SOLON– Last November, three young Solon women had a chance to taste a slice of life in the Big Apple.
And it was sweet.
It wasn’t just the average school trip or family vacation, either. These ladies were invited to participate in one of the nation’s time-honored holiday traditions, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Solon High School Dance Team senior members Kelsey Karsten, Sarah Lilleodden and Caroline Wilford were chosen by the Universal Dance Association’s Spirit of America camp organization to be among the 640 dancers to perform in the 2012 Thanksgiving parade in New York City. It was the first time in Solon school history that anyone from Solon has been given the opportunity, and the girls recognized it was a pretty big deal.
“We were so pumped from the moment we got the notification,” said Karsten. “When we landed in New York, it hit us that we were going to be part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. How many people can say that? It was probably one of the biggest things that could happen to us. It was so surreal.”
“It opened up this entire new world that I hadn’t been exposed to, being in New York City,” said Wilford. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“It took awhile to sink in,” said Lilleodden. “It didn’t hit me how huge and special it was until we stood on the Empire State Building.”
But the experience didn’t start out with the exhilarating feeling of landing at LaGuardia; after getting their notices early last year, it was a long, slow march toward November, for there were many fundraisers to be held and lots of dollars to be saved. Holding bake sales and garage sales, working can drives and concession stands, selling flower bulbs and peddling poinsettias, the girls worked nearly nonstop to raise funds for the trip. It was sometimes a struggle, said Lilleodden.
“It felt like we were constantly doing something to ask for money,” she said.
“It was stressful a lot of the time,” said Karsten. “I felt bad going to the same people for money. For the bake sale, we were up until midnight baking things.”
But it was worth it, Wilford added.
“When we got to New York, we realized we worked so hard for almost a year to get there,” she said. “It paid off.”
And even upon arriving in New York, there was still much work to be done. The girls had been given the routine to practice at home well in advance, but bringing more than 600 dancers from all corners of the country and putting them together on a single stage, in one perfect formation to perform one common number is a feat in and of itself. They arrived in New York City on Saturday, and were scheduled to practice almost immediately. They practiced daily for four hours in the early morning, and then returned for an evening practice. On Wednesday evening, they were put through dress rehearsal, and were up again by 4 a.m. the morning of the parade in order to be at Harold’s Square on time. Their brief routine, performed directly in front of Macy’s, was this year’s parade opener. Many people back home watched for them, but caught at most a fleeting glimpse of the Solon girls.
It was no matter. Wilford said from the time they began their fundraising efforts to the moment they stepped after Santa to finish the parade route, the girls’ felt their hometown behind them all the way.
“We got overwhelming support,” said Wilford. “People said they hoped to see us on TV. We got a lot of donations.”
Karsten said people seemed genuinely happy for them.
“I think people were excited that someone from our small town could go out and do something like this,” Karsten said. “So when we performed, I thought, ‘we have to give it our all,’ because we would not be here without the support from everybody who donated and helped us.”
“It wasn’t just us,” added Wilford. “We knew we were representing the entire community of Solon.”
All three of the girls said they wish to thank those who purchased items, made donations and wished them well.
After the parade, the girls and chaperone Tammy Lilleodden took the opportunity to stay a few extra days and make the most of it. They took in a Broadway show, visited the Empire State Building and went on a harbor cruise to see the Statue of Liberty. Times Square amazed them, the Rockettes’ Christmas special dazzled them, and a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park enchanted them. They were able to tour the NBC studio and visits the sets of Saturday Night Live and the Doctor Oz television shows, and made a lot of memories they will carry with them from here forward.
“When you are standing in Times Square and seeing things you’ve only seen on TV, it consumes you,” said Karsten.
But even more than memories, the girls were also able to bring back some things they continue to share with their team; perseverance, inspiration and striving toward perfection.
“Just seeing how these instructors were able to teach 600-some girls do a dance this sharp, we can do that too,” said Karsten.
“Right,” said Wilford. “If 600 girls can do that well, 13 girls should be able to do it perfectly.”
And though it wasn’t in their suitcases, the three dancers gained a wealth of understanding in New York City about working hard to make a dream come true.
“It makes everything a little less scary,” said Lilleodden. “It was something we had never done before, and it makes other things look a lot easier.”
“I always figured that after high school I wouldn’t dance, but after doing this, it showed me how many people continue to pursue their passion in dance,” said Karsten. “The instructors and everyone who were so dedicated, it makes me want to be a part of something that helps other people find their love for dance.”
Wilford said the experience even gave her a new perspective on life.
“At the top of the Empire State Building, you realize how small you are compared to the rest of the world. And that’s not a bad thing; you know that even if you have a bad day, the world will go on,” said Wilford. “I had an epiphany: you can do whatever you want, because there are people everywhere, and they are doing what they want, every day.
“It was inspiring,” she added. “Just live the life you want to live.”