HATTIESBURG -- A passion for dance and a desire to celebrate her 40th birthday in a monumental way led Kriste Lewis to the New Orleans Saints' practice facility.
Standing before a panel of judges, Lewis calmed her nerves by remembering her husband's motto -- "focus and fun" -- as she tried out for the Saintsations in April.
With six months of dance, fitness training and the love and support of her family and friends, Lewis said she prepared to check a life experience off her bucket list.
"For me, trying out for the Saintsations was something I always wanted to do," said Lewis, who went to Moss Point High School and the University of West Alabama. "I grew up on the Coast and was a Saints fan all my life. I went into (the tryout) with the idea that the audition would be a celebration."
Saintsations director Lesslee Fitzmorris said Lewis' attitude and train
ing paid off.
"When she needed to blend with the others, she did, and when she needed to stand out, she did," Fitzmorris said. "For example, the first audition was a dance audition. None of the judges knew her age and judged her strictly on her presentation and dance ability.
"The second phase of the audition process was the professional interview. It was during this phase that Kriste stood out.
"In the final selection process, it was a unanimous decision to put her on the team."
Serving her church and community as a dance fitness instructor, the mother of two said she'd lost track of her love for dance until she began training for the NFL cheerleading team tryout.
"When you're an instructor, you're leading them in exercise," she said. "It's not just for you.
"I told my husband, 'Please remind me after this audition to not stop dancing.'"
A matter of health
Lewis doesn't just dance because she loves it -- it helps her stay healthy.
Lewis, whose family has a history of kidney issues, was diagnosed with kidney disease 14 years ago. After watching her mother's body reject a transplanted kidney twice, Lewis said she made the decision to live a healthy lifestyle and make the most of each day.
"Today is the day, not tomorrow," she said. "Wear your best shoes. Don't save that bottle of wine. Why are you hoarding that from yourself? I know there is no cure for (my kidney disease), and I know that I will be on dialysis and in need of a transplant, but I could be killed in a car wreck tomorrow.
"I think too many times we wait too late to start on our bucket lists. Start it while you feel good and can enjoy it."
Make every moment count
Fitzmorris said she survived bacterial meningitis, so she understands Lewis' "time is precious" outlook, and believes Lewis' story will inspire people.
"I know that she will inspire others to overcome adversity, never give up and send the message to go for your dreams and anything is possible," she said.
As one of the 36 women who make up this year's Saintsations team, Lewis said she's had a fantastic time getting to know her teammates.
Lewis is joined by fellow Pine Belt residents Summer Rials, Sara Bass and Lee Armstrong. South Mississippi Saintsations are Jennifer Cain and Mary Cassalme of Biloxi, Sarah Friday of Ocean Springs, Victoria Hunt of Vancleave and Brandy Jarvis of Gulfport. Lee Armstrong is from Tupelo.
"It's a family," Lewis said. "It's like I have 35 little sisters. All of the girls are so intelligent and they are so kind and well-rounded.
Fitzmorris said with Lewis' background, she wasn't sure how this year's team would relate to one another.
"At our first meeting, it was immediately apparent that everyone on the team had respect for each other and appreciated the different perspectives and the team's diversity," she said. "The younger ones look up to the older ones for life advice on school, careers and relationships and the older ones look up to the younger ones for advice and tips on the latest trends and to not take things too seriously."
Having been an English teacher, dance instructor and stay-at-home mother, Lewis said she hopes her story shows the world a woman can be anything she aspires to be at any age.
"It goes back to a definition of what a 40-year-old woman could be or should be, and they forget that you can be beautiful and smart," she said. "I think my generation especially is redefining (that image)."
That's in line with the Saintsations' mission to reach out to the community and young girls.
"Our program encompasses more than just dance and cheer," she said. "My emphasis is team building and teaching young women how to represent in a positive manner. We understand that we serve as role models for young girls."
As football season approaches, Lewis said she is getting more excited to cheer for her team.
She said she intends to soak up all the wonderful experiences this year has to offer, and to try out again in the future.
"I can't even fathom what it's going to be like to walk out on that field in the Superdome with all those Saints fans," she said. "I hope I don't pass out.
"If I died tomorrow, I'm good. I'm a happy girl. It's been a blast."