Inside the darkened high school gymnasium, all faces are on the stage.
Girls in black and red bounce into view. Thumping music rises from the floor as they move, kicking in unison. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers scream.
"You go, girl!" "Whooo!" "Yeah!"
On a Saturday night in March, Sara Jordan, a 14-year-old freshman at Ooltewah High School, watches the quick feet and smiling faces and imagines herself onstage. At school she doesn't stick out for anything in particular, but she's danced as long as many of the girls. She thinks she's ready.
Every year, the Red Hots, the competitive dance team at Ooltewah, is recast. Girls who fall from injury build themselves up to get back onstage. Girls like Sara tremble through first-time tryouts. The process is grueling, the preparation is tedious. Some try out multiple times and never make it.
And once on the team, practice is held nearly every day, all year long.
At the Fifth Annual Red Hot Revue, Sara is as hungry as ever to belong to this sisterhood, some of whose former members -- now in the 20s and 30s -- return year after year for an annual reunion.
Sara has already signed her name to the tryout list, along with 28 other girls.
The decision will be made in just four weeks.
Before the Red Hots were famous in Ooltewah, they weren't wanted.
When the students asked if they could start a dance team back in the early 1990s, the high school principal said no, that cheerleading was enough. It wasn't until years later and a new principal was hired that a dance team took root.
Even then, the girls weren't welcome at first. Boys said vulgar things. When the team of eight or so dancers trotted onto the floor at games, classmates held up newspapers in front of their faces, blocking their view, showing the girls that no one wanted to see them.
But they kept dancing. And picked a name, too. The Red Hots. And, over time, they improved.
2013-14 Ooltewah High School Red Hots
Source: Red Hots coaching staff
The team picked up performances at nursing homes and schools, football and basketball games. They prepared for competitions across Tennessee. Then, in 2010, they were crowned grand national champions in a cheerleading and dance competition for their high-kick routine and, since then, have been named state champions twice for the same dance style.
Sara wanted to try out last year. Coming up from Ooltewah Middle School to the high school, she watched as some of her classmates navigated the week-long Red Hots selection. Her friend, Maggie Rudwall, made the team -- which now includes 15 to 20 girls -- and encouraged her to do it.
Dancing isn't like other sports. There is competition, but these dancers straddle a line of outsized showmanship and hidden vulnerability. Well trained, the Red Hots look sharp, moving with a confidence years ahead of their age. Other girls want to be them; boys fix their gaze upon them. But one false move and they can fall flat, break an ankle, tear a tendon, become a hobbled swan.
As soon as tryouts ended last year, Sara regretted not going out. But she knew her body wasn't flexible enough. Her high kick wasn't ready.
So at her dance classes at Kathy's School of Dance, she practiced the ballet moves that helped her hold position, helped her maintain balance and poise. She did stretching exercises and asked girls on the Red Hots what else she should do.
The Red Hots move in a blur of dancing styles. Their routines vary from quiet solo ballet performances in leotards to hip-hop booty-shaking numbers complete with camouflage pants and white tank tops. But they're most accomplished in the high-kick routine. If a girl can't kick, she'll have a hard time.
Maggie was flexible. She could do high kicks where her knee flew up and touched her shoulder. Maggie performed at the first Ooltewah High home football game last fall, the start of the school year dance schedule, which included performances at each football game, basketball games, at least three or more local performances and their own state dancing competitions. But a vicious hamstring tear put her out for the season.
The week before tryouts this year, the team's three graduating seniors meet to mix music for the routines and decide the specific dance steps that their teammates and new girls must learn and perform. Each recalls the nerve-wracking week of tryouts, a trial in which all Red Hots must compete, even those who were on the team the year before. Reinstatement is not guaranteed.
"It was scary," said Lorena Lemos, who has danced since the eighth grade. "They could do things I'd never seen in my life."
Lemos, who earned a spot on the Red Hots when she was a freshman, and others will be sounding boards for the Red Hots hopefuls. They will encourage them when they mess up. They will review the steps countless times.
But come Friday, it's showtime.
Wearing white tights and a black top, Sara spins and turns under a keen eye. Elizabeth Roemer, her ballet instructor, corrects her and other girls on variations of technique. One of the Red Hots seniors also takes the class; she, too, makes mistakes.
Roemer studied dance at the University of Georgia; she's performed on teams and done solo work. She says girls who do both learn all facets of the form. The detailed technique of ballet and other individualized classes drills the mechanics. But the quick-change choreography and style blending of dance teams adds other skills to the mix.
Outside the room, Sara's mother, Lorri Jordan, minds her youngest daughter, 7-year-old Emily, who's taking dance, too; she wants to be like her sister.
Jordan told Sara to be realistic about the Red Hots. It would be a huge commitment -- road trips, games, competitions, camps, clinics and local performances. Jordan is prepared for her part -- driving to the practices, buying new uniforms, backup items and matching makeup, lip gloss and jewelry.
It's a lot of effort to put into a high school experience that rarely leads to college scholarships or a dance career.
On Monday, 24 of the 28 girls who signed up arrive for the first practice. Almost every year at least a couple of girls won't return after this session. Most didn't realize the commitment and how demanding it is to learn the dances properly.
In a cluster of teenage girls, Sara's face is among the youngest-looking.
When she lines up, hands-on-shoulder, her legs lag in the fast-pace routine, not quite in unity with the others.
The judges wait in the hall as the gaggle of girls runs through the routine one more time inside the gym, one last, quick practice. It's the day of selection. Dancers are divided into groups of four, given numbers and sent out into the hallway.
Red and black gym bags, matching the school's colors, backpacks, half-full water bottles, an open box of Junior Mints and bag of Blow Pop Minis litter the floor. Each group of four huddles together, talking and alternately tapping at their phones.
The first group is called into the gym. Sara is in Group Three. Maggie is in Group Five. Nervous chatter builds and subsides as the girls alternately sit, stretch or go to the corner to breathe.
"I was nervous like all week."
"When I'm dancing, my mouth gets really dry and my lips get really nasty."
"My hair looks too flat for that."
The wooden door squeaks open and the first group comes out, sweaty, red-faced and panting. A few girls sidle up and ask how it went. Others glance quickly at the first group, then turn back to their silent preparations, trying to focus.
Sara's group is called in.
"I don't want to go on," one of them says in a near whisper.
Sara tells herself to smile.
At 7 p.m. that same night, a recorded message will list the names of the girls who have become Red Hots. The girls are given a coach's number and told to call to see if they made the team. If they don't hear their name, they didn't.
Sara's family drives her to a local Mexican restaurant to have dinner and wait. At a table in the middle of the crowded eatery, Sara sits next to her sister and nibbles chips. She texts back and forth with other girls who tried out. One plans to call right at 7 p.m., another says she'll wait until someone else calls.
Sara's dad, John Jordan, and stepmother, Sherry Jordan, arrive. They sit down across the table from Sara, Lorri Jordan and Emily.
"So you have to call at 7?" he asks.
Sara nods and looks back at her phone.
A few minutes later, the Red Hots coach walks through the restaurant's front door.
"This just got so much more awkward," she says.
The clock ticks and 7 p.m. arrives. But Sara keeps staring at her phone, not dialing. Her dad prods her, says he'll call himself.
"You need to get the news, good or bad. That's life," he says.
"What's the number?" he asks.
"You're not calling," she replies.
"Well, somebody's got to call, either me or your mom," he says.
Her bottom lip quivers slightly and her eyes turn sad. She gets up and walks outside.
Standing on the restaurant's sidewalk, Sara glances at her phone, then looks away.
"I don't think I made it," she whispers. She's already received a text from another girl who didn't make it.
About a minute later, Sara punches in the number and holds the phone to her ear.
"Congratulations to the 2013-2014 Red Hots ...," the team's coach reads in a prerecorded message.
One by one the names are read.
It takes 41 seconds before Sara realizes she's not on the list.
Her hand slides down her face, the phone falling away from her ear as tears break from her eyes.
"I didn't make it."
It takes Sara days to get over it. Maggie, who made it, called the night of tryouts to comfort Sara and encourage her try out again. She says she'll think about it, maybe her friend is right.
The Red Hots are still in her grasp; she has time to master that kick. How close was she to making the team? What does she need to work on before the next tryout?
Nearly two weeks later, Sara's cell phone rings.
It's one of the coaches. She tells Sara she did really well, even though she wasn't chosen. She knows Sara tried hard. If she enjoys dance, she should try again, she has potential. Some girls don't make it until the second or even third attempt, she says.
Sara says "thank you" and hangs up.
Back to dance class.
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...