“Exciting!” “White boots.” “Disciplined.”
For fifty years, the words “Sapulpa Ping Ping Dance Team” have been synonymous with certain characteristics—bright smiles, lifted chins, high kicks, a killer work ethic, and the words quoted above.
To say that they are exceptional is an understatement. To note that there isn’t another group around with the same history, style, technique, or training is a fact.
“The Pings,” as they are known familiarly, were founded by 12 vivacious Sapulpa High School girls in 1971 as a group to foster school spirit at athletic events by performing “several different routines to current popular songs.” They appeared primarily at basketball games and assemblies, remembers original member, Denise Davis Jordan.
She tells Sapulpa Times that “the name came about after a long, chilly outdoor practice when one of the girls commented that they were bouncing around like ping pong balls.” The inside joke evolved into the unforgettable title “ping pings,” which has been the team’s name since.
Jordan says that the Pings were not connected to the band while she was a member, but at some point, the group was taken under the wing of the elite and storied Big Blue Marching Band, with whom it practiced and performed, until the mid-2000s.
As the dance team expanded and became more and more competitive in the dance world, it moved from its beloved bandstand in the northern end zone of the football field to take its place in front of the home crowd and became its own independent entity.
This gave the group a newfound spirit of autonomy and the ability to make some needed changes, while also removing a familiar sense of place and identity, access to a small, but established, share of the band’s budget, and a long-standing schedule, tradition, and practice space, among other things.
The community’s by-now time-hallowed dance group learned to spread its wings and become a newer, more sophisticated version of itself.
The girls have had several sponsors and coaches over the years, including former members Becky Hershberger Pugmire, Kim Miller Clark, Anne Jacobus Engelbrecht, MeKayla Steeples, Rachel Jordan Porter, Jill Watkins Latham, Amanda Meaders Vavra, Molly Heritage, and Jennifer Gardella.
Alum Beki Shanahan Jackson, now the Pom and Spirit Coordinator for Oklahoma State University, regularly and generously donates her time and choreography to the team, teaching them and helping them polish award-winning, original routines, such as the one performed during halftime at Friday’s game.
“She’s a huge asset for us to have,” said alum, former coach, current Ping mom, and Ping Ping Booster Vice President Jill Watkins Latham.
Porter, Steeples, and Clark own and run their own dance studios, a countless number of alumni have gone on to expand their dance education at the college level, and several support themselves as professional dancers, whether in a ballet or more modern company.
The team has one of the only, if not the only, extracurricular programs at Sapulpa Public Schools that holds a national title. In fact, it boasts several national and state titles.
Through the years, the team evolved from its original iteration into a more competitive, military-style drill team known for its high kicks, silver pom-poms swishing to the beat of the drum, and renowned tall white boots, and which adhered to Sapulpa High School’s elite, award-winning marching band’s early morning practices and strict, traditional marching halftime and parade routines.
Latham said, “We dipped our toes into the competitive [dance team] world while we were there” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but noted that as rewarding as the experience was, the work, technique, and skill level then was virtually nothing compared to what the current team does, and has done since sometime during the 2000s.
“I think the Pings started to evolve as dance did in general. Dance teams and drill teams just became more competitive, naturally…there were big indicators, culturally, that things were changing. There was a surge of kids, not who just wanted to dance in general, but who wanted to go to competitions” and earn titles.
Even the exercise of collecting past uniforms for the current team to model at Saturday’s brunch at Ovations, Porter’s dance studio in downtown Sapulpa, indicated the change not just in styles (fringe dominated in the 70s and 80s; sequins were the thing in the 90s), but in the girls’ athleticism through the eras.
“All of the uniforms I’ve found from the 70s and 80s are tiny,” Latham says. “You can see historically how their bodies have evolved. It went from a group of fun, peppy girls dancing at school, to this elite program that requires a high level of athleticism to be a part of the group.”
A rough calculation and headcount estimates that there have been about 80 Ping Pings from the team’s inception in 1971 until today. Teams have gradually gained more members as the program grew in popularity and became a more and more sought-after goal for young dancers, and as membership was opened to include freshmen.
This year’s team is led by Senior Captain Brooklyn Berry and is, as ever, hard at work preparing for state and national competitions. Keep up with them on Facebook and at SHS football and basketball games.