Twenty- nine girls cram together around two hotel beds in Disney World’s All-Star Sports Resort, a framed illustration of Mickey Mouse in full football uniform overlooking the proceedings. Most of them are glistening, the hair closest to their scalps frizzy and curled. They just finished a walk-through on the faux football field that serves as a pseudo courtyard between buildings. The room smells a little like sweat and a lot like Bath & Body Works lotion.
It’s a Friday night in mid-January, the eve of the college dance national championship. The University of Cincinnati Dance Team is a known commodity here, having won six titles since 2004, including the last two back-to-back. They are, quite simply, one of the best collegiate dance squads on the planet, and they’ve gathered—26 dancers, three coaches—for a discussion of tomorrow’s semifinals routines. It starts with a 10-minute conversation about hair.
“If you’re an alternate, do yours first, then help your teammates.”
“Should we braid it and put that in a bun, or just do a bun?”
“Let’s go with a front puff.”
Once that’s settled, the vibe in the room turns serious. That the team is even here is somewhat of a surprise. It’s been a rough season: suspended dancers, dismissed coaches, rebuilt routines. The interim staff asked alumni and supporters to send notes of encouragement just before they left for Florida, and now the time has come to read them aloud. A hush falls over the room as the girls squish together and listen. Cue Kleenex.
Believe in each other…. Being on the floor at nationals was one of the greatest experiences of my life…. I’ll be cheering you on from Texas!… We are so proud of how you’ve handled everything this year.
“I know we always say it’s a sisterhood, but it’s the truth. That’s why we came back to coach all of you,” says Jennifer Bernier, one of the three interim coaches. Tall and skinny, with shoulder-length blonde hair pulled back in a long, loose ponytail, Bernier started dancing at 3 and was immediately smitten. Her parents tell stories of her doing tap dances in the outfield during softball games as a gradeschooler. She went to UC in 2004 specifically because of its dance team, and was on three of those six national championship squads. Now she’s come back to help out. “We just care so much about this program,” she says. “There’s no way we were going to let it go down.”
Before long, the room is a weeping, sniffling hive of emotions. Everyone is hugging, leaning into each other. They’ve been through so much but they’ve gone through it together. As Bernier finishes another letter, one of the dancers turns to a small pack of her teammates, eyes still welling with tears, unleashing a sigh as she gathers the strength to speak.
“Ugh, I have snot everywhere.”
It’s early December, and the team is splayed in semi-straight lines in the practice gym at UC’s Richard E. Lindner Center, upperclassmen toward the front, freshmen in the back. Each practice starts with 30 to 40 minutes of intensive stretching, but it only takes approximately 48 seconds for them to contort their bodies into a position most of us have abandoned since infancy. To these “girls”—and they very much see and refer to themselves as such, despite being college-aged young women—doing the splits is like tying shoelaces to the rest of us.
Lauren Hawkins unfolds herself at the head of the group. To her left is Courtney Dang, her only fellow four-year senior on the roster. (“We’re the grandmas,” says Dang, flashing subtle dimples.) Hawkins grew up in Middletown, dancing, cheerleading, and competing in beauty pageants. She’s also the clear leader of the team, despite the fact that she returned from a three-week suspension just a few days ago. (More on that later.) “No talking, let’s be productive, girls,” she calls out, mid-contortion.
There is a lack of education in the larger world when it comes to dance teams, just as there is with nearly every subculture. They are not cheerleaders, in the same way that cheerleaders are not dancers. They are talented and disciplined athletes who put as much effort into their craft as any of their fellow Bearcat football, basketball, or soccer players. As proof, there are those six national titles since 2004, plus another nine world championship medals in the same time period, a dynasty proudly displayed on a banner hanging inside Fifth Third Arena. No one would argue that college dance is in the same revenue or cultural stratosphere as college football or basketball, but in a purely competitive sense, the University of Cincinnati Dance Team (UCDT) has been a powerhouse in its sport for the past two decades, on par with University of Kentucky basketball and Ohio State University football.
Of course, the dance team is still relatively young. UCDT was born in 1989 and went to nationals for the first time in 1990, but the true turning point came when Lisa Haubner—who danced at UC from 1991 to 1994—took over the program in 1998, leading the team to a “paid bid” to nationals (meaning the tournament provided transportation and lodging funds, a privilege offered only to the top five teams each year at the time). When the hip-hop category was established in 2004 (more on that later, too), UCDT took home first place in each of the first three seasons, adding gold medals again in 2009, 2014, and 2015. They have never finished lower than third.
All of which is to say that the stereotypes are…complicated. Yes, they are typical college girls. They listen to Justin Bieber waaaayyyy too much, and talk about Justin Bieber waaaayyyy too much, and say things like I’m Gucci instead of simply I’m doing fine. They dance in shimmery outfits to popular songs with super-expressive smiles on their faces, and they all seem to be named Morgan or Maddie or Courtney. But they also work extremely hard and put in a ton of hours. “I think the true Bearcat fans know they mean business, but I don’t think they realize how much time it takes to mean business,” says Haubner, who coached the program until 2011.
The team’s schedule rotates around four weekly practices of at least four hours each, on top of performing at basketball and football games and other university events. And that’s nothing compared to how they prep for nationals, which often consists of two-a-days totaling seven to eight hours. It’s a dedication lost on most fans who only see the dance team as entertainment—which was obvious at UC’s basketball matchup against Iowa State in late December. At halftime, the team took center court, dancing a 90-second routine (a Christmas mix) while the portion of the crowd that hadn’t made a beeline for the concession stands checked their phones. As the girls bounced off the floor, they received noticeably less robust applause than the next act, some dude who spun basketballs on his fingers. It’s a level of appreciation that is shockingly beneath what they deserve. But if they care, they don’t show it, because that’s not what they’re here for. They’re here for that banner boasting all those national championships, the one hanging off to the side, just out of view.
Everyone always asks if nationals is like the movie Bring It On, and every dancer and cheerleader and coach will tell you no, not really. Which is a lie. It is exactly like Bring It On.
It’s Saturday, January 16, semifinals day, and Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex is a full-blown Spirit Convention, a sea of glitter and hair ribbons and exposed midriffs, with girls in distinct clusters that run 25-deep—each in matching makeup and outfits—moving en masse like bubbly schools of fish.
But before we get to the moves and the music and even more tears, you need to understand the logistics of this championship weekend. And that requires a quick crash course in the competitive configuration of collegiate spirit squads. Brace yourself.
Varsity, a Memphis-based company, is the Time Warner of “school spirit.” When it comes to American cheerleading and dance competitions—high school, college, everything—it lords over all. UC competes in Varsity’s Universal Dance Association (UDA), counterpoint to the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA), both of which are the top classifications for their respective sports—basically, what the NCAA Tournament is to college basketball. The UCA & UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship takes place at Disney World every January: Semis on Saturday, finals on Sunday. There are three divisions in dance; the top one features universities with NCAA Division 1A football programs—schools like Oregon, UNLV, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Cincinnati. There are also three categories of dance—jazz, hip-hop, and pom—and each school can only compete in two of them. UC dances in hip-hop and pom (which the University of Minnesota has won every year since its inception in 2010). Pom is not cheerleading—there are no stunts or tosses or pleas to “Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive”—but it is cheer-adjacent. It’s a very technical form, one reliant on jumps and turns and a team’s ability to perform them cohesively. For hip-hop, think Beyoncé’s backup dancers.
It’s 25 minutes before UC’s semifinal pom performance, and the team is backstage at the Jostens Center arena for their nine-minute warm-up. Hair and makeup is done, each girl’s head holding a solid pound of bobby pins, their white poms sparkling like smiles on a toothpaste commercial. The team walks through each formation in its routine, then runs the whole thing full tilt to the music. Only 16 girls can dance in the two-minute nationals routine, so the alternates stand off to the side with the coaches, shouting encouragement and critiques.
“You get the jitters out,” says Toria Douglas, another of the interim coaches.
Historically, UCDT’s pom performance has been a bit meh compared to hip-hop. They finished second in 2011 and 2013, but dropped as low as sixth in 2014 and fourth in 2015. Not bad, but for a school that prides itself on being the class of the sport, not consistent enough. “Pom is a lot more controlled. We turned our routine down a little bit this year, because we have been placing lower,” says Douglas. “I think we may have been too aggressive, putting too much hip-hop into pom.”
The process for learning any routine is meticulous. Each dance is broken down into a series of eight-count variations, with a corresponding movement for each count: 1, 2, 3-and-4, 5, 6, 7-and-8; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5-and-6, 7, 8. The girls learn each eight-count slowly, step by step, then move on to the next one, choreographing each distinct motion in painstaking fashion to ensure that the final product is seamless. Nationals routines are by far the most intense. It generally takes the team a couple of practices to learn a halftime dance; preparing for nationals requires months.
“It takes a lot of discipline to be on a college team, especially this one, because it’s one of the best in the nation,” says Douglas. “You have to have your head on straight or you’re going to be a mess.”
You can’t kind of want to do this. It’s too competitive, too consuming. For these girls, dance is a lifestyle, one they’ve immersed themselves in since they could walk. “Everyone on the team is the best dancer from wherever they came from,” says Dang, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who grew up in Tennessee and started dancing at age 7, which is late compared to most of her teammates. “You have to have a passion for it.”
Their warmup done, the girls form a circle in the tunnel behind the main stage and join hands for a team prayer—the same way they do at the end of every practice—then quickly trade hugs and professions of love, along with a few more tears. The coaches and alternates run out and sit in front of the stage as the dancers wait for their cue.
“I lose feeling in my hands and can’t talk,” says Hawkins of the brief interlude.
“I usually have to go to the bathroom,” says Dang.
Their routine begins with the 16 dancers in various sculptured stances. The music erupts in rapid 10-second snippets of different songs that alternately chop and flow, and the next two minutes are a ceaseless whirl of arms, legs, heads, and torsos whipping about in meticulously precise movements. Bodies leap and turn in tightly choreographed formations. It’s like watching an OCD marching band on speed.
“You overthink everything, but the second that music comes on, you start dancing and stop thinking about it,” says Morgan Deitsch, the third interim coach. “It’s muscle memory.”
As soon as the routine ends, everyone hustles backstage to a screen that replays the performance, the girls shrieking in unison when a key combination hits flawlessly. The entire team appears pleased with the performance, but they’ll have to wait to be sure. Scores aren’t released until each team in the category completes its semifinal performance, so the girls crowd together in a section of the bleachers, tapping away on their phone screens as the last of the 17 Division 1A pom squads round out the category. The judges get a few minutes to calculate scores while ads for tampons and makeup run on screens bookending the stage and Top 40 music blares. Instinctively, the girls begin bopping in their seats. They can’t help themselves. Anytime they hear music—at the mall, in the car, walking to class—they inevitably bust a move. It’s downright Pavlovian.
Finally, the music cuts out, finals teams are announced, and each squad’s coaches are called forward to get their scores. Douglas, Deitsch, and Bernier power-walk back, white envelope in hand, as the girls huddle up and lean in. “Remember, it doesn’t matter where we place,” says Douglas, sporting her best poker face, the girls nodding nervously.
“Second,” says Deitsch. “We’re in second.”
The huddle explodes.
Like any sport, most of the work that goes into being an elite dance program is underappreciated, unenviable, and happens behind-the-scenes. No one sees the dancers in the gym at 7 a.m., passing around the gigantic communal aspirin bottle to ease their aching muscles. No one thinks about them giving up their Christmas break to run two-a-days. The same goes for the coaches. At UC, and at most schools, dance coaches are not full-time paid positions—the pay could hardly be considered part-time—but it requires full-time hours. On top of practice and games, it’s a 40-hour-a-week requirement, easy. “I had a full-time job the entire time I was coaching, and I gave up a lot of my life for it,” says Haubner. “It was all my free time and then some.”
This is further complicated by the fact that spirit squads exist in a gray zone of college athletics. The dance team operates within and receives funding from the UC athletic department, but they are not a revenue or scholarship sport. They are not an NCAA-regulated sport, either, which means recruiting guidelines and practice hours are not monitored or enforced. As a result, things have, at times, managed to slip through the cracks.
The first signs that all was not happy in the dance program came during the 2012–2013 season, the second under head coach Kelsey Hamada Moffe, a former UC dancer who was handpicked to take over from Haubner in 2011. Concerns were voiced among a significant faction of the team about practice hours, treatment of injuries, and use of team funds. Dancers said that weeknight practices would go until midnight or 1 a.m., after which they had to walk home through Clifton by themselves; that they spent 12-hour-days in the gym on weekends; that winning nationals supplanted attending class and completing schoolwork. One dancer later went to a sports psychologist to deal with the mental anguish.
Danielle Sprovieri, a junior that season, discovered four blood clots in her right shoulder after nationals, an injury she attributes to repeated attempts at a hip-hop move she was not allowed to modify. During one practice, she went to see the trainer after her arm swelled up, and was ultimately taken to the emergency room. “I was in the ICU with catheters in me, trying to remove the blood clots. They ended up doing emergency surgery and removing a rib,” says Sprovieri. “I was in the hospital for a week and my coach never came to see me. That was my breaking point.”
“It got to the point where what was expected of us, in my opinion, was unreasonable,” says Maggie Calhoun, another junior that season. “It wasn’t allowing me to focus enough time on school, which is why I’m in college in the first place. It just got to be too much.”
Toward the end of the season, the group brought their concerns to the athletic department. Still, no changes were made, and eight dancers quit before the start of the 2013–2014 season—in which the team went on to win first place in hip-hop at nationals.
After defending that title during the 2014–2015 season, dissention over coaching methods bubbled up again. In late October, eight dancers were suspended for what was described as “negative attitudes.” The three coaches—Moffe and assistants Anna Miller and Carsen Rowe—claim that they made their reasoning known to the athletic department and that the department supported their decisions. But during the subsequent 18-day suspension, current team members (as well as former dancers) relayed their issues about how the team was being run to UC Athletic Director Mike Bohn. This time the university responded with an investigation, conducted by the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP. The lawyers interviewed 26 former and current UCDT members, coaches, and university administrators, and provided recommendations for the program moving forward, including improved safety measures and increased oversight.
On Thursday, November 19, Moffe, Miller, and Rowe were called in for a meeting with the university’s human resources department and given two options: resign in lieu of termination, or be terminated with cause (though the causes were not specified). All three coaches chose to resign. Bohn informed the team that afternoon and the suspended dancers were reinstated.
Bohn, who says he cannot go into detail about the fracas due to the university’s personnel policy, did allow that “the welfare of our student-athletes is first and foremost a priority for us.” He added: “There was a transition associated with our coaching staff that was—oh boy, how do I want to say this—that we saw needed to happen. Obviously, we recognized a need to find new leadership.”
The former coaches maintain they were never given an explanation for the dismissal, and that prior to their meeting with HR, their coaching methods had never been questioned by anyone at the university. “There was no oversight. Any oversight was a result of me keeping people in the loop,” says Moffe. “No one ever said anything.” When asked why they believe they were dismissed, the coaches can only speculate. “I think that there was a different expectation for us as far as hours and discipline,” says Moffe. “A lower standard than there are for other sports, specifically male sports.”
The timing of this drama, less than two months before nationals, was not good. Forced to move quickly, Bohn reached out to Lisa Haubner, who suggested bringing on Bernier and Deitsch, both of whom knew some of the girls and had prior coaching experience with the team. (UC plans to hire a new coaching crew for next season.)
“Goodbye life,” laughs Deitsch, who danced on the team from 2007 to 2011 and served as an assistant from 2012 to 2014. “I just love the program. I had such a great experience, and I can’t imagine having a moment where we didn’t have a coach, and nationals was in a month. That’s what it came down to.”
Considering what the girls had been through, the interim coaches were blown away by how united and focused the team remained. “That speaks volumes,” says Deitsch. “They truly want to do this together. They care about each other.”
After a few hours at the hotel to eat and change costumes, the team is back at the Spirit Convention, laying claim to a slab of concrete walkway with relatively mild foot traffic a few hundred feet outside the arena. UC’s 16 hip-hop dancers are circled up, holding hands, eyes closed, visualizing the choreography and shouting words of encouragement as their soundtrack blasts out of a portable speaker: “C’mon Erika! You got this, Jess! Stay low! Arms! We do can do this, girls!”
Roll your eyes if you must, but this is the crux of the dance team experience, the prevailing narrative, the UCDT battle cry: Sisterhood. Ask any of these girls why they love to dance and you’ll get a range of sincere if vague responses. But ask them why they love being on this dance team, and you’ll hear the same thing each time. “It says it right there in our hip-hop routine: We are blood. We are sisters. Nothing can break that bond,” says Morgan Quatman, a junior who was among those suspended earlier in the season. Despite all of the turmoil the team has endured, that familial relationship has only deepened. “Our team is so close, and you see that bond when we perform,” says Quatman. “Magic happens out on that floor.”
Especially in hip-hop. It’s intense, emotional. Pom is all technical turns and automatonic smiles; hip-hop is self-expression put to heavy beats.
Douglas pulls the team together. Among the coaches, she’s the spark plug. She was on the team last season and knows what these girls have overcome to be here. “We’ve been through a lot, and we haven’t said anything. We haven’t posted on Facebook, we haven’t said shit on Twitter,” she says. “This is our chance.”
They throw their arms around each other to form a “hype circle,” Douglas crouching in the middle and chanting a series of calls and responses.
“Who are we?”
“Who we got?”
The subsequent walk to the arena has the vibe of a prizefight introduction, if the boxer were a 100-pound girl rocking enough eye shadow to stock a Clinique counter. The energy is infectious, the team dancing as they go, turning every head along the way. Once they make it backstage, the procedure is the same as pom: nine-minute warm-up, prayer circle, hugs, tears, followed by I love yous all around. “Tell ’em your story,” says Douglas.
There are various opinions as to why UC has excelled in hip-hop, but Bernier thinks it’s pretty simple. “After the first team won [in 2004], the pressure was instantly turned up: You have to win again,” she says. The success attracted strong dancers and cultivated a winning mentality. “The years we won, we would go back to the hotel and immediately discuss what we were going to do next year.”
UCDT’s hip-hop costume is fierce: black vests with a gold Bearcat paw on the back, ripped black leggings, white butler gloves, high-top sneakers, and black lipstick and face makeup. They look like extras in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video. The routine, too, is all attitude, sharp and swift movements that build up to various “tricks.” One, dubbed “the monkeys,” consists of a dancer hopping on the shoulders of a teammate, then spinning down toward the mat—face-first, like a squirrel racing down a tree—by wrapping her legs around her teammate’s torso before falling forward into a front somersault. The music flows seamlessly from “Back That Azz Up” to “We Are Family” to “Survivor,” that last one a not-exactly-veiled subtweet referencing their season of coaching hell. It ends with the girls unleashing a tilt-your-head-back, full-body scream.
The air is a bit more upbeat after this routine, the positive vibes from pom bolstered by a show where all the tricks seemed to hit, all the formations appeared crisp. But that’s the funny thing about dance—the end result is out of your hands. It’s a subjective sport, one scored by detached and ostensibly unbiased judges evaluating things like “synchronization/uniformity” and “difficulty of movement” and “overall impression.” They may recognize a good routine when they see one, but when it comes down to the fractions of a point that separate the top teams, it’s a matter of personal preference. “Even if you deserve it, you might not win,” says Bernier.
Once all 16 hip-hop routines are complete, the music cuts out and the advancing teams are announced. Again, the coaches leave and return, this time with less convincing poker faces. The huddle tightens, leans in.
Fifth place. Fifth.
The huddle sags.
The team is back on the faux football field the next morning, walking through hip-hop, cleaning the routine based on super-specific notes from the judges. With less than one point separating fifth place and second, and less than two points between fifth and first, every count matters.
“Big booties!” shouts Courtney Crombie, a sophomore with an Olive Oyl physique and permanent positivity. It’s another of those reminders they bark to each other, because even when the tweaks are minimal, there is no reward for subtlety. But this specific prompt is also a small window into something else at play. These are cute, smiley college girls all dolled up in tight clothing, dancing to please. It’s an old cliché, except that in this scenario it’s not demeaning or submissive. They’re taking a traditionally sexist construct and turning it into a feminist statement, the same way Nicki Minaj takes proud ownership of the phrase “boss bitch” or Scarlett Johansson exploits her sexuality while playing kickass superheroes. Instead of objectifying them, men are in awe of their athleticism. Instead of shaming them, women stand and applaud. They are dancers and athletes, but most important, total badasses.
The team arrives at the Wide World of Sports by midafternoon, slotted to dance first in hip-hop and second in pom; the system is the same as yesterday, but the condensed field speeds up the process. Prior to leaving for nationals, every dancer claimed that finishing in first place was not a qualification for success. Based on how competitive they are and the time they’ve dedicated to these routines, that answer seemed dubious. But here, waiting backstage to take the floor for hip-hop one last time, sitting in fifth place, it begins to make sense. If they’re lucky, they get to dance four times at nationals. All those years in dance class, all those months of practice, all the tears—they do it for a total of eight minutes on the floor. Winning would be Gucci, obvi, but it’s tough to define success by something that’s out of your control. “It’s great to win, but I’d rather come together as a team and put on a show more than anything,” says Hawkins. “I want that place to erupt when we finish.”
The finals are in the HP Field House, a facade of Cinderella’s castle serving as a backdrop. Pre-routine activity repeats itself once again: prayers, hugs, tears. The hip-hop routine, however, has changed. It’s crisper, elevated. The tricks hit, the timing is solid, the spacing is good. For those two minutes, you could feel their passion, energy, even righteous anger. “We always talk about how dance is our outlet,” says Douglas. “It’s kind of like acting—you’re a different person when you’re on stage. It brings out a different side of you.”
As if on cue, the crowd blows up when they finish, but the girls don’t have time to enjoy it. They immediately run back to the practice area and switch from hip-hop to pom in a haze of hairspray, followed dutifully by more prayers, hugs, and tears. A lot of tears. All the tears. This is the last time on the nationals floor for this team, this season. “Live in this moment,” Douglas implores. “Enjoy it. You deserve this. Why not us?”
They run out of the castle, this time with wide smiles, poms shimmering. They need a flawless routine and some help to catch Minnesota, and they give it their best shot.
But just like that, their eight minutes are up.
And now the worst part. Cheerleading finals are after dance, and the awards ceremony follows that, so the girls have four hours to get something to eat and fret over an outcome they can no longer impact. Once all the scores are tallied and the tampon sponsors acknowledged, the teams don their warm-up outfits and file back into the field house, stacked in neat rows next to their opponents like poker chips on a no-limit table. ESPN crews swarm the stage for a tape-delay broadcast, a jawline in a suit-and-tie and eye candy in a dress-and-heels smiling into the camera, announcing the finishers in each category from last to first. It’s excruciating: the waiting, the pregnant pauses, the forced smiles if your school is called too early.
The three UC coaches sit on the floor in a tight circle (legs crossed, hands held, eyes closed) just off the stage. It’s all they can do to keep from throwing up. They probably won’t be back next season, but it doesn’t lessen their investment. This is their school, their team. This is why they came back, to make sure the girls could experience this precise moment.
Hip-hop is announced first, and…third place. The coaches stand and applaud as the team accepts its trophy. But it stings a little. Even if first place wasn’t the be-all and end-all, this routine was personal, and it’s tough to separate that emotion from a third-place ranking. It hurts more when they learn they finished two-hundredths of a point behind second—but it also speaks to the success of the program that a bronze medal is a disappointment. Pom follows immediately after, and…second place. It ties the team’s highest-ever finish in the category. They were good, great even, but it wasn’t enough to dethrone the robot army from Minnesota.
The girls do their best not to hang their heads. It’s the first time UCDT has medaled in both categories in three years. No gold, but a more well-rounded squad, no doubt, and one still in the elite class of college dance. (They get a bit of redemption, too, a few weeks later, when UCDT is selected to represent Team USA in the hip-hop category at the 2016 International Cheer Union World Championship in April.)
They hug the family members who traveled down and congratulate the other teams. They hug each other. Before long, they make their way back out on the floor, halfheartedly posing for Instagram photos with medals around their necks, or covering their eyes, or getting a smooch. They take a moment to consider all the struggles of this season. They remember the journey—the crack-of-dawn practices and eternal soreness—but also the bond they formed with their teammates, their new coaches, their sisters. They remember that they get to spend tomorrow at Disney World.
And when the music comes on, they start dancing.