Chillin’ with the Checkers is the result of a paid partnership between Queen City Nerve and the Charlotte Checkers in which Nerve staff has full editorial control and Checkers offer financial support for creative, experiential coverage.
For many people who regularly perform under a spotlight, there’s a common misconception that they don’t live the same normal, mundane lives that the rest of us do. Holly Sawyers, a member of the Charlotte Checkers’ CheckMates dance team, often gets the feeling that people think this is all she does — or all that she can do. Our recent conversation tells a different story.
The CheckMates are effectively the Checkers’ cheerleaders, and as with most professional cheerleaders, this is not Sawyers’ full-time job. She also works in student success and faculty support at Catawba College, a private university just outside of Charlotte. She spends her office hours checking transcripts and placing students in their appropriate classes. Outside of the office, she’s a passionate dancer and everyday Charlottean.
Growing up in Mount Airy, the small North Carolina town that Mayberry was modeled after, Sawyers knew she wanted to start dancing as soon as she had full function of her appendages. She began taking classes at 8 years old. Soon after, she took up cheerleading and has stuck with it since.
Her past experience of cheering at UNC Greensboro and the University of Central Florida, where she studied psychology and got a masters degree in counseling, respectively, prepared her to not only perform in front of crowds but inject them with the same enthusiasm she brought to the gig.
After leaving Florida, Sawyers spent two years in New York before coming to Charlotte and seeking out a spot on the CheckMate team. After all, there was one goal she came to Charlotte with: She wanted to dance. The CheckMates made sense for Sawyers, who always loved hockey “because it was rowdy,” as she put it.
Now a second-year CheckMate, Sawyers had never danced professionally before becoming part of the organization. The overwhelming amount of talent she saw upon arrival at her first audition only justified her nervousness about the tryout, but she stepped up and made the team.
Rowdy is a theme that crosses into Sawyers’ taste in music as well as sports, considering that her all-time favorite group is Underoath, a metal band from Florida. She and her friends used to drive to Winston-Salem to see them at the now-shuttered Ziggy’s. There is always sure to be a mosh pit at an Underoath show.
She said she’s recently been listening to a lot of Dan + Shay, a pop country duo that could be described as The Chainsmokers with a banjo, though she still enjoys the rowdy style of hockey. That being said, it’s not always enjoyable, per se. Sawyers won’t soon forget one gruesome injury from last season in which Martin Oullette, goalie for the Syracuse Crunch, broke his leg in a collision with two other players and was sent out on a stretcher just two minutes into the game. It was the worst injury Sawyers has seen on the ice.
Hockey appeals to Sawyers for more reasons than its rowdiness. One of the reasons that she has come to love the Checkers organization is the community that surrounds it. She told us about a little girl that regularly attends the games and follows the CheckMates to their dressing room, where Sawyers lets the young fan hold her pom poms. Sawyers said the regular interaction with the girl has been her most fulfilling fan experience.
Holly and the ‘Mates love interacting with the fans; they typically spend an hour or more out in front of Bojangles’ Coliseum — or The Biscuit as its known by those in the know — greeting fans before they enter the arena. From the teenage boys who turn beet red and shy away when she approaches to the longtime season-ticket holders, the fans are her favorite part of the job, she said.
“Dancing and being able to do something you dreamed of doing and something that your passionate for is wonderful,” Sawyers said, “but the best part honestly is the people that come through the door.”
She said watching the Checkers work their way through the playoffs and into the championship series last season was a spectacle in and of itself, but the crowd that packed the stadium in support was what made for the best games.
Sawyers would have her own season tickets if she wasn’t dancing for the team, she said. The Checkers weren’t always her favorite sports team, but working as a CheckMate has made her a superfan.
“I have come to love this organization. Last year, it being my first year and going all the way to the championship, it was like, ‘Okay we’re good, we’re really good, oh, we’re the best.’ It progressively got better and it was one of those where you’re like, ‘Oh I like this,'” she said. “This isn’t a humungous arena so our fans, they’re loyal fans … You can tell the people that have been here since day one and they are still here. I know that it’s [the American Hockey League] and not [the National Hockey League, which is a tier above], but it’s a community feel. It’s not just the team, it’s the community that’s behind it.”
The CheckMates get involved in the community through the Charlotte Checkers Charitable Foundation which “exists to assist in the funding of nonprofits in the Carolinas that focus on promoting the health, character, education and success of children and adolescents,” according to the website. They often give back to the community through fundraising events or community service.
When Holly isn’t dancing, working or hanging with fans, she enjoys hanging around Charlotte — grabbing a couple beers at her favorite bar The Local, hitting pop-up events like the ones often held at Victoria Yards and maybe ending with a meal at Alexander Michael’s in Fourth Ward. She likes to stay active by going to the U.S. National Whitewater Center and trying out as many new things as she can.
“If there is ever some pop-up event or a show that’s only here for a couple of days, or a fresh market or something on the side of the street, anything that is local or a craft, something small that came from around here, I’m all about it. Sign me up,” she said.
When it comes to game time, however, there was one question that had been on my mind since the first Checkers game I attended: What is it like to dance on ice? For the average beer-drinking fan like myself, there is no conceivable way that someone could just run down to the ice in their sneakers and bust out moves during the period break without busting their ass in the process.
We met before a recent game against the Cleveland Monsters, and I checked the bottom of Sawyers’ shoes. Plain rubber soles. Astonishing.
Sawyers said that, as with anything else, practice makes perfect. Some days the ice is slicker than others, you just have to keep your weight centered and shrug off any mishaps. Holly has had a slip or two, though the collective group of dancers often distracts fans from seeing the mistakes of the individual. All-in-all, each dancer is just trying not to break a hip; you’re not going to see any tosses or tumbles from the CheckMates.
As we neared the end of our conversation and the start of the game, Sawyers stopped midsentence to loudly speak in unison with the announcer as he exclaimed “Your Charlotte Checkers” over the PA. It’s not a responsibility of the CheckMates to do this, just a pastime of Sawyers’ that she practiced over the last two years. She enjoys saying the players’ names as the announcer recites them.
“Last year I got pretty good,” she said. “I’m still learning a few pronunciations. [Former Checkers forward] Andrew Poturalski was my best announcer impersonation. Whenever the announcer does it, I like to do it along with him. For practice. You never know when you’re going to get called up.”
She’s pretty good at it, so it should be a comfort to know that if 10-year Checkers announcer Brian Stickley suddenly decides to retire, the organization has a replacement in-house ready to go. Until then, she’ll be getting fans hype and making things look easy on the ice.