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October 22, 2021

CHEERLEADING: Making the squad

Susie Sanchez’s journey hasn’t even started yet, but simply
making the Raiderettes was the culmination of a life’s worth of
training and hard work that all started with a 90-second
meet-and-greet process one day, and ended with a 63-second dance
routine a week later.
HOLLISTER

Susie Sanchez stood on the stage for all of 90 seconds, although it perhaps felt like she was up there all day.

The preliminary tryout for the Oakland Raiderettes cheerleading team had been going since 8 a.m., and although the initial stage in the tryout process lasted less than two minutes per cheerleading hopeful, there was approximately 232 entrants to narrow down, and only so much time to make a lasting impression.

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Ninety seconds isn’t much, then, to stand out just enough to advance to the following round.

“They want to see confidence, if you can hold yourself up there,” said Sanchez, a Hollister resident. “It’s the PR side.”

And what’s discussed on stage doesn’t usually go beyond autobiographical information — your height, your eye color. “The basics,” Sanchez said.

So when it was finally Sanchez’s turn to stand out, she walked onto the stage and said she was 37 years old, a mother of three, and a grandmother of one.

She felt her answer might have drawn the attention of the judges when she saw one perk up. Was it the age? Or the grandmother part?

What was for sure was that it wasn’t the only factor. Sanchez again impressed the judges with her dancing ability, skill and presence later that week — she has been dancing since she was 8, after all — and she can now safely say she is the oldest member of the Raiderettes as well.

“I just started crying,” she said after she heard her number called — lucky No. 45. “It was like, ‘wow.’ I was overwhelmed with emotion … just never give up.”

“It’s life changing at that moment.”

Sanchez’s journey hasn’t even started yet, but simply making the Raiderettes was the culmination of a life’s worth of training and hard work that all started with a 90-second meet-and-greet process one day, and ended with a 63-second dance routine a week later.

“Honestly, we look for someone who walks into a room and captures your attention,” Raiderette Director Jeanette Thompson said. “She has a wonderful smile and a confidence about her that not everyone has.”

Out of 232 participants, Sanchez was one of 115 to make the final audition, then one of a select 41 to make the final team, and it couldn’t have come at a moment too soon for the Hollister dancer.

Trying out for the Oakland Raiderettes for the fifth time in six years, Sanchez feels this year’s audition was likely her last.

“I’m still at the pinch-me-now stage,” she said.

——

Even at a young age, Sanchez knew she wanted to be a dancer, although she was initially thinking Broadway when she was growing up and training at Lana’s Dance Studio in Morgan Hill.

But after having her first child when she was 20, Sanchez instead entered the corporate world, where she would work for IBM for the next 11 years.

She didn’t switch careers until one day when a co-worker simply asked her where she found her inspiration. The answer, of course, was the same one she had from when she was a little girl.

“I said dancing,” Sanchez said.

Having previously moved to Hollister in 1999, Sanchez opened Dancing Days in 2004 in order to feed her passion, while later taking classes at Monterey Peninsula College in order to see if she still had the ability to perform.

“It was like riding a bike,” she said.

“And it was fun teaching and owning a studio, but I wanted to be on the performance side,” she added.

Sanchez can still recall where she was when it hit her, what she was doing when she realized how she could “live her dream locally.”

She was doing squats at Gold’s Gym when she figured trying out for the NFLs Raiders would be a good idea.

“It fell from God,” she said of the epiphany.

Of course, making the team was a different story. Sanchez said she just showed up in 2006, without any knowledge or expectations, and not having participated in the team’s pre-tryout workshop, either.

She didn’t make it out of prelims.

The next two years fared a bit better. She advanced to the final audition in 2007 and 2008, but again fell short of making the team.

In 2009, though, admittedly a bit overconfident after she had advanced to the final audition the previous two years, Sanchez again didn’t make it out of prelims, and was instead cut before given the chance of learning the routine.

That’s when the San Jose Wolves, of the now folded American Indoor Football Association West, “came out of the blue.”

“Susie is like no one else,” said Wolves’ Dance Team Director Teri Schafer, who has known Sanchez for the last year and a half and who worked with her last season. “I’m in my 11th year coaching, and she’s probably the hardest working person I have ever had. She’s an inspiration for everybody, to see her determination. She wants to be on a pro dance team.”

Schafer said she knew from Day 1 that she was going to pick Sanchez for the squad.

“She was just a shoe-in,” she said. “I’m sure any girl who cheered with her last year would tell you the same thing.

“It was great to have her around. Even though she was older than the other girls, it didn’t matter.”

——

Sanchez’s age had never been a deterrent from cheerleading, and she believes her maturity has only helped her through the process.

But it’s worth noting that Sanchez had been following the stories of Ben-Gals cheerleader Laura Vikmanis who at 42, is the oldest cheerleader in the NFL.

But, reportedly, she isn’t a grandmother like Sanchez.

“I just think this is my time,” she said. “It’s all about confidence and determination.”

Trying out for a fifth time earlier this year, though, Sanchez was more confident and ready than she had perhaps ever been — it was evident to Thompson and others, at least.

Although she made the final audition twice before in recent years — the final round consists of the team’s dance routine as well as an interview — making the final cut was perhaps aided, she feels, by the confidence and experience she gained while performing for the San Jose Wolves

With a professional cheerleading team on her resume, and entering the tryout with a calm, no-pressure approach, Sanchez, with a helpful push from her family, gave it one last, well, RAH!

“This was going to be my final year of auditions. I was just seeing if I had a chance, with my San Jose Wolves dance card,” Sanchez said. “I figured I was going to try out one more year, because it was such a letdown in ’08. It’s very emotional when you don’t get called. But my family, my husband, they were saying I should try out one more time.”

Schafer supplied a motivational push as well.

“She decided to give it one more shot,” said Schafer, who was a former Raiderette in 1997. “I told her, if you are going to try out, you need to try out for the Raiders.”

After surviving prelims on April 10, Sanchez returned to the Oakland Hilton on the following Tuesday and Thursday to learn the dance routine for Sunday’s final — a fast, jazzy routine that lasted 63 seconds. Said Sanchez, “Luckily, knock on wood, I didn’t mess up once.”

A three-question interview took place later, and Sanchez said she felt confident answering whatever the judges asked of her.

“With Susie, being more mature, she’s a great representative for the community,” Schafer said. “She’ll be a great representative for the Raiderettes.”

Sanchez said she owes a lot to Schafer, believing her year with the Wolves, and everything that came with it, may have been the difference in the end.

“Do I have a little bit better chance now?” Sanchez asked. “If you don’t go out, you’ll never know. And I’m one of those people that can’t live with the what-if.”

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