Glitter and human pyramids grace the Big Muddy another summer. Julianne Couch and photographer Jeremy Willia follow in the wake of Bellevue, Iowa's ski team.
I hadn’t realized the extent of this activity on the river until I moved to Iowa, within a block of the Mississippi, last summer. I quickly learned that just about everyone in the area has a pontoon or a fishing boat, or even a kayak or canoe — some way to get out onto the water that walls us from that vast territory known as “East of the Mississippi.”
In spite of all the boating, I somehow wasn’t expecting water skiing on the busy Big Muddy. And I sure wasn’t expecting a water ski show team based here in Bellevue. I’d always assumed ski shows took place on lakes where waters basically slosh back and forth within a mostly closed system (a river is anything but closed). And in fact, although Iowa has four ski show teams, only one – our own Ski Bellevue Waterski Show Team — operates on the Mississippi. Its 42 or so members will put on six shows this summer.
Bellevue’s team stages its performances about a hundred yards downstream of Lock and Dam 12. Working off a narrow strip of beach that may or not be present depending on Corps of Engineers decisions about river depths, the skiers execute their moves off a dock they converted from a pontoon boat.
The afternoon of their inaugural show this summer, May 26, a tug boat pushing nine barges paused in its “locking through” until the program ended. Otherwise those south-bound barges might have disrupted the performance. Which is what happened during the team’s second show. Not only had high water removed any trace of the beach where the team had staged two weeks earlier, the captain of this tug didn’t seem interested in watching the ski show and forced skiers and boats to stand down while it passed. The audience was encouraged to visit the concession table for homemade baked goods and bottled water paired with “Ski Bellevue” bottle koozies during the interlude.
Even without looming barges, the ski show is quite a spectacle. Dave Valant, the team’s founding member, emcees as the ladies ballet line, in matching pink tops and hair accessories, ski as one. In another act, skiers create a three- or four-high pyramid as they zip along the heavily currented river. As this group prepares, Valant tells the crowd about how the small-boned girls at the top of the pyramid learn to climb up the legs and shoulders of their pyramid-mates by stepping lightly, not digging their feet into the muscles of those below. In another move, skiers zooming at more than 40 miles per hour casually kick off their skis and plane the water barefoot before nonchalantly sliding into the drink.
Pop hit music pumps through a PA system while skiers glide in spangled gear and tiaras. Valant says that a few dozen helpers, including many of the team parents, design and create the costumes. The skiers have to not only look showy, they also have to be warm with early season water temperatures around 60 degrees. Other volunteers drive boats, assist with the ropes and other ski paraphernalia, and of course promote the team. Boat gas and high quality gear aren’t cheap, so supporters sell T-shirts and jackets, hold bake sales, and seek sponsorship from local businesses.
Since the population of Bellevue is only about two thousand, the team pulls skiers from surrounding communities, some many miles from the river. A few of them have had almost no experience with waterskiing when they joined, Valant says.
One of the benefits of this team, he says, is that “the kids learn teamwork, confidence and safety on the river.” Members range from age 9 to 57, but the majority of them are under age 20. Valant says that many of the skiers are also gymnasts or dancers; that sort of background helps with technical skills and also prepares them to “play to an audience.”
While many of their friends are still snowmobiling and drinking hot chocolate, members of the ski team start their “dryland” practices in early spring. They meet at a local grade school gym, and with mats on the floor and ropes attached to the wall, work on their maneuvers and showmanship. Then as the weather warms, their practice moves to the water.
The Bellevue team travels to the Waterski Show Convention and Expo held in the Wisconsin Dells each February; like all of the team’s events, this one is for for entertainment rather than competition. Their team being fairly small, Valant says, the Bellevue skiers get pointers from larger teams on everything from costumes and choreography to methods of enhancing water safety that make the show team experience “a positive one for everyone.”
The Bellevue team works to spread its name and reputation in the region so that it can continue to recruit new members, encourage sponsorship, and provide family-oriented entertainment along the river. Naturally, you can follow them on Twitter and Facebook, and even visit their channel on YouTube. You’ll see there that not every routine ends with a perfectly executed pyramid or smooth landing. If a performer “gets wet,” he or she waves high to alert the boat and make his or her position known; then Valant points in the direction he wants the skier to swim. That skier might not be the only thing floating along the surface of the Mississippi at the moment, but he’ll get the loudest cheer from those of us watching high and dry from the bank.
Julianne Couch moved to Bellevue, Iowa, a year ago. Her book Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy is due from University of Nebraska Press in 2013. Photographer Jeremy Willia operates WilliaStudios in Anamosa, Iowa.