my hope that after five years apart, the ladies have gained the maturity and perspective they need to make it work this time around. For those who don’t remember, two members of the original group were former NBA dancers: Shannon Bex (Trailblazers) and Dawn Richard (Hornets). Rounding out the group are Aubrey O’Day, and Aundrea Fimbress, who never danced for pro sports teams, but if you ask me, Aundrea bears a striking resemblance to New England Patriots Cheerleader Jodi Ricci.
When basketball season returns and residents of The Dalles turn their televisions to the first Portland Trail Blazers game of the season, they might see a face they recognize.
That’s because the Blazer Dancers have some new faces on their roster, and one of them is from The Dalles.
“It hasn’t really kicked in yet. It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Andrea (her coach granted permission for the interview on the condition that we only use Andrea’s first name for privacy reasons).
The night of the big reveal she found out at the same time as a cheering crowd of fans. She watched nervously as the countdown on the screen went from announcing that there were 16 spots left to announcing there was only one spot left.
“They got down to the last one and it was me,” she said. “It was surreal. There were some returners waiting in the seats with me who were really talented, and some new talent that was really good too.”
She immediately ran down the hallway the other dancers had disappeared through and was met with open arms by her new coach. She said she’ll always remember the cheers of the other dancers as her coach threw open the door to reveal their final teammate.
“The other girls are awesome. It seems like it’s going to be a really fun year,” she said, noting that she is especially excited at being reunited with one of her former Duck teammates.
Andrea said she tried out to be one of the Blazers’ professional performers because she loved being a cheerleader for the University of Oregon Ducks when she was in college and wanted to see if she could take her dancing to the next level.
She proved her mettle through an audition process that stretched out over more than a month, including a clinic and then three rounds of initial cuts as the dancers demonstrated their technical skills, a hip-hop routine and a jazz routine. The remaining 37 hopefuls were then given more time to learn new routines before beginning the final round of tryouts, which included an interview process.
“We’re not just out there dancing; we have to be a role model and have good character and good speaking skills,” Andrea said.
She said she will be getting to know her teammates better once she moves to Portland and begins working with them — eight hours a week of practice plus games, which she will juggle in addition to a day job.
Right now, Andrea said what she is looking forward to most is performing. She said it’s hard to explain the adrenaline that came the first time she ran into a stadium of screaming Ducks fans, but she knows stepping into the Rose Garden Arena will probably feel just as exciting.
“I think the arena is going to be so loud,” she said. “Blazer fans are awesome. I’ve been to a few games and the fans are so fun.”
She said she’s a little bit nervous about going back to dancing after spending a year at a desk job, but she has kept her skills fresh while mentoring girls on local cheer and dance teams.
Andrea said she will always love dancing.
“I love how you can make it your own. There are so many styles of it you can’t really do it wrong. I love that you can express yourself. But I also love dancing in a team setting. It’s impressive that you can have so many different styles and everyone can come together cohesively,” she said.
They converged on the Rose Garden hardcourt last Wednesday night, 65 strong, all legs and full of gusto.
For 90-second dance sets at breaks between the first and second and third and fourth quarters, they turned the clock back as many as 25 years.
A quarter-century of entertainment by the BlazerDancers was celebrated with a reunion that brought hugs, smiles and a few tears from the participants.
“It was an absolute blast,” says Caitlin Tinney, 28, a member of Portland’s dance squad from 2007-11. “It was so much fun to see everybody and be back on the floor again. Walking in the doors (to the arena), it felt like no time had passed at all. Makes you want to be back here.”
Michelle Burch, a former BlazerDancer and the club’s performance teams manager since 2008, says about half of her email list of 116 showed up for the first reunion of the group in four years.
“I’m biased,” says Burch, who danced with the troupe from 1992-98, “but I thought it was fabulous. It was an amazing turnout, and I loved the results.”
They rehearsed for 3 1/2 hours Tuesday night, spent game night together and celebrated afterward at a reception in the Sphere room at the Rose Garden.
The former BlazerDancers made it look easy, though it wasn’t.
“The routines were hard,” says Dee Dee Anderson, one of seven original BlazerDancers who performed. “I teach a fitness class, which involves plyometrics and circuit training. I have a lot of athletes in my class.
“I was telling the dancers, (the routines) were tougher than any class I teach. It’s like you’re sprinting, but you use your whole body for a minute and a half straight. Very difficult to do.”
Also, Anderson says, “Everybody was nervous. I heard a lot of ladies saying, ‘Now, why are we doing this again?’ Because it was fun.
“We hadn’t seen everybody in a long time,” says Sara Post Anderson, no relation to Dee Dee but a BlazerDancer from 1996-2000. “We told funny stories, and then we danced, and that was even better.”
‘They’re like sisters’
Women flew in from as far as Atlanta, Denver and San Francisco to be a part of the reunion.
“The best part was seeing everyone again,” says Post Anderson, 36. “Coming back together to relive the dream.”
The experience, says Ione Chaco, “was both exhausting and exciting. It was amazing to be on the court with all those wonderful ladies.
“They’re like sisters, seriously,” says Chaco, 28, a mainstay on the dance corps from 2002-09. “Feeling that energy and excitement, feeling like a BlazerDancer again … I completely forgot what that felt like. I can hardly describe it. It’s that numbness in your body — it’s just overwhelming.”
Tinney felt it, too.
“There’s nothing like being out there,” she says. “It’s like the best minute and a half you could ever describe.
“It’s so funny. We were talking after we danced and people were like, ‘How did it go for you?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t really remember what happened out there.’ You just go out. It’s a surge of energy and excitement like I have never experienced anywhere else.”
Post Anderson says the entire squad “from my rookie year” participated.
“It’s such a good group of girls,” she says. “We just laughed the whole time.
“There was a lot of hooting and hollering while we were dancing. We were so impressed with how everyone looked again. Everyone was excited for each other. We left feeling good.”
Anderson, who served as coach of the BlazerDancers from 1989-2008, says her initial inclination was to be there just to watch.
“It brings me a lot of joy to watch the dancers perform,” she says. “That was one of the biggest rushes for me as a coach. So it was hard for me to make a decision.
“But Melissa York told me Tara Dynes was dancing. The three of us auditioned together back in 1988. We would practice in my backyard, living room and garage, and we made the team together. They convinced me I should dance, and I’m glad I did. It was really special.”
As a result of her late decision, Anderson said she was playing catch-up when given the material with which to dance.
“I had to spend the weekend cramming,” she says. “To be honest, the dancing was not really enjoyable. A 50-year-old should not be rolling on the ground.
“But it was great to be out there with everyone. To put together a show together so fast with that many dancers is not easy, but it came off really well.”
The best part, the women agreed, was the re-lived camaraderie.
“The highlight of the night for me was to hang out with all those ladies who are so talented on the inside and out,” Burch says. “It was so nice to bring everybody together. The 90-second routines they performed were incredible to watch, with the number of people and how professional everybody was. They’re great dancers.”
“The best part,” Tinney offers, “was reuniting with old friends and being able to renew those relationships. It’s a lifelong friendship, and you can tell. When people come together after not seeing each other for even a couple of years … it’s like no time passed.”
The women have dispersed into various walks of life, though many are still involved with dance.
Anderson is a personal trainer and dance coach who performs with the rock group Flexor T. Chaco is a singer/dancer with the Patrick Lamb band who teaches dance at Hockinson (Wash.) High. Post Anderson owns a Portland dance studio and coaches the Junior BlazerDancers, of whom her daughter is a member.
Tinney? The dark-haired lass runs a dog-walking business in Northwest Portland.
Canines deserve to enjoy a little rhythm, too, just like the former BlazerDancers in marking an important anniversary at the Rose Garden.
The BlazerDancers will be celebrating 25 years of dancing and entertaining the Blazers faithful this Wednesday night at the Rose Garden. From the original Rip City Review dancers to recent alum and current dancers, over 70 women have flown in to prepare for a celebration sure to not disappoint. Get a sneak peak at their performance, and find out what some of your favorites are up to.
Whether they’re flying 30ft above the court, or pumping up the crowd, The Bowflex Stunt Team is an integral part of every Trail Blazers home game. The team is one the best in the business, and they’ve got the awards to prove it.
At the 2003 United Spirit Association Nationals, members of the Trail Blazers Bowflex Stunt Team swept the top three spots in the Open Team Partner Stunts category.
In addition, a squad comprised mostly of Blazers Bowflex Stunt Team members took National Championship honors at the 2003 USA National Cheer Championships in Las Vegas.
During the summer of 2004, the Stunt Team was invited to perform on live TV in Hong Kong for the opening ceremony of the Greece Olympics.
The group Vets 4 Vets started last year, after the Blazer Dancers were getting dozens of requests to visit troops and military vets. They were in such demand that a group of former Blazer dancers decided to start their own group. The 14 women represent several professional sports teams in addition to the Blazers, including the Seattle Sonics and Seahawks, even the old Portland Lumberjacks. The group has visited several V.A. centers in Oregon and has been to Joint Base Lewis McChord a few times. At Christmas they send cards to the troops serving overseas. Vets 4 Vets Secretary Desiree Goode, Blazer Dancer from 2001-2006, says the goal is just to show vets and troops some appreciation. Vets 4 Vets has applied for non-profit status, which means until then, they can’t accept donations. The members currently pay for all expenses out of pocket. If non-profit status is granted, the group plans to do more outings and put together a calender they can send to troops every year.
Last Saturday and Sunday eager dancers converged on the Trail Blazers’ Tualatin practice facility to put their skills to work for a chance to earn one of 16 coveted spots as a 2012-13 BlazerDancer.
Day one saw the field of new hopefuls learn multiple routines and perform them for the judges of the day—the panel was composed of Trail Blazers broadcasters, local media members and former dancers. The group was narrowed through two rounds of cuts and the remaining dancers learned yet another routine to practice and perform the next day.
The Sunday returners danced before another panel of judges for one more round of cuts. After the morning of auditions the finalists were announced and veterans, who are automatically included in the finals, joined the narrowed field to learn the routines for the finals.
Now, the talented finalists have a week to practice their finals routines and prepare solos before the final audition takes place this Saturday. With every spot up for grabs each year even the veteran dancers are hard at work.
You can watch the entire Finals via a live stream on Trailblazers.tv starting at 12pm this Saturday, July 21st.
Shannon Bex grew up in Bend and graduated from Mt View High School. She returned 5 years ago with her husband Ron Basada. Shannon was a Blazer Dancer for 5 years. She then went on the show Fame in which she got runner up. Later Shannon was featured on MTV’s show Making The Band in which P.Diddy selected her as one of the 5 members to make up the music group Danity Kane. The group went Double Platinum. After it’s final episode on MTV, Shannon started pursuing her solo career in country soul.
Shannon is currently working with Pledge EP to launch her solo album. The EP album will only go through if Shannon reaches 100% of the money needed. So far with the pledges made by fans she is at 67%. She has only 4 more days with approximately $6,000 left to raise. If she does not reach the goal, EP will not complete the album and those who donated will be refunded their money. If she does reach her goal, 8% will go to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and her Solo Album will be produced.
This is a life long dream for Shannon and she has worked hard to achieve it. Shannon really needs the support of her home town at this late hour to help reach this goal. She is loved by all of her fans as she is a sweet, humble, and amazing women. Shannon is also known in Oregon from the years she spent as a BlazerDancer and singing the national anthem at Blazer games. Please help Shannon raise sufficient funds in time by going to her website today and pledging money for any of the packages offered.
For about 10 years, Aloha High School health teacher Marlene Kanehailua pulled double-duty as a dancer for the Portland Trailblazers. In 2000, her worlds collided when the Blazer Dancers performed at the first Aloha High School Jam the Gym. In her “Aloha Story,” she talks about how much better the Aloha crowd was than a typical basketball fan crowd.
“The crowd went crazy,” she said. “For me, it was like wow.”
Listen to Marlene’s story or download the mp3 here.