A tiny pair of Air Jordan sneakers distinguished 5-year-old Eryn Lilly from the sea of novice cheerleaders in matching gold T-shirts behind her.
Eryn was swimming in her shirt, which covered her blue jean shorts like a nightgown. But she didn’t seem to mind as she happily fixed her attention on the all-grown-up cheerleaders in front of her.
As she mimicked their movements, a Washington Redskins cheerleader to her left turned to give an approving nod.
Eryn was in absolute bliss.
“Youngsters are able to learn together, play together and laugh together here,” said Norman C. Merrifield, director of Richmond Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, which teamed with the Redskins to sponsor a dance and cheer clinic Wednesday. “It’s an experience they will remember all their lives.”
Eryn was among about 250 girls ages 4 to 17 from the Richmond area at the Redskins clinic in the Richmond Coliseum, where four current Redskins cheerleaders taught the girls basic chants and dance moves.
The girls received a free Redskins cheer shirt and lunch. The event was part of the run-up to the Redskins summer training camp, which will open in Richmond next week.
Cheerleaders from Virginia State University and Matoaca High School worked with the girls during the first half of the camp, while the Redskins squad taught an entire hip-hop routine and team cheer when they arrived after lunch.
Children from the inner city rarely have the opportunity to interact with professional athletes, Merrifield said, so it was a special day for them.
“Everyone is excited to have the Redskins here,” he said, “but this is part of the total package that they don’t see.”
The Redskins cheerleaders began their portion of the clinic by leading the girls in stretches. Many of the younger students fell over while attempting to reach their toes, and older classmates helped them regain their balance.
When the dance routines began, the professionals walked around demonstrating to the girls how to correctly place their arms or move their feet.
Jay Ell Vaughn, a marketing and public relations specialist for the city, laughed as children added their own attitude and dance moves to the choreography.
The event was a simple way to encourage active tendencies at a young age, she said, and also in line with Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ Healthy Richmond campaign.
“It’s a generational lifestyle,” Vaughn said. “If the kids are active, then the parents are more likely to be active.”
Participants were given the opportunity to pose questions to the Redskins cheerleaders after the event. “How do I become like you?” was one of the most frequent inquiries.
Redskins Cheerleading Director Stephanie Jojokian said the Q&A portion helps girls identify with the cheerleaders — and the cheerleaders with the girls. It also helps the children understand that the professionals work full-time jobs on top of cheering, she said.
“I hope it gives them some insight that it’s not just about being a celebrity, but being a person,” Jojokian said.
When the clinic came to a close, the four Redskins cheerleaders were mobbed by girls begging for autographs. After their shirt or team roster was signed, each child happily skipped away to show their mother or friends.
Five-year-old twins Chelsea and Chance Smith took turns showing off their new dance moves and exchanging opinions about the day while waiting to go home.
“My favorite part was dancing and having fun,” Chelsea said with a grin.
“They taught me this,” Chance said while demonstrating a lunge.
Jojokian said the cheerleaders, who go by only their first names, participate in nearly 600 community and outreach events a year, which helps keep the team grounded.
Mila, co-captain of the Redskins squad, emphasized how the girls see them as role models.
“It’s nice to know that I can teach them something and they’ll use it years from now,” Mila said.
“It makes you realize how important the role is,” added Taylor, a teammate.