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Madame Ants

Video clips of the Madame Ants Dance Team performing during a Fort Wayne Mad Ants basketball game. Journal Gazette video by Chad Ryan.

The Madame Ants dance team rehearses for the upcoming season.

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Alicia Weimer, a member of the Madame Ants dance team, cheers for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at Friday's game.

Madame Ants work hard on fancy footwork

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Madame Ants practice a dance routine in a studio.

– Sheenah Johnson halts the loud music with an overhead wave, which cues another woman perched close by to click the boom box's stop button.

"Let's go back to the top," Johnson says sternly to a dozen dancers, all in black tops and black shorts or tights. Each woman takes a deep breath before Johnson counts off the tempo again with "Five, six, seven, eight!"

The music returns to life, and Quiet Riot's ear-splitting 1983 anthem "Cum On Feel The Noize" engulfs the 30-foot square, mirrored dance studio. The newest version of the Madame Ants dance team resumes its routine, with one more decree from Johnson, its 30-year-old director and choreographer: "Opening night," she shouts over the music, "you will smile!"

Sure enough, during a timeout at Friday's Mad Ants NBA Development League home opener, 10 members of the Madame Ants dance team rush Memorial Coliseum's hardwood floor and break into their opening routine. The dancers hit each step in unison. Their moves are crisp, defined. There is a hint of sensuality, a teasing strut. And throughout and upon completion of the 60-second routine, they do smile.

One night down, 23 to go.

This is the seventh year for the Mad Ants organization, and consequently, the seventh season for the dance squad that entertains the paying customers during timeouts and, occasionally, halftime.

There are other responsibilities for the Madame Ants. They're among the first to arrive at games and the last to leave, greeting fans as they enter the Coliseum rotunda, and lingering on the floor after the final horn. They are ambassadors at schools, hospitals and anywhere else the team has an off-court appearance.

"We put them in the community quite a bit, actually," says Heidi Busch, the Mad Ants' vice president of operations. "They are great ambassadors for us. Any appearance that we ask them to do, they are always willing and always do a good job.

Busch said each dancer makes at least 10 personal appearances a season.

But in the studio and on the court, Johnson is undeniably the team's leader. Even though she no longer performs, she knows her stuff. A Snider High School graduate who attended Purdue University, then IPFW, she was a member of the first Madame Ants team during the 2006-07 D-League season. Before that, Johnson was with the Indiana Pacers' dance team for two years. When she's not overseeing two nights of practice for the Madame Ants, or carefully watching game night routines, she teaches dance at her own studio, Sheekristyle Academy of Dance.

And she doesn't blink when she says she can be demanding with what she says is the city's only professional dance team.

"I don't want to baby them because they're adults," Johnson says. "We have a job to do."

On a rainy Sunday night of rehearsal, the job at hand is to get ready for opening night and the season ahead.

The 12 dancers inside the studio are the survivors of a summer tryout that attracted more than 20 hopefuls. Six were on the team last year. For 22-year-old Rachal Spillner, this is her fourth season.

"I've always liked performing, and I like working with a team," Spillner says. "I came right out of (Northrop) high school. I knew I wanted to keep dancing, so I thought the Mad Ants would be a perfect way to do it, and keep dancing at a high level."

Regardless of which of the 10 routines the team will learn, the preparation is similar. Johnson tells the dancers what she wants – what she expects – then they perform it to music. Afterward, she critiques (and sometimes praises) the performance.

"You got to get off the ground, hon!"

"Let's work on our sex appeal. We're wholesome and family friendly, but we can't be corny."

"Can you whip your hair back correctly so at the end you don't look like Cousin Itt?"

"Wrong foot, with them bright shoes on."

"Coming onto the court, that was one of the driest entrances! We are the entertainment."

One of her favorites is to urge the team to work for the Coliseum's upper section.

"You can always entertain people in the courtside seats, but if you're in 217 or higher, they have to be able to see our dance, and they have to do it full-out," Johnson says.

The dancers range in age, from 18-year-old McKynzie Robins, recently out of Northrop and a freshman at Indiana Tech, to 26-year-old Lierin Rossman, an attorney who is in her second season.

Rossman said she tried out to be a cheerleader with the Indianapolis Colts but didn't make the cut. Instead, she returned to the Madame Ants.

"I love Sheenah," Rossman says. "I love doing this. I don't have a family (locally) or anything. This has always been a hobby of mine. I had three years off when I was in law school, so it was really awesome that I can get back into it."

But it's hard work, they all admit. The intensity is as high as the boom box's volume. Sweat rolls, and they towel off during a break.

"Sometimes it can be a big shocker," Johnson says. "They come in thinking, 'I was on the high school dance team,' or 'I was a cheerleader.' What they don't realize is that we dance probably 10 times harder in 60 seconds than they did in those two minutes, 30 seconds (in high school). We only have 60 seconds, but they're power-packed."

And don't forget to smile.