More than 8,000 participants, 4,000 costumes, 500 pounds of glitter and confetti, 240 gallons of paint, 15 giant balloons and 28 floats all added up to one bigger-than-life experience for five Washington High School cheerleaders.
The journey began over the summer and culminated in a trip to this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The cheerleaders from Washington, a small town in McClain County south of Norman, were among 16 Oklahoma cheerleaders who accepted bids to participate in the parade.
Jeff LeForce and his wife coach the Washington Cheer Team, a squad of 28 that also outscored competition at home to become the 3A 2021 Oklahoma Game Day State Champions. LeForce said each year his cheerleaders attend J&C Cheer Camps in Norman where they have an opportunity to try out for "camp all-star" by exhibiting skills and performing a routine learned at the camp.
"That was a fun process at our cheer camp, competing against other girls from all over the state of Oklahoma this past summer," said Becca Madden, one of the Washington seniors who made the cut.
In all, five Washington cheerleaders accepted bids for the parade. Madden was joined by fellow seniors Hallie Dancer, Josie Castle and Gracie Cantrell, along with a freshman from their squad, Paisley Taylor.
Once selected, the girls began to prepare and that meant more than just learning a routine. Cantrell said the trip costs can be daunting, but she was amazed at the support they got from their community. For those who might be concerned about fundraising, she said the keys are to be invested in your own journey, start early and be creative.
"You're so much more grateful for something when you have seen the work that has gone into it," she said. "We hosted cheer camps for little girls ... did all kinds of things to get there."
After the girls arrived in New York City, Dancer admitted there was some fear and nervousness about being in such a large city.
"Since we're from such a small town, it's such a culture shock," she said.
With rehearsals beginning the day they arrived, there was not a lot of time to adjust. They quickly joined nearly 500 other cheerleaders, a group more than half the size of their hometown's population, to bring together a routine.
A video of that routine had been sent in advance, but the girls said there was still a lot of work to be done. Cantrell said it was a bit overwhelming to work with a group that large, but meeting so many new people from different places was a favorite part of the experience.
Madden said bringing together girls from across the country, all trained under different styles, meant a lot of hard work in a very short amount of time. In the end the cheerleaders and dancers came together to learn the choreography.
"We practiced hours on end to perfect the routine, which was a very tiring but rewarding process," Madden said. "Our choreographers made it amazing and so fun."
Castle said the parade was not the group's only chance to shine. A rehearsal a few nights before the big day also served as a performance for NBC executives, another incredible moment from the trip.
Early Thursday, the girls gathered with thousands of participants at the start of the more than two mile parade route. The streets were lined with spectators, with more people in just a few city blocks than in all of Washington.
"It was so magical because you just see these huge balloons and everyone's cheering," Dancer said. "You don't know any of these people, but they're still so happy to see you and taking pictures and waving."
As much as the experience impacted the girls, they said they could tell there was a chance for them to give back, too. Most of the girls have been cheering since they were young, so seeing the excitement of young girls watching them was a special moment.
"It took me back to my own experience as a kid seeing cheerleaders at a young age," Cantrell said. "So I knew when I saw those girls I wanted to take an opportunity to just go and invest in them."
Seeing the sights and experiencing the magic of the city outside of the parade was also part of the trip. The group had time for a Radio City Rockettes performance and to visit the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and Central Park.
"Central Park just kind of has my heart, that's my favorite part of it all," Castle said.
For Madden, Cantrell and Dancer, one thing reigned supreme as the best New York City experience outside the parade — seeing a live Broadway performance of the musical SIX.
"Just to experience Broadway and we were sitting on like the first, second row," Madden said. "It was amazing, I will never, ever experience another thing like it."
Castle and Cantrell said they hope other parents, especially those raising kids in small towns like Washington, will be open to letting their kids have this kind of experience.
"It's a big shock when you get here, but seriously, let them do it. It's so eye-opening," Castle said. "Coming from a small town, we get to see the diversity, and the different types of people and the different clothes and everything."
Cantrell said the safety and experience of the performers was the top priority for event staff, making it much easier to enjoy the trip. She said what could have been overwhelming never had a chance to be because of how prepared the Spirit of America organization was.
"You cannot get this experience anywhere else as far as in a Macy's (Thanksgiving) day parade," she said. "It is not quite the same as a homecoming parade. It is truly one of the most jaw-dropping experiences."
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma cheerleaders reflect on Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade