(Photo by Magdalene Landegent)
Crimson and Black takes the stage -- and once again sweeps the audience to its feet, roaring with approval.
This is the Le Mars Community High School show choir, which has built regional fame on hours of sweat and singing.
"The kids want it. They want to be a competitive group," said director Randy Ewing. "I ask them every year if they just want to do a show for the hometown crowd. They always say the same thing."
We want to compete.
With those four words, the 50 students, freshmen through seniors, commit to months of preparation, rehearsing again and again, perfecting minute details, aiming for precision.
"You have to know what's expected of you, and go past that," said junior Palani Permeswaran.
Permeswaran and his fellow Crimson and Black members say they have Ewing to thank for the caliber of their show.
"He, along with his wife, puts a lot of work in so we have a fantastic show," said senior Anthony Schimek. "He won't put together something average. It's going to be excellent."
This is Ewing's fourth year leading the group. When he started with it, he decided to take Crimson and Black up a level.
He added a costume change and starting raising the bar on how demanding the routine is.
"Every year the show has been more difficult," Ewing said, explaining that the choreographer increases the intensity each season.
Their choreographer is Shawn Eck, who travels the U.S. designing shows. Eck choreographed for the Rose Bowl show a few years ago and worked with Disney in Orlando, Fla., Ewing said.
"He's a fantastic choreographer," Schimek said. "He gives us moves we can execute but he knows we'll have to work hard to get them."
When Eck comes in December, the show choir only has a few days to learn the choreography.
"You have to pay attention because he's not there forever," Schimek said of Eck.
"I lost 18 pounds in three days," added senior David King, laughing.
The choreographer also helps Ewing design the whole show -- music, costumes and all.
But it's hush-hush. Even though the students try out to be in Crimson and Black the second or third week of school, they don't learn the theme of the show until the first day of practice in early November.
"It builds excitement for the kids," Ewing said. "When I told them this year's theme, there were screams of excitement. People were saying, 'Oh my gosh, I love this song."
The costumes are still a secret.
"The anticipation drives some crazy," Ewing said with a laugh. "But it also gives me some flexibility so I can make the idea work, create a million dollar show with pennies."
Suspense is one way he keeps enthusiasm high during the long months of practice before Crimson and Black hits the stage for the first performance in the spring.
That and he just keeps raising the bar.
To win show choir competitions takes three things, Ewing said.
The choreography must be clean. The stage has to be pounding with energy.
But above all, the students have to nail the singing.
"I won't compromise singing for anything," Ewing said.
His students confirmed this was indeed the case.
"He always says, 'It's choir before show," Schimek said.
Crimson and Black, Ewing said, is only a small part of LCS's music program. The top priority is concert and chamber choir, he said.
"But show choir is a very visible aspect. It seems to draw people in," he added. "Younger kids say, 'I want to be in Crimson and Black.'"
Nicole Plueger, now a junior, was one of those.
"In the morning when I got to school early, there's be a bunch of people in the auditorium in pretty dresses having fun," she remembered. "It was something I always wanted to do."
Senior David King was the opposite.
"In sixth grade I never thought about choir," he said. "I thought, 'Guys in choir, that's just not cool.' Then I got into it."
Now there's no turning back, he said.
"I could go all year, be exhausted all year, I love it that much," he said.
Practices are tough, Plueger said.
They start out with warm-ups -- both physical stretching and singing.
"It's pretty intense," King said.
And maintaining breath support for singing while dancing can be exhausting, Plueger added.
But Crimson and Black is about more than singing and dancing, she said.
It's about people coming together.
"The show choir has people from every group of the spectrum," Schimek said.
Equal numbers of guys and girls try out, Ewing said.
Getting 50 students (plus the pit musicians) with a range of personalities together twice a week at 7:15 a.m. might sound like a science experiment about to go bad, but the students and coach say it clicks for Crimson and Black.
Because the show choir includes people from different grades, there are a lot of role models, King said.
"When we started out as freshmen, we were learning to listen to those older than us," he said. "Every person in show choir ends up being a leader."
Bonding really shapes Crimson and Black, King said.
"It's a group you can go to outside of school, wherever," he said. "You can talk to them about any problem. The show choir group of friends is a group for life."
They share heart-breaking moments, like not making finals at a tough competition, or joyful moments, too.
But it's not always rosy.
Since the group spends so much time together, they need to function as a unit, Ewing said.
"If two or three people have a bad day, if there's any tension, it definitely affects the whole group," he said.
"Sometimes it's tough because people aren't willing to cooperate," he added. "You have to bring a positive attitude. You can only control how you perform."
There are conflicts inside and outside Crimson and Black, he said.
"When everyone gets past the conflict, the group is much better," Schimek said.
This year, Ewing is raising the standard for attitude and commitment -- he created a handbook with guidelines Crimson and Black members have to follow.
"I have no problem booting someone if they're not meeting the expectations," he said.
But usually show choir tension isn't that bad, especially compared to the situations in recent TV sit-com "Glee," which follows a high school show choir through a turbulent season.
"If we had that much drama in high school, I'd look for a new job," Ewing said with a laugh.
All the practices, all the singing, all the rehearsing and re-rehearsing of dance moves pays off when Crimson and Black takes the stage, group members said.
"From four years ago, when I started as a freshman, our show choir has gotten better," King said. "I think we are at the elite level."
The shows are worth every 7:15 a.m practice, Permeswaran said.
"It's usually packed," he said. "People are shouting for us. It's an electric atmosphere, and that makes us perform that much better."
But don't take their word for it, Plueger suggests.
"Come to a show," she said. "You'll get hooked."