Shortly after joining the Gandy Dancer Theatre in Elkins, singer-songwriter Nina Sharp Hebb said she asked for some additions to the show, hoping to help out some young women in the area.
"I grew up in nearby Valley Head, and always loved to sing and dance," Hebb said. "But there was not a venue nor an opportunity for me to perform with professionals as a young woman. I wanted to help change that for some local, very talented young ladies."
Hebb said she asked Gandy Dancer Theatre owner Ralph Bennett to allow her to advertise and hire dancers for the Theatre performances. Bennett agreed to the idea.
Members of the Gandy Dancers are, front row, from left April Kesling and Sonja Skinner; middle row, Katie Preush, Hannah Shifflet, Logan Ryan and Colleen Webley; and back row, Jamie Queen, Cayla Collett and Brianna Swecker. The dancers perform 10 routines during each show at the Gandy Dancer Theatre, and also volunteer in the community. “These girls are giving up their weekends, which is a big deal for high school girls,’ says Nina Sharp Hebb, who helped organize the dancers.
"I advertised at local dance studios and we conducted our first try-outs in January 2012," Hebb said. "We hired five girls at that time and they are now known as the Gandy Dancers.
"At first the girls seemed to be very timid and shy, but they quickly came out of their shells and really added to the performance. The majority of our buses have senior citizens, and they are very fond of the girls. Everyone enjoys meeting the girls before and talking with them following the performances."
Hebb said her parents came to one of the first shows with the new Gandy Dancers and they were excited to tell her about their favorite part of the show.
"I thought they were going to tell me about one of my new songs they liked," Hebb said. "But their favorite part was the addition of the Gandy Dancers. I was thrilled the girls are so well received."
And Hebb continues to brag on the girls and their professionalism.
"These girls are giving up their weekends, which is a big deal for high school girls," she said. "But we also work around their sports and school schedules, giving them the opportunity to do other things they enjoy as well."
The first year, the dancers performed four routines during each show. This year, there are nine dancers, and four girls perform a total of 10 times during each show.
"We have had such a positive response that we added additional dancers and increased their time on stage," Hebb said. "Dancers are used in other dinner theater shows in Gatlinburg, Tenn. and the Carolina Theatre. These girls give their all and add so much energy and enthusiasm to the show. This year during try-outs, we had three times more girls interview than the year before."
The 2013 Gandy Dancers include seniors Colleen Webley and April Kesling; juniors Brianna Swecker, Cayla Collett, Logan Ryan, Sonja Skinner and Katie Preusch; freshman Hannah Shiflett; and Jamie Queen.
"These girls were chosen based on three main items: dancing ability, their performance and their character," Hebb said. "They need to smile and be professional. We cannot have girls who are nasty nor catty, and these girls rise to the occasion. We are really close here and look at the dancers as our little sisters.
"I enjoy watching the girls grow up and change from good young girls to great professional adults," she said. "It is great to watch the transformation of the girls."
Some weeks the girls have two shows, while other weeks they have up to six. Besides dancing, the girls perform flag routines, tap, clogging, jazz, jive and swing.
Kesling, of Beverly, says she enjoys being a Gandy Dancer.
"I have been in dance for 11 years," Kesling said. "Being a Gandy Dancer is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I consider the Gandy Dancer performers another family, and they are great to be around."
Kesling said she plans to attend West Virginia University to study pre-pharmacy, and she hopes to continue to dance and be a cheerleader.
Elkins resident Webley said she has been dancing for 13 years, and is very excited to be a part of the Gandy Dancer Theatre.
"This is such a great opportunity and has caused me to mature, become more professional and more at ease with the audience," Webley said. "Working at the theater is different from school performances the difference is in the professional atmosphere. I plan to pursue a medical degree in college, but plan to come home and dance in the theater as much as possible."
Skinner lives in Elkins and said she auditioned to be a Gandy Dancer after she saw a show.
"I was such a big fan, and I have been dancing for five years," Skinner said. "I love to perform and working as a Gandy Dancer is such a great time dance is truly my passion!"
Hebb said she is proud of the girls both in their lives and with their work at the Gandy Dancer.
"These girls give no less than 100 percent," she said. "They are given the routines and learn them quickly. If I were young again, I would want to be their friends."
Sometimes the dancers do shows for elementary schools in the county. Hebb said the girls help the youngsters learn to do clog steps, line dancing, twist competitions, hula hoops and the locomotion.
The Gandy Dancers also volunteer in the community, recently helping during the Live United Telethon for the the United Way of Randolph County.
"The kids really like to see the girls come into the schools and on stage during the performances," Hebb said. "To the little ones, these girls are famous."
Shows at the Gandy Dancer Theatre begin in April and continue every weekend through December. Additional information about the theater is available by calling 304-636-4935.