November 3, 2018

Cheer Team Coach’s Journey Unexpected, But Rewarding

Eskimos Cheer Team Coach Dianne Greenough thought she had her life’s journey figured out when she was at McNally High School in the 1970s. A volleyball and basketball player, she already knew she was going to be a phys.ed. teacher and a guidance counsellor.

Greenough was still on that path when she finished her Education degree at the University of Alberta in 1978.

“While I was student teaching at Harry Ainlay, I got to coach the volleyball team, and we won the city championship,” she said. “That’s when I knew volleyball was my sport of choice. I loved the game. I loved Harry Ainlay, and I knew coaching there I would win city championships with those amazing athletes every year. They were so talented. I really thought that was my journey.”

Greenough’s long-range goals were to coach the Canadian women’s volleyball team eventually and to become a clinical psychologist.

“I really wanted to coach volleyball,” she said, “so I often wonder why I ended up selecting Vic (Victoria Composite High School for her first teaching job). But we all pick our different routes.”

Ironically, Greenough achieved her goal of being a Canadian women’s team coach from 2011-14 and won a gold medal in the world championship in 2012, but the sport was cheerleading, not volleyball.

“Sometimes you make a goal, and it doesn’t quite turn out like you thought, but you still end up reaching the goal,” said Greenough, who is wrapping up her 23rd and final season with the Eskimos Cheer Team, presented by Bedrock Homes.

Her goal of becoming a clinical psychologist was also achieved in a different manner than she envisioned.

“By the time I decided to go back to university, I was pregnant,” she explained. “I went, ‘OK, fate is not with me. I’m staying at Vic and just going to continue this journey.’

“Vic was very kind and allowed me to do some counselling there as well as teach the Psych 30 program, so I got my cake and ate it, too.”

Having experienced an unexpected journey into the world of cheerleading that still surprises her, Greenough likes to tell the young women and men in her life that no one knows exactly how the path they choose will affect their future.

“That path you take on the journey to your goal sometimes takes you on a completely different journey,” she said.

The Early Years

Greenough’s first steps on the path towards cheerleading started in high school, although she didn’t realize it at the time.

“McNally had a really good cheer team, but they were stamping and clapping,” she said. “I did choreography for them because my friends were doing it. They asked me to help them. As I was helping them, they said, ‘Just come and do it with us.’ That was my first moment of being a cheerleader at McNally.

“I went to university and coached volleyball at Harry Ainlay and basketball and track at McNally. While I was at McNally, of course, I helped the girls (with cheerleading) just because I knew I was going to be a teacher and thought it was a good experience.

“When I got hired (as a teacher), I had an opportunity to go Ainlay, where my journey would have been very different, and I would have coached volleyball and basketball,” Greenough said. “But I ended up taking the job at Victoria School just because it was 1978, and it was an inner-city school in a dumping ground for kids who had challenges. It needed a lot of love, and I just felt at that time in my life – I was 21 or something – I really wanted to help these kids. I felt like I could make a difference and make an impact on these inner-city kids who were just so lost.

“That was just a journey I picked. I’m really not sure why.”

The late 1970s and early ‘80s at Victoria Comp was not a great place, she admitted. There were teenagers with hidden vodka bottles in brown paper bags in their lockers, drugs, weapons, racial riots and lots of pregnancies.

Former Eskimos offensive and defensive lineman Bob Dean hired Greenough as a teacher, and then he came in as principal in her second year to clean up the school. Dean, who passed away 11 years ago, is also known for kicking the convert for the game-winning point after Jackie Parker’s legendary 90-yard fumble return touchdown in the 1954 Grey Cup.

“I really had a wonderful connection with him,” Greenough said about Dean. “I have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for him. He was really an inspiration and a support system for me.”

Of course, Greenough started coaching volleyball and basketball at Vic Comp but quickly realized the girls needed something different. They didn’t love those sports like she did, so she started a dance team.

“I had about 70, 80 kids the first year I did it,” said Greenough, who was a ballet dancer until high school. “We made pom-poms out of white garbage bags and went to a place called Woolco and got white blouses and made some red skirts and they performed at the Drillers soccer games (in the North American Soccer League).

“I decided I wanted to take them on a journey. I realized that L.A. to them was Leduc, Alberta. Most of them had never been anywhere. I realized that if I had the opportunity to take them to Disneyland that I could maybe change some of their lives and give them an opportunity to have something to work towards and maybe want to do better in school so that they could have opportunities. I felt really blessed to be the one to be able to try to do that with all these kids.”

A number of people made generous donations, including Victoria School alumnus Francis Winspear, and Greenough was able to raise enough money to take her students to Los Angeles, Calif.

“When we were there, we competed in an international cheerleading contest, which was like comparing an apple to an orange (to what they were doing),” she recalled. “It was really a unique experience.”

Two things occurred during that trip that defined Greenough’s future:

  • “No. 1, being able to take these kids to Disneyland and show them something special was wonderful,” and
  • “We watched some teams down there, and the kids loved them. It was acrobatic cheerleading. They said, ‘We want to learn how to do this.’ ”

“I came back home and said, ‘OK, I guess I need to figure out how to do this. These kids love it, and it’s going to be something to keep them off the streets.’ I drove to Spokane, Wash., in the days when you could just throw two students in your car in the middle of summer without a field trip form and off we went. I learned about cheerleading and brought it back. The following year, in 1979, we started doing it at Victoria School.

“It started to grow, and I started a cheer competition. As kids left Vic, they went to other schools and helped offer them a program so they could teach the teacher how to do it, so more, and more schools had it.

“In the early ‘80s, I realized it would be great if I could get it respected in schools as a sport so they’d have to help provide uniforms and safety equipment. In 1983, it got passed as a sport by the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA), and I started the Alberta Cheerleading Association to get rules and structure for the entire province.”

Vic Comp became the Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts in 1985. Most of the sports teams didn’t survive the transition to an arts program, but cheerleading did because it was dancing.

“I’m really proud of the fact that cheerleading is alive and well in Western Canada and that it’s not stamping and clapping,” Greenough said. “It’s an acrobatic sport with mats and safety and all the different things that are involved.”

She is also excited that cheerleading is a provisional Olympic sport and will be brought into the Olympic Games in 2024 or 2028.

“If you had told me that when I started, I probably would have giggled,” she said. “It’s incredible to see where this sport has gone.”

Valuable life skills

As a teacher, Greenough saw all sorts of educational tools in cheerleading.

“That’s probably the No. 1 reason that I stuck with cheerleading so long,” she said about her 40-year involvement. “It’s such a unified teamwork sport. Everyone is counting on each other. When you think about putting up a pyramid or tossing a stunt or drawing a basket toss, there’s so much trust involved. There’s so much need for every person on the team to be on the same page.

“The valuable life skills that these kids learned in this … when I was at Vic in the early years, they needed to learn responsibility, punctuality, commitment to something, teamwork and leadership skills that they could take from there and use for the rest of their lives and their jobs.”

Cheerleading attracted almost every size and shape. Smaller girls would be the fliers, taller girls could be back spots, and two people around the same height were the base.

Greenough has fought against negative cheerleader stereotypes throughout her career, so when she joined the Eskimos Cheer Team in December 1995, she made sure the women were featured as athletes. The Eskimos became a vehicle not only to show that cheerleading was “an athletic endeavour,” but also to help promote the sport.

She also liked the fact that she could use the Cheer Team to help young people learn about their value in the community.

“One of the most wonderful things about being involved with such a respected organization like the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club is (her cheerleaders) had an instant sort of celebrity and were getting opportunities as young athletes – 18, 19 and 20 years of age – to go out into the community and find out what their cause was going to be as they grew up,” she said. “It helped them discover whether they liked working with senior citizens or young children or special needs kids because we did community work with so many different aspects of the community and supported so many causes in it. It was sort of helping everybody select what they wanted to put their heart into … and really feel proud about what they were doing.

“As they left the Eskimos, they could continue that work in the community because they had learned the value of it.”

Cheer Team a privilege

Greenough has been a sports fan her entire life. She started going to football games when she was a little girl and has been an Eskimos Season Seat Holder for as long as she can remember.

After establishing herself as the preeminent acrobatic cheerleading coach in the province, she was courted several times by the Esks but continually turned them down because her children were really young.

When she finally accepted the invitation to join the CFL team, she was overwhelmed by the turnout at tryouts in January 1996, including many of her former students at Vic, and had to ask then-Eskimos General Manager Hugh Campbell how many she could keep.

Greenough settled on a roster of 36 cheerleaders the first year but has had as many as 45 over the years. The Cheer Team, which had already changed its outfits to more of a collegiate look that remained in place until six or seven years ago, was also in a transition from being just dancers to also becoming a stunt team.

“We did boots for a couple of years, and those are gone now, and we’re back with a high-top sneaker because that’s what’s in style right now with the dancers,” she said.

Around the turn of the century, Greenough wanted to attract the best dancers in Edmonton, so the Cheer Team was separated into two groups – a dance team and a stunt team.

“We have attracted some incredible, talented dancers by making the dancers not cheerleaders anymore,” she said.

The Cheer Team would feature between 17 and 20 dancers while the stunt team was comprised of 14 guys working as a base and seven fliers – “so there’s two guys with each girl” – plus three alternates. Everyone was a volunteer until the last two seasons.

“The fact that they could perform in front of 40,000 people 10 or 12 times a year was such an honour and a privilege for them that practising a couple of times a week and going to work out in gyms to get themselves in good physical condition and get their cardio up and make sure their flexibility was strong were things they did with love and with passion,” Greenough said.

“The sport of cheerleading has grown massively, and I truly believe that part of that growth has to do with the Edmonton Eskimos program because people come to games. It’s such a wonderful venue to display a sport that I was passionate about.”

Cheerleading for all ages

Besides coaching the Eskimos Cheer Team, Greenough also started a recreational program in the early 2000s. This year, the program was available for fans between the ages of four and nine years (EskiMinis), between the ages of 10 and 17 (Junior Eskimos) and for those 18 and up (EskiLadies) and included a performance at halftime of the home pre-season game on May 27 plus tickets to the game, 10 hours of rehearsal time with the Cheer Team and an invitation to attend a Cheer Team practice.

“When I was working with high school kids, I could see these little ones wanting to do it, but I was so ingrained in Vic that I didn’t have time for that,” Greenough said. “Around 2009, I went, ‘Boy, these kids really want more.’ The parents were saying coming out to four EskiMinis practices and then doing a halftime show isn’t enough. We want more.

“That’s why I opened Perfect Storm Athletics in 2010. That became an extension of getting younger kids involved in a sport that I really saw so much life-long value in. Since that time, we’ve opened gyms in Lethbridge, Calgary and Sherwood Park. Kids are just flocking to cheerleading.

“That stereotype may never leave, but the positive value of the sport of cheerleading has grown in leaps and bounds,” she continued.

Greenough, who retired as a teacher at Victoria after 35 years in 2012, received the University of Alberta’s Alumni Honour Award in 2012 for her work building and promoting cheerleading in the province, an induction into the ASAA’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and was named to the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame as a builder in 2015.

Made a difference

The Eskimos played the 1996 Grey Cup in a blizzard at Hamilton during Greenough’s first season with the team.

“It was a terrible weekend,” she said. “We ended up losing that game right at the very end of the game, and I never forgot that, either.”

Her Cheer Team arrived in Hamilton ready to perform during the week before Grey Cup, but nothing was organized, and they were all alone. The cheer team of the Eskimos opponent, the Toronto Argonauts, wasn’t coming in until game day.

“From that experience, I went back home and said to Hugh Campbell, ‘You know, these cheerleaders volunteer their time all season. We are hosting the Grey Cup next year. Can I make it different?’ ” Greenough recalled. “Hugh Campbell was always a gentleman and a person who allowed you to spread your wings and be all that you could be. He said, ‘Tell me your ideas. Tell me what you want to do. Let’s do it.’ ”

Greenough suggested creating a showcase – Cheer Extravaganza – involving all of the CFL’s cheerleaders but needed Campbell’s help to get it off the ground because the other CFL clubs would have to help provide financial support for their volunteer cheer teams to travel.

She also had to find places for the cheerleaders to perform throughout Grey Cup Week; initially, that meant the Spirit of Edmonton’s annual breakfast on Saturday morning and in the Spirit of Edmonton party room during the day or at night.

“I’ll have a party for all the girls and a special meeting with all the coaches and just make it great,” she told Campbell, “and why can’t we do the halftime show?”

Greenough grew up with a marching band background and the creativity to make moving formations on the field. She has produced and choreographed shows for the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and 1988 Olympics in Calgary, as well as the opening and/or closing ceremonies for the 1997 and 2002 Grey Cups, 2001 World Track and Field Championships, 2005 World Masters Games, the Queen’s visit for Alberta’s Centennial celebration in 2005, and the Canadian Finals Rodeo, which used to be held in Edmonton every November.

“I wanted to be part of the Grey Cup,” she said. “We got the cheerleaders involved at halftime and in the pre-game show.”

To this day, all CFL cheer teams still attend the Grey Cup and participate in the Cheer Extravaganza, parade, pre-game show and other parties that have been established over the years.

“That’s something I’m really proud of, and I’m really appreciative to Hugh Campbell for saying, ‘Go for it. Do it.’ ” Greenough said.

When the Eskimos hosted another championship game in 2002, the CFL decided in mid-October to take over the Grey Cup’s halftime show and bring in Shania Twain. Greenough was aghast. She already had been working for two months with 400 volunteers for the halftime show while a prominent country band played.

“I said, ‘Hugh, those are your Season-Seat-Holders’ kids. That’s Edmonton people who have been practising for two months, and you’re telling them they’re not involved in your show. You can’t just suddenly do that to them,’ ” she said. “So, Hugh went back to them and got Shania Twain’s contract changed, so we actually got to do a show with Shania Twain with formation changes and a big show, but that was the last time.

“From that point forward, halftime shows were taken over by the CFL and a particular group out of Vancouver runs them, and they just do clumps of fans in front (of the stage), and it’s all about the entertainer. It’s a very Super Bowl-style.”

The cheerleaders still get to do their performances and formation changes on the field while a showcase entertainer performs during the Grey Cup’s pre-game show.

Passing the torch

Greenough’s daughter Amanda grew up in her cheerleading program, participated in every show that Dianne choreographed, was an Eskimos cheerleader for three years, became a talented dance coach and helped coach the Eskimos Cheer Team with her mother for four more years.

“Then she decided to get married and moved with her fireman boyfriend/now husband to Fort McMurray,” Dianne said. “She got proposed to at the Edmonton-Toronto game in Fort McMurray (in 2015).”

Since then, Karen Kondoski has coached the dance team while Lynae Segouin, a former Eskimos cheerleader who also coached with Greenough at Perfect Storm and just gave birth to a baby boy on Sept. 13, has been helping coach the stunt team.

“I wanted to have an exit strategy in place because the most important thing for me was so it would be able to continue in the way that I was so passionate about if possible,” Greenough said. “I’ve told them to do what you want to do with this team, but know that you’re a making a difference for young girls all over the city so do it with heart.

“My last game is the last game of the season for the Eskimos,” she concluded. “I’m not retiring. That just sounds so old to me, and I want to be young forever. I’m just stepping away after 23 years, and I want somebody else to have this wonderful opportunity that I have had to do this with the Eskimos.”