Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Corona teen dances out of her shell and into Staples Center 

Posted by Sasha at 8:40 PM ET

By Jerry Soifer
The Press-Enterprise

CORONA - Richelle Rodriguez learned more than routines as she progressed from a beginning dancer at age 3 to a professional at 18. Lessons in ballet, tap, hip-hop and jazz provided the footwork to growing up.

"When I was little, I was shy," Rodriguez said. "In elementary school and junior high, my teachers would say, 'Get out of your shell.' They would yell at me. (Dance) brought out a different side in me. It helped me to be more open and be my own person. Dancing contributed to maturity. I was always around older people."

Rodriguez, of Corona, is a sophomore at Riverside Community College. She proved her maturity, tenacity and talent in July in auditions for the Laker Girls dance group. She was one of 400 young women who started tryouts in July and is one of the 22 chosen for the 2007-08 season.

She was a song girl for four years at Centennial High School in Corona. She graduated in 2006 at 17. She had to wait a year to try out for the Laker Girls because the minimum age is 18.

The average age of this year's squad is 22.5. Some, like Rodriguez, made it on their first try. Others try repeatedly.

"She's a very nice young lady," Lisa Estrada, the Lakers' director of game operations and entertainment, said of Rodriguez.

"The judges saw something in her. Everyone in the top 40 could have made the squad," Estrada said.

She called the auditions grueling. Most of the judges are choreographers, dance instructors or former Laker Girls. The field was narrowed to 40, who were each interviewed and assessed for their public-speaking ability.

"They are ambassadors for this organization," Estrada said. "They do a lot of personal appearances."

Shortly after being selected, Rodriguez served at her first Lakers task, escorting potential season ticket holders as they looked at seats at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Rodriguez faces a season of hard work. The Laker Girls practice twice a week for three to four hours. They do charitable functions and paid public appearances.

"What we really pride ourselves on is giving back to the community," Estrada said.

The average tenure of a Laker Girl is two to three years.

They grow up even more during that time. "You talk to them and see how they've grown," said Estrada. "That's rewarding as a director."

Estrada said some Laker Girls hold down full-time jobs or are sales representatives or mothers. Others use their time with the squad to advance careers in show business. It has worked for one Laker Girls alumna, Paula Abdul.

Rodriguez said she is going to college because she is not counting on dance to carry her far in life. She wants something to fall back on.

Rodriguez's success is no surprise to Laurie Bleecker, adviser to Centennial's pep squad.

"She's an incredible dancer," Bleecker said. "She has great lines, clean technique and showmanship. She's a perfectionist."

Bleecker added that Rodriguez "is drop-dead beautiful" and has been since she met her as a freshman.

Rodriguez, a member of a dance troupe that performs in parades at Disneyland, proved her fitness this summer by performing in 105-degree heat without faltering.

She exercises as hard as a football player, except for lifting heavy weights, said her boyfriend, former Norco High football player Bryce Holland.

"She wants to go to the gym whenever she can," Holland said. "She is always willing to work and get better."

Rodriguez reacted with equanimity when she received the call on a Sunday afternoon that she had made the Laker Girls. Holland said the people around Rodriguez were happier than she was at the news.

Rodriguez said she was confident through the first round of the tryouts at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo. She said she was really scared during the second round because she had missed a few steps in her dance routine.

"After that, I got more confidence in the third and fourth round," she said. "The top 40 was the most difficult."

The interview process was difficult because her answers echoed in the large gym, enabling everyone, not just the judges, to hear her words.

After being selected, Rodriguez was given some more homework. She received a book to study up on the team's history. She was never a Lakers fan before. Now, she is.

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