Photo by Samantha Little

How the BYU Cougarettes Achieved Competition (and Internet) Domination

It's the fall of 2018. As the Brigham Young University Cougarettes step onto the field at LaVell Edwards stadium in Provo, UT, a crowd of nearly 64 thousand erupts into cheers. The dancers take their places, and a feeling of anticipation hangs in the air: Their reputation precedes them.

The music—Ciara's banger "Level Up"—begins, and unbelievable precision ensues. Eighteen dancers attack the highly technical choreography, which nods at viral social-dance sensations and continuously builds in energy. The school's mascot, Cosmo the Cougar, joins the team on the field, and the audience goes wild. As the piece ends, the sound in the stadium is deafening. The 16-time national-title-winning group has proved once again why they're the standard for college dance team success—they're just that good.

The social media frenzy that followed this performance was huge, but it wasn't the first time a Cougarettes routine had broken the internet. The team garnered national attention the year before, when Cosmo the Cougar joined them in a halftime performance set to Ayo and Teo's "Rolex." Outlets like The Washington Post and Bleacher Report shared footage of the spectacle, and the video now has over 4.2 million views—much to the shock of Emry Wride and Nicole Quesenberry, two of the team's dance captains, who choreographed the routine in a locker room. "It honestly stemmed from just messing around," Quesenberry says. "We were thinking of fun things that we could do, like flossing and rollies. We didn't choreograph it for Cosmo. We just added him in later. We never thought it would turn into something so huge!"

Photo by Samantha Little

The team's success has surprised even its coach, Jodi Maxfield. The Cougarettes were established as a pom and formations dance team in 1946, and Maxfield danced with the group herself from 1976–79 before eventually coming on as the head coach and artistic director in 1991. She says the team didn't become the competitive entity it is today until the late 1990s. "I never could have imagined what this team would eventually be," Maxfield says. "When I first took over, people didn't see my vision."

After a performance tour in China in 1995, BYU's administration told Maxfield the team could no longer travel. Feeling frustrated that she couldn't give her dancers touring opportunities, she decided to give them something else that would help them grow. "In 1996, I took them to the National Dance Alliance Nationals for the first time, and we've only missed it three times in the 23 years since," Maxfield says.

Since becoming a competition team, the group's skills have grown exponentially—so much so that, according to Maxfield, most former performers will tell you they wouldn't have made the cut for today's team. Criteria for dancers hoping to join the group in 2019 includes both right and left aerials, a kip-up, a headspring, and at least a quad pirouette, not to mention the ability to blend well with the team and perform with compelling expression. Their rigorous schedule includes 12 hours of rehearsal Monday through Friday, which increases to up to 20 hours a week before concerts or Nationals. They perform over 50 times a year at games, special appearances, concerts, and other events. What's more, the dancers must maintain a solid academic standing.

Photo by Samantha Little

BYU is a private religious institution owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the vast majority of its students are members of the LDS Church. If you ask Maxfield, religion doesn't just play into the ethos of the team—it is the ethos of the team. "It's the foundation of who we are," she says. The clothing the Cougarettes choose to wear at competition reflects their standards of modesty, and the music they perform to is void of offensive language. They choose competitions that are suitable for family viewing, and don't perform or rehearse on Sundays. According to Maxfield, as the team has gained national attention through competitions and viral YouTube videos, they have become, in part, the face of the school, and, by extension, a representation of the LDS Church. "Our church uses performing groups to shed light on us," she says. "We believe in the arts and in developing our talents."

Maxfield says the Cougarettes have never had to recruit. For Wride, a junior on the team who's majoring in dance with an emphasis in ballet, the decision to come to BYU to be a Cougarette was simple. "College at BYU allowed me to keep my values and continue to dance at a high level," she says. "Every performance is an opportunity to teach others about my beliefs, and I was so drawn to that."

Many people who've seen the team's viral videos are surprised to discover that these hard-hitting dancers are a group of devoutly religious girls from Utah. In fact, the Cougarettes routinely shock people with their hip-hop skills. The first time they competed in hip hop at NDA Nationals, Maxfield says the other dance teams totally underestimated them. Their number, choreographed by popular college dance team choreographer Shandon Perez, earned them a national title. In fact, four of their 16 national titles are in hip hop.

This month, the team will be competing yet again at NDA Nationals, and according to the team's president, Abbey Bench, they're playing to win. "We didn't win a national title last year and that was disappointing," she says. "This year, we're going for two!"

The Team Leaders

ABBEY BENCH, president

Photo by Samantha Little

Age: 22

Year in school: Senior

Major: Exercise and wellness

What's next: Corporate wellness

Hometown studios: The Dance Club (Orem, UT); Alta High School dance team (Sandy, UT)

Proudest Coug moment: "Making Cougarettes was a goal of mine since I was a little girl. I grew up watching their concerts and always knew it's what I wanted to do. Somehow, every day with the team just gets better and better. I love being surrounded by greatness, doing what I love with so many people I love."

6 Fun Facts About Cosmo the Cougar

  1. In 1925, BYU actually had two live cougars as mascots, Cleo and Tarbo. They'd roam the sidelines of games. In 1929, they broke out of their cage on the south side of campus, killed two dogs, and began stalking livestock on nearby farms. Unsurprisingly, the school hasn't owned live cougars since.
  2. In 1953, the Cosmo we know and love today was born. His costume cost $73.
  3. Cosmo has 133 thousand followers on Instagram, and the "Rolex" halftime video of him performing with the Cougarettes has over 4 million views.
  4. The Cosmo who performed "Rollie" had no previous dance training, but the Cosmo who performed "Level Up" from 2018 is a trained dancer.
  5. Cosmo is the current world record holder for most back handsprings performed in one minute (42); most windmills performed in one minute (50); longest flagpole hold (23 seconds); and most stairs walked down in a handstand (79).
  6. Performing as Cosmo can cause a loss of up to five pounds of water weight each quarter during a football game, depending on the weather.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Unstoppable Cougarettes."

Latest Posts

Trans dancer, choreographer, and activist Sean Dorsey in his work Boys in Trouble (Keegan Marling, courtesy Sean Dorsey Dance)

8 Phenomenal Trans and GNC Dancers to Follow

Whether through color-specific costumes, classes separated by sex, or the "traditional" view of the roles boys and girls should play in ballet, most dance students are taught that their gender determines their role in the studio beginning in elementary school. And, especially for those struggling with their own gender identity, that can cause harm and confusion. "From a very young age, I did not see myself reflected anywhere in the modern dance field," says trans dancer, choreographer, and activist Sean Dorsey. "There was a really intense message I received, which was that my body and identity don't have a place here."

Despite significant societal progress in regards to gender representation, the dance world has trailed behind, and many transgender and gender nonconforming teenagers still feel lost within the world of dance. Prominent trans and GNC professional dancers are few and far between. "Being a Black trans woman means I have to work extra, extra, extra hard, because I have to set the tone for the people who come after me," says Brielle "Tatianna" Rheames, a distinguished voguer.

But the rise of social platforms has given Rheames, Dorsey, and other trans and GNC dancers a path to visibility—and that visibility helps create community and change lives. "Social media plays an extremely big part," Rheames says. "You can't just hide us anymore." Here are eight incredible trans and GNC dancers to add to your own Instagram feed.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search