One state title on the line.
When Pendleton High School’s Rhythmic Mode took to the Memorial Coliseum floor Friday night in Portland, they knew they had one shot. In previous years, teams danced twice, but this year, the Oregon Student Activities Association streamlined the state dance competition. Each team had a single chance for perfection.
“It’s one and done,” said head coach Debbie Kishpaugh. “You put it all out on the floor.”
The Pendleton team, dead last in the order, waited all day to dance, finally hitting the floor about 8:40 p.m.
Adrenaline surged as the team started its dramatic, high energy routine. Spectators’ eyes riveted to junior Ashlee Zaugg who, with the help of dramatic makeup, stilts and a billowing black skirt, appeared as a 9-foot tall queen of malevolence as she strode onto the coliseum hardwood surrounded by dancers. The entrance got a roar from the crowd. In the next several minutes, two squads of dancers battled on the floor in a elegant, theatrical and athletic version of the good versus evil story. At the end, the defenders of good prevailed.
The Pendleton dancers braced themselves as the award ceremony began. Fifth, then fourth, then third, then second place was awarded. They held hands. As is tradition, the first bars of the team’s song would tip off the team they had won gold.
As their music blasted from the speakers, the Pendleton dancers jumped to their feet.
Seniors Emily Gilsdorf and Vanessa Schmidt clutched the trophy close. Both said they knew it was their year after the performance.
“We just knew. We were hugging and crying,” Schmidt said. “We gave it all we could possibly give.”
Hearing their name called was still a tad unreal.
“When they announced us for first, it was a surreal moment,” Gilsdorf said. “My head didn’t feel like it was attached to my body.”
Schmidt and Gilsdorf were named to the 2019 All-State Team.
Coach Kishpaugh had one word for how her team performed.
“Amazing,” she said. “Amazing. I am so proud. They were so darn good.”
The Pendleton dance team has a reputation as a perennial power. In 2013, Rhythmic Mode won its sixth-straight state championship 5A dance title.
The next year, the team moved up to the more difficult Show division. The troupe came close, but never titled in that division. In 2017, the team moved back into the regular division and got second. Last year they won.
Now the streak is going again. Overall, this is their ninth championship.
Kishpaugh designs the choreography. This idea for “I Am The Storm” crashed down on her after a particularly hard year that brought two serious illnesses to her extended family. Kishpaugh regularly journals and one night, she wrote, “God, when is this storm going to pass?”
Not long after, she heard a dramatic soundbite on YouTube that begins this year’s routine. She sent the soundbite and other music to Utah DJ Kevin Heath, who created an epic fusion of sound to drive the routine.
Kishpaugh praised her dancers, 30 girls and three boys, who rehearsed four mornings a week starting at 5:30.
“This routine is so, so, so physical,” she said. “They are bruised and beat up.”
Kishpaugh likes to test boundaries. One year, she studied the National Federation of State High School Associations rulebook to see if her dancers could perform on stilts and found nothing that said she couldn’t. NFSA , however, said no. So she took her case to the Oregon School Athletics Association.
“They went to bat for me,” Kishpaugh said. “Finally, I was told we could use stilts, but the shoes had to be screwed into the stilts pad.”
This year, Kishpaugh pushed costuming limits once again with the costuming of Zaugg and her voluminous black skirt and stilts. When Kishpaugh asked Zaugg, a regular in community theater and a non-dancer, to take on the dramatic role, she jumped at it. The role, she said, has its challenges.
“I have to trust the dancers to tell me where to step,” she said. “I’m holding onto someone’s hand.”
In the green room before the performance, Zaugg wasn’t worried about her fellow dancers, saying “they feed off the energy of the crowd.”
She nailed it.