The University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team at a football game (John Prosek)

Picture this: You’re a rookie on your school’s dance team and about to perform at the season’s first football game. As you head for the sidelines, you’re met with a deafening roar from the thousands of fans who have filled the stadium. It’s your job to lead the boisterous crowd for the next four quarters—and it’s intimidating, to say the least.

As a member of the dance team, you’re most likely expected to perform at every home football and basketball game. But unlike being on a stage, dancing on the sidelines requires you to show your school spirit and rev up a huge crowd. From learning all the routines to figuring out how to hold your poms, the first few weeks can be overwhelming—especially if you’ve only ever performed in a theater. Read on to learn what it takes to have a successful season.

In the Stadium

Dancing in front of thousands of loud, excited fans in a stadium is a big change from performing for a quiet audience that’s often hidden by bright stage lights. “On a stage, the audience is eye level or below you, but in a stadium, you have to look up and make eye contact to draw in your crowd,” says Dawn Walters, head coach of the University of Kentucky Dance Team. It’s also important to keep in mind that you’re not the main attraction. Onstage it’s all about your performance, but on the sidelines you’re there to support the players and lead the crowd.

During football games, you’ll be expected to dance and cheer almost nonstop for two to three hours, so be prepared for training that will whip you into tip-top shape. “Our team runs for endurance and performs our material over and over again to prepare for the high demands of game days,” explains Rachel Caughey, junior co-captain of the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team.

Most teams only use recorded music during halftime shows. The rest of the dances are performed to the marching band’s fight songs and drum cadences. Caughey says the team practices with a recording of the band on a CD—but performing live with the musicians is a totally different animal. “The band plays at whatever pace they want, and we have to respond accordingly,” explains Caughey. “Sometimes they’re super-slow, so we hit and hold it; other times they’re super-fast.”

Adapting to Your Environment

Performing in an outdoor arena, on either grass or turf fields, can be tricky. Many teams dance in high-tops or cheer shoes to get better traction. If your school has turf, expect a spongier surface or a mat laid out for the dancers. “I don’t choreograph a lot of turning sequences because of the difficulty that comes with dancing on a soft surface, and I’m afraid of injuries, like twisted ankles,” says Laura Nares, head coach of the Carlsbad High School Lancer Dancers. Your coach will most likely save advanced technical requirements for basketball season and Nationals. “It’s better to be clean than to fall out of turns,” says Nares.

 

A member of the University of Kentucky Dance Team hypes up the crowd. (Michael Huang)

Poms Aren’t Just for Cheerleaders

To attract the crowd’s attention, most teams dance with poms, which may be challenging at first. “Pom-style dancing is about strength and body awareness,” Nares says. To make your pom routines as clean as possible, dance bigger than you usually do and pay attention to the specifics. “The most difficult part of dancing with poms is knowing your arm placement at all times,” Caughey says. “Even a slight turn of your wrist can make your pom face a completely different way.”

Dance By the Rules

To help guide the crowd, you need to be familiar with the rules of football and basketball. “It’s our job to get the crowd involved and know when to cheer, so understanding what’s going on in the game, and even remembering the final score, is paramount,” Caughey says.

Amber Jackson, who has been coaching the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team for 15 years, provides her team with a football quiz to help them learn the rules of the game. “The girls need to know that when it’s third down and our team is on defense, they should be extra-loud, but when it’s third down and our team is on offense, they should be quiet,” Jackson explains.

In basketball, where you’re close to the sidelines, it’s important that you stay off the court when the ball is in play. During time-outs, only run onto the court when your coach and captains tell you, and make sure you’re off the court by the second buzzer. You don’t want the players to be penalized for a mistake you could’ve easily avoided.

Keep Your Game Face On

Even when you’re not dancing or cheering, you can still be seen by thousands of fans, so it’s important to remain professional throughout the entire game. As a member of the dance team, you’re a representative of your school on and off the field. “There are times before and after games when the girls are asked to mix and mingle with alumni and coaches, so I encourage the team to continue to be outgoing and personable beyond the sideline,” Walters says.

Many college (and even some high school) sporting events are broadcast on TV. Often, producers will cut from the players to the dancers and cheerleaders during time-outs and other breaks. You need to be ready to dance or rally for the camera at all times. There’s nothing worse than being caught goofing off or picking a wedgie on ESPN!

While game days are opportunities to improve your performance skills and bond with your team, always remember that you’re ultimately there to support the players. Your number-one job is to entertain and raise the spirit of your crowd at all school events. Take pride in being a member of the team that represents school spirit!

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