Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Portraying Illiniwek (Part 1/3)

The Daily Illini

This is the first in a three-part series that profiles those who portray Chief Illiniwek and the deep significance they attach to the symbol amidst the controversy.

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Blogger illininet said...

The Daily Illini - Features
Issue: 4/20/05

Portraying Illiniwek
By Courtney Linehan

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series that profiles those who portray Chief Illiniwek and the deep significance they attach to the symbol amidst the controversy.

Men's basketball had just finished second in the nation, and 20,000 people stood cheering in Memorial Stadium. Kyle Cline stepped onto the field as Chief Illiniwek, just as he'd done at each game at Assembly Hall, just as he'd been on the field each time football played in Champaign.

Cline, a senior in engineering, works as hard at portraying the University's beloved and reviled chief as Luther Head works at making three-point shots. He runs stadium stairs. He studies tape. He worries all the details, the finer points of a trademark Fancy Dance that even the biggest Chief fans won't notice.

He says it's a commitment he made by becoming the 35th Chief Illiniwek, a commitment he'll continue when he picks up the regalia for his second season in September. It's what Cline demands of himself and, he says, what the tradition demands of him.

"If you're not passionate about portraying the Chief for the University," says the senior from Decatur, "you won't be as good as you can be, as good as the tradition dictates you should be."

Most fans see Illiniwek during his short halftime performances. But preparations begin months earlier, involving hours of work by hundreds of people and an unwavering commitment on the part of the Chief and assistant Chief. When not performing or practicing, they're teaching the Chief Illiniwek tradition to community groups and school kids. When they graduate, they join a small but influential group of former Chiefs who defend the tradition around the state and around the country.

But first and foremost, there's the dance.

"It was the most

physically demanding thing I've ever done"

Portraying Chief Illiniwek is a role Cline will hold through his tenure at Illinois. When he and assistant Chief Dan Maloney graduate, however, there will be an extensive tryout process through which a new Chief will be picked.

There are two components to the Chief Illiniwek role: physically doing the dance and having the mental character to handle the public relations aspect of the job.

Before tryouts in May 2004, then-Chief Matt Veronie ran a series of workshops wher he taught the basic elements of the dance. Any student, male or female, could try out as long as he or she had a 2.8 GPA and would be on campus two years.

The Chief dance is not a typical "sport," so most people aren't ready for the challenge of tryouts.

"It was the most physically demanding thing I've ever done in my life," said Andrew Flach, a senior in LAS who auditioned for the role in 2004. "I had no idea what to expect going in; I didn't know it was going to be that difficult. I couldn't get out of bed the morning after the first workout."

The applicants performed the dance and semi-finalists were selected. They then went before a panel that includes former Chiefs, Marching Illini leaders and Department of Intercollegiate Athletics representatives. They were asked questions designed to reveal whether they had the character necessary to handle the pressure of portraying the Chief.

"I've been able literally to pick them out of a lineup, showing up for the tryouts the day of, saying 'This person has the demeanor for it,'" said former Chief Tom Livingston, who judged tryouts.

When Veronie, who portrayed Chief Illiniwek in 2001-'04, graduated, assistant Chief Cline earned the role. Livingston said, though, that there have been assistant Chiefs and brothers of Chiefs who have not been chosen. Judges look for the person who can best perpetuate the tradition, rather than the one who is ready to audition.

While Flach did not make it to the final round, he said the process proved why he wanted the job.

"Everybody talks about loyalty and tradition at the University of Illinois, and what is the greatest tradition here? It's the tradition of the Chief," Flach said.

"We've got a long

season, so to speak"

Although the Chief wouldn't perform until fall, selecting a new Chief Illiniwek last May was important to ensuring he would have enough time to prepare.

While each Illiniwek performance is only 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes long, training is a time-consuming commitment. The dance requires flexibility and cardiac endurance, as well as agility in performing the complicated steps.

There is no Chief Illiniwek coach. When Cline, Maloney and the other Chiefs stepped into the role, they were taught by the outgoing Chief and other former Chiefs. They only had a few months to perfect a dance that evolved over 80 years and relied on training from those who previously held the role.

When Cline was chosen to portray the Chief last spring, Maloney, senior in LAS and Illini Media Company employee, took on the role of assistant Chief. Cline, Veronie and other former Chiefs worked with him, but Maloney said perfecting the performance is an important goal, not an easy task.

"All the guys who've done the dance can do that dance, but there are some guys who can really do the dance," he said. "It's like film directors. There are a thousand film directors in the world, but you can look at a few of them and say 'That's Spielberg,' or 'That's Hitchcock.'"

Once the football and volleyball seasons began last fall, the relationship between the Chief and assistant Chief became more important as training became more independent. Former Chiefs and leaders in the DIA and Marching Illini are there to help, but for day-to-day workouts Cline and Maloney are on their own. They rely on each other for motivation and support.

"I think the most important part of it is, there's the two people on campus who know the most about the way the Chief Illiniwek dance is done, and they're working together every day to make it better," Cline said.

The pair practice almost every day, August to April. There are two components to their practice regimen: maintaining physical stamina and rehearsing the actual dance. The two will often run stairs at Memorial Stadium or Assembly Hall, then go through the dance a few times or focus on a specific segment that might need work. They also attend Marching Illini practices whenever the band is rehearsing the Three-in-One, the part of the halftime show that involves Chief Illiniwek.

Because the Chief performs in both fall and winter seasons, Cline and Maloney practice or perform daily for 33 weeks, creating a heavy physical and mental strain, as they balanced Chief Illiniwek responsibilities with class work and other activities.

"We've got a long season, so to speak," Cline said. "We were ready for a break."

"The regalia is

kind of like a tuxedo"

As taxing as training is, Cline and Maloney say it's vital to stay in peak shape because performing is so physically demanding.

The most difficult part is the weight of the regalia, a 35-pound authentic Sioux outfit. Because of the awkwardness of the headdress and the breastplate hitting the wearer's chest at an offbeat rhythm, it's tough to get the steps right - or to get them done at all.

"It's like a third grader hanging off your back," Cline said.

The regalia is only worn when performing; Cline and Maloney never get a dress rehearsal, which can make the first performance exceptionally difficult.

"The regalia is kind of like a tuxedo," Cline said. "You wouldn't wear it for anything other than a very special occasion."

Cline said the Chiefs depend on the rush of performing in front of thousands of fans to help them overcome the added weight and awkwardness of the outfit.

"Orange Krush and the fans in Assembly Hall make Assembly Hall one of the toughest places to play in the country, and they bring that same intensity and enthusiasm at halftime. It's an intense and really cool experience," Cline says. "At the football field, there's 50,000 people there and you have 300 members of the marching band, so both of those places lend to very unique and moving experiences."



The Chief performs to the Three-in-One, an arrangement of three original pieces of music composed for the University: The March of the Illini, Hail to the Orange and Pride of the Illini.

"There are four great marches that were written for us, but two utilize the idioms of Native American music, so those are the ones used in the Three-in-One," former band director Gary Smith said.

The first part of the March of the Illini involves the musicians singing to commemorate Illinois' band being the first to sing on a football field. During the second part, the Chief dance begins.

At football games, Cline first sneaks through the band then emerges around the 25-yard line.

"When you step into the band you're looking right and left and there's movement all around you, and you're looking at the end of the line and trying to time the breakout right with the music," Cline said.

"When you break out, it's totally different. The band's there and the music is still there, but there's no motion at all. You come out from constant movement, and you're looking down the field at 80 yards of totally open gridiron."

Before the Chief even appears in the open, Cline has already done a 60-yard sprint while crouched over wearing the heavy regalia. When he reaches the edge of the band he does a split jump, and begins a series of spins and exaggerated arm movements. He then has a chance to catch his breath during Hail to the Orange - although he must hold his arms aloft while wearing a 35-pound outfit. Finally, he performs a solo dance to the Pride of the Illini.

"The music just surrounds you. If you can imagine dancing with 350 of the best musicians at the University and people coming up as some of the world leaders in the music field, it's amazing," Cline said. "It's just like the sound moves through everything."

Basketball performances are based on the same steps, but fitting a dance designed for a 100-yard football field onto a court less than one-third as long requires significant adjustments.

"In football, there are very few specific points on the field that have to be matched with the music. Overall, the dance has to end up in the end zone at the end of Pride of the Illini leading into the Alma Mater," Veronie said.

"In the basketball dance on the other hand, there are checkpoints every 16 beats. Basically, the Chief has to hit every corner of the court every 16 beats. So even though the basketball court is smaller, the dance is divided up so that more distance is covered in each section of the music."

"The symbol of Chief Illiniwek is much bigger than me"

In addition to wearing the heavy costume while performing the complicated dance steps, the Chief is not allowed to open his mouth during the dance. The idea is to ensure there is a constant look to each Chief Illiniwek performance, no matter who is in the role.

"The symbol of Chief Illiniwek is much bigger than me, so my own personal feelings, my own personal expressions, shouldn't permeate how the performance is done," Cline said.

But many Chiefs say the physical work involved with preparing to do the dance right is more than reimbursed by the unique opportunity that comes with it.

They get to meet a range of people. They represent the University. And they experience an Illini tradition from a rare angle.

"It's a really moving experience to be able lead so many people in singing the Alma Mater," Cline says, "which is a total celebration of their connection to the University of Illinois and the state of Illinois and their heritage here."

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