Last Dance: Flynn retires as Apache Belles director

Mar 23, 2011 by

When she interviewed for her job as Apache Belles director in May of 1984, Ruth Flynn said she was asked what she thought she would be able to bring to the precision dance team.

“I think I said something funny like, ‘Well, I guess you’ll have to hire me and find out,’ and they laughed,” she said. “But really, I had an idea of what I wanted. I wanted to instill the discipline and remain true to the traditions that had already been put in place by (former director and choreographer) Mildred Stringer and Al Gilliam, and maybe add a few of my own.

“That’s what you have to do. You have to find your own way.”

In May, Flynn says goodbye to the Apache Belles she’s led for 27 years but, as she has always said, “Once a Belle, always a Belle.”

On the day of the interview for this article, Flynn is between rehearsals for her final Spring Show as Apache Belles director.

Spring Show is special to her. It is a tradition she implemented at TJC, and she hopes it is a tradition that will continue.

“When I came here, there wasn’t really something to focus on in the spring semester, so that’s how it started,” she said.

Since then, the Spring Show has become a hallmark of the Apache Belles’ performance year.

“It consumes your life for however long you choose to do it,” she said. “You have to love it. You have to
live and breathe it.”
Ruth Flynn

“It really has taken on a life of its own,” she said. “It’s a time of celebration and hard work for the current line, and it’s a time of reunion for all the girls who came before. We have so many devoted girls who come back year after year to gather and relive their days as Apache Belles.

“It’s like having our own family reunion.”

Lately, Flynn has been thinking back on her days as the Belles’ director and she vividly remembers her job interview 27 years ago.

Being head choreographer of the rival Kilgore Rangerettes at the time, Flynn wasn’t sure how the process would go but, she said, it seemed to be the right fit for everyone.

“The night before the interview, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “There was just no way. So I sat out on my patio and prayed. I said, ‘Lord, please give me some sort of sign and let me know if this is what you think I should do,’ then this gust of wind came up and washed over me and I said, ‘That’s good enough for me’ and I guess it worked out.”

Day 1 was a blur, she said.

“On that first day, (former Apache Belles director) Athena Russell was sitting on the steps of the Genecov building, waiting for me when I got to work,” she said.

Flynn gives direction during an outdoor practice.

Russell led Flynn to Gentry Gym, which was where the Belles were housed at the time; and they set about going through uniforms and props, and she began to get a feel for the place.

Soon after that, her first group of Apache Belles reported for duty.

“The girls were great. I brought the sophomores in before the freshmen, so we could all get to know each other,” she said. “They could not have been more welcoming. They were excited. We were excited together and just ready to see what came next.”
What came next were almost three decades of performances, appearances and travel to places such as Austria, Germany, Hawaii, Ireland, France, Germany, Mexico, Ireland, Walt Disney World and Washington, D.C. The Apache Belles have performed for nine U.S. presidents and numerous Texas governors. They have entertained audiences during half times at two National Football League Super Bowls; NCAA Sugar, Gator, Bluebonnet and Orange Bowls; games of the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers; for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs; and at Texas Rangers baseball games.

In 2009, Flynn was inducted into the Texas Dance and Drill Team Educators Association’s Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Award is the most prestigious award achieved by an individual in the dance/drill team field in Texas. Flynn was present at the 1996 ceremony when Stringer and Gilliam were among the first group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Despite the appearances and accolades, Flynn stresses the fact that running the program such as the Apache Belles is a business. There are budgets, scheduling responsibilities, costumes, props and fundraising, not to mention the recruitment, auditions, rehearsals and performances.

“It consumes your life for however long you choose to do it,” she said. “You have to love it. You have to live and breathe it.”

Jasilyn Salzman Schaefer is getting a taste of that all-consuming Apache Belle existence.

An Apache Belle from 1996-98, Schaefer was a member of the 50th anniversary line.

“From the moment I met Mrs. Flynn, I could tell she was a strong leader,” Schaefer said. “I didn’t want to disappoint her or the Belles who had gone before me.  She created in me a desire to uphold and carry on the tradition of excellence for which the Apache Belles are known.

“Her passion and complete dedication and sacrifice to the Apache Belles inspired me and drove home the point that I was indeed a part of something that transcended my two years at TJC.”

Today, Schaefer is the interim director charged with the task of filling Flynn’s boots, along with artistic director and choreographer Christy Evans. Evans was an Apache Belle from 1991 to 1993.

Having their mentor nearby during the transition has been invaluable, she said.

“To work with her now I still see that passion for the Apache Belles, for what it stands for and her love for the organization, but I have had the privilege to get to know her as a friend,” Schaefer said. “I have been able to ask her questions regarding leading this organization, how she would handle certain situations.

“There is no school that you can attend to learn what she has to teach.  I have learned from the best, both as her graduate assistant from 1999-2001 and as her administrative assistant.  I continue to learn from her daily.  Her grace during this transition, her support of the change in leadership, and her willingness to help in whatever way possible has been such a blessing and an inspiration.”

With a new Apache Belles leadership within reach, Flynn is comfortable in her decision to step back and spend time with her husband Alvin, their children and grandchildren.

“I expect that I will still have some involvement here and there, but I feel very peaceful about this being the right time for me to go,” Flynn said. “When you get that feeling of peace, you know you’ve made the right decision.

“I have loved every minute of my time here.”


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Arts & Entertainment, Features, Spring 2011

About the author

Elise Mullinix is Tyler Junior College's Editorial Manager. She can be reached at 903-510-2370 or at emul2@tjc.edu.