Five senior members of the Staples High School cheerleading team have long-awaited their turn to walk the runway in the squad's annual tradition of the Varsity Vogue Fashion Show and Auction. They got that opportunity Friday night before a large crowd at the 17th annual event hosted by Mitchells of Westport.
"Since freshman year, when we were in our uniforms handing out raffle tickets we always looked up to the older girls who got to be in Mitchells clothing and all dolled up," said Annie Raifaisen, 17, one of the three Staples cheerleading captains.
The 15 male athletes from the school's football and basketball teams at Varsity Vogue didn't share the same eagerness to model, but they enjoyed the event nonetheless.
"I don't think we look forward to it. It's something fun to do. It's interesting," said Nick Ward, 18, from the football team's offensive line. He walked the runway twice even though a recent training injury added a bulky rehabilitation boot to his trendy spring outfit.
Junior cheerleaders escorted the athletes on the runway, and underclassmen cheerleaders walked through the crowd with trays of appetizers.
The audience of about 300 people probably noticed an extra spring in the step of the cheerleaders. This year, and for the first time ever, they placed second at their league championship and second at the state competition, according to head cheerleading coach Avery Watson.
There were other firsts for the Varsity Vogue event. For the first time in the event's history, organizers invited the young cheerleaders from the Westport Police Athletic League squad to attend and perform a famous cheer, "Rock Steady," for the crowd along with the Staples cheerleaders.
"We got to perform in front of a lot of people. It was cool to have the experience because they've been practicing the cheer longer. It was cool to see how they did it," said Nicole Hackett, 10, a member of the PAL squad.
"They look up to them (the high school cheerleaders) and we want the cheerleading program to grow, said Sherri Raifaisen, who served as event co-chairwoman with Kara Yass.
The PAL cheerleading program is one of the beneficiaries of the fashion show and auction proceeds each year, as is St. Vincent's Cancer Center -- on behalf of the host, the Mitchell family -- as well as the Staples varsity cheerleading program and Staples athletic facilities.
"It's our biggest, most important fundraiser of the year," Watson said.
New to the experience this year was Zach Wallace, 16, a sophomore and the first male on the Staples cheerleading squad since 2001. "I wanted to be part of the team because I just moved here from Arkansas last summer and thought it would be a great way to make friends and a great way to contribute to Staples," Wallace said.
Annie Raifaisen, Sherri's daughter, said the event is not just a glamorous night out. The cheerleaders learn valuable organizational skills.
"The entire year is spent helping our moms put together the whole fashion show. We never realized how much went into putting it on, how much effort goes into this one night. We got to see it firsthand," Annie Raifaisen said. She helped with the schedule for models' clothes fitting and had other duties besides modeling for the event itself.