Teresa Rathbun didn’t know what to expect when her Rapid City Rushettes dance and cheer team first performed at a Rapid City Rush professional hockey game.
Like the concept of bringing ice hockey to an area where the game had been relatively unknown, assembling a cheer and dance team to help entertain fans and promote the sport was a leap of faith for Rathbun.
“I had never been to a hockey game. It was a lot of firsts for most of us,” said Rathbun, a graduate of St. Thomas More High School and the University of South Dakota who now operates a dance and fitness studio, Stretch Studio in Rapid City.
The Rushettes dance team made its official debut Nov. 29, 2008, when the Rush played its first home game at the newly completed Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena.
“That first game. I was open to just seeing how it went and then going from there,” she said. “It was exciting being a part of it, but I really didn’t know what to expect … how the crowd would react.”
The reaction was positive, and now the Rushettes are a fixture promoting hockey at home games and in the community.
Rathbun coaches the 16-member team that dances during breaks in game action and intermissions and participates in game entertainment and promotions at the ice arena.
Darcy Zandstra, director of sales and marketing for the Rush, asked Rathbun if she would interested in leading the team.
“She and I have crafted the whole thing of the Rushettes from nothing,” she said.
Indeed, the Rushettes had a humble beginning. Only a handful of prospects responded to a call to try out for the team in the summer of 2008.
“Last year, our auditions were slim. We had five show up, and we kept three. Then we went out and did private recruiting,” Rathbun said.
With the hockey team making a splash in Rapid City, interest in the Rushettes also zoomed.
“We had great auditions this year,” Rathbun said.
Ten more members joined the team and are split into dance and cheer units.
One of the newest members is Rachel Brown of Laconia, Ind., a graduate student of paleontology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
“I started coming to Stretch Studio to work out and lose weight. I really enjoy dancing. I decided to try out, and I’ve had a blast ever since,” Brown said.
“I used to be a cheerleader, and actually did a lot of sports in high school. It gets me back to that team environment,” Brown said. “And it gets me away from school.
“I knew more about basketball. It’s really big in Indiana. Hockey is something new and different. I really enjoy watching. I know what’s going on now,” she said.
Joining the team at mid-year last season was Rathbun’s sister-in-law, Emily Rathbun, a graduate of Rapid City Stevens who attended the University of Wyoming and is now pursuing an elementary education degree at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. She serves as Rushettes captain.
“I get to boss people around,” she said with a laugh.
“Performing in front of 6,000 people is really a lot of fun. Doing the routines is great, and I like being a part of an organized dance team,” Emily Rathbun said.
“I don’t have a lot of girlfriends, so this is my way to spend time with girls and just have a lot of fun and dance.”
Teresa Rathbun estimates she puts in 20 to 30 hours per week as the only paid member of the team.
“I do the recruiting, training, choreographing — everything for the team and managing the promotional side of it,” she said.
Team members are required to attend home games and weekly practices and fitness classes, plus occasional public appearances.
Team members receive a free membership at Stretch Studio, free tanning, a 50 percent discount at selected local restaurants and a pair of tickets to each home game.
“There are some great perks to being a Rushette,” Teresa Rathbun said. “I think most girls would pick the perks over getting paid.”
Team members average about 10 hours per week between practices, game performances and public appearances.
Brown admits some jitters her first time performing in front of a full house at the ice arena when the season began last October.
“It was nerve-wracking, but I figured doing my orals and taking graduate exams should be a piece of cake after being in front of that many people. If I can do one, I can do the other,” she said.
The hard work has paid off for the Rushettes. The team, working with photographer Mike Wolforth, produced a photo calendar with proceeds benefiting the Black Hills Children’s Home.
The team also served lunches for children at Rapid City’s Youth & Family Services and hosted a pair of camps for young dancers to showcase their skills at recent Rush games.
The Rushettes were also among the top three dance and cheer teams when the Central Hockey League’s Best of the Best awards were announced last week.
“As we go game by game through the season, we just try to get better and better,” Teresa Rathbun said. “I hope to see the program keep growing and getting better as the (hockey) team gets better.”