PROVO, Utah — The days can be grueling. Up with the sun, ready to begin drills in formation. Hours upon hours of listening to the calls to attention and moving in time with counts — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight; one, two, three, four…
Brief water breaks as the sun climbs higher in the sky and the temperature reaches the high 90s. Hundreds of people dashing for the shade to grab a quick bite during a lunch or dinner break; the drills continuing long after the sun has gone to bed.
This could be any number of scenarios, but, perhaps surprisingly, it is actually rehearsal time for the Stadium of Fire (SOF) Dancers — hundreds of young people ranging in age from 8 to 12 for junior dancers to 13 and up for main dancers — preparing for an Independence Day show in Provo, Utah, attended by about 45,000 people.
The kids practice dancing, moving in formation, hitting position on specific counts and adapting to last-minute changes to choreography they’ve already been practicing for weeks. Whenever there’s a break, dance directors, instructors and parent volunteers sprint through the ranks, spraying kids with water, popping grapes or fruit snacks into open mouths, pouring water into those same open mouths in an attempt to satiate the seemingly endless thirst.
This year 31 kids from Evanston, from two local dance studios, put in the time and effort to practice in the weeks beforehand and the three very long days leading up to the final performance. They learned two lengthy routines, both of which included props, and then learned to integrate their pieces into huge group routines when finally meeting their fellow dancers in Provo.
After roughly 25 hours of practice during those three days in Provo, and more time spent getting into professional makeup, hair and costumes, the dancers took to the field at Lavell Edwards Stadium, both prior to and after headliner Keith Urban. The opener was a patriotic number leading into a salute to all branches of the United States military and first responders. The innovative and elaborate closing number featured a space theme in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, including creative use of giant “slinkies” by older dancers and huge light-up balls by the younger kids — all while professional trampoline act Flippenout completed stunts in the center of the dancers.
Glow sticks were distributed to the dancers at the end of the show as they took their places on the field to create an enormous Liberty Bell that swayed to patriotic music just prior to a finale of what is annually billed as the largest stadium fireworks show in the country.
Although participating included a huge amount of hard work, it also included a whole lot of fun. Breaks were filled with laughter and plenty of jokes and silliness. Dancers were treated to some of the best seats in the house on the stadium lawn for the headline performance, where they could be seen cheering and, of course, dancing the night away.
Participants from Evanston Dance Academy were main dancers Kyra Sponenburgh, Brynley Stewart, Ashlynn Bench, Marissa Parks, Hailee Ridenour, Carlie Perkins, Mya Brown, Dannon Kohler and Emma Lonsway and junior dancers Brooklynn Gillett, Afton Brown, Amauree Lewis, Nessa Hughes, Bellatrix McGuire, Marlee Huggins, Oakley Sponenburgh and Avery Lym.
Dancers from Evanston Stars were main dancers Jaeli Higdon, Diana Davis and Kamrie Frongner and junior dancers Becca Davis, Abby Butler, Wyatt Johnson, Chessney Moon, Tycee Moon, Brinley Asay, Jordan Welling and Jazlin Welling. Stars also had three dancers who auditioned for and were selected as part of a group of about 20 junior elite dancers, resulting in additional choreography and extra practice time. Junior elite dancers were Aspyn Higdon, Addison Asay and Cambree Young.
Evanston Dance Academy is directed by Jamie Liechty, who has taken dancers to SOF for the past eight years. Dance instructors Sharla Parks and Makaylee Kohler also taught dancers and made the trip to Provo.
Evanston Stars dancers are directed by Caddie Welling and Laurel Higdon, now in their fifth year of attending. Higdon said she spent 60 hours practicing with dancers prior to the days in Provo, starting before school got out for the summer. She added that for the past three years Samantha Moon has been an invaluable assistant during the process.
The dancers themselves had plenty to say about participating in SOF.
“After doing this for five years, no matter how hard it is, the performance makes it all worth it every year. I have learned that I can do hard things.” — Aspyn Higdon
“I am thankful for the opportunity I have to participate in such an amazing show. I want to keep doing it year after year.” — Jaeli Higdon
“Stadium of Fire was hard, hot, and I suffered a little from heat sickness, but in the end, all the hard work was worth it.” — Diana Davis
“Practices were hard and hot but being part of the show made me proud to be an American.” — Becca Davis
“I was super nervous but I’m super lucky to have gotten to do it.” — Oakley Sponenburgh
“I was excited to participate for the fourth time and get to do it with my little sister.” — Kyra Sponenburgh
“When I did my space dance, I had the most fun because the song choreography was so much fun to do.” — Amauree Lewis
“My favorite dance was the space dance.” — Tycee Moon
“It was an amazing experience for me — I love hanging out with my dance family. All the hard work the dancers do to get ready for the show is worth it.” — Hailee Ridenour
“Seeing that many people in the audience was nerve racking but made me want to dance that much better and stronger.” — Brynley Stewart
“You put in a lot of hard work, but it improves your skills. I felt relieved and excited when it was time to perform.” — Jazlin Welling
“Stadium of Fire was amazing. I loved to be on the field and dance in front of all those people.” — Cambree Young
“I enjoyed performing with all the other teams in front of 45,000 people.” — Chessney Moon
“It was hard work in the blazing hot sun, but totally worth it in the end.” — Marlee Huggins
“It was hard work but well worth it. I would definitely do it again.” — Avery Lym
“I had so much fun. It was very hot and tiring but totally worth it in the end.” — Addi Asay
The entire experience was perhaps best summed up by Bellatrix McGuire, a first-time SOF dancer this year, who said with a grin at the end of the exhausting few days, “I feel like I’ve melted, but it was totally worth it.”