You see them as they wave their pom-poms at the Chiles entrance, as they line up in uniform before a game starts and as they take over the basketball court at halftime. But how well do you know the University of Portland dance team?
Most students who sit in the stands of Chiles during basketball or volleyball games see the Pilot dancers about once a week as conference play starts. But few get to know what goes on behind the scenes.
“(Students) don’t see how many hours we put into every week, how much practice time, how much we commit to this team,” junior captain Mia Stewart said. “And they just see us as running out onto the court like once or twice a game. And it’s so much more.”
The dance team consists of 14 students from all kinds of backgrounds: Cheer, gymnastics, dance or no formal experience at all. Each year the team holds tryouts in front of a panel of judges from the dance community. The judges look for certain techniques, double turns, high kicks and leaps. Returning members re-audition, along with several newcomers.
This year, 20 dancers auditioned in front of Jennifer Grandjean, a former Blazers dancer, Kayla Nordlum, a local high school dance coach and competition judge and Karina Handeland, the team’s advisor.
Out of the students who auditioned, only four new students made the team this semester, all of them freshmen.
“The caliber of dance this year, it’s like, it gets better and better every year,” said junior captain Alex Tessner. “So, (the freshmen) are really great. They have awesome attitudes, and we can tell that they’re super excited for the season, which makes us super excited for the season.”
A typical practice for the team includes a warm-up, some exercises across the floor and learning one or two routines for the games coming up. The practice is quick-paced, with routines taught and perfected in one practice.
The dances are choreographed by various dancers. Sometimes it's the team’s coach, Katie Franz, a UP alumna who was captain of the dance team. Sometimes it's the captains, who bring back routines they learn at Pro Action, a dance conference held in July for college and pro dancers. And sometimes it's professionals who come from dance teams like the Portland Winterhawks Rosebuds.
The team then takes these perfected dances to games, performing them in front of the student body. While students see them only during those times when they run out to the court and dance, their game day schedule starts earlier. The team arrives at Chiles about half an hour to 45 minutes before the game, warm up and go through their dance routines for that evening.
Then they go through their own game schedule, and check to see when they are dancing, whether it's only at halftime or during timeouts as well, and whether they have to do promos or not. When they're done with that, they touch up, and finally, go out to welcome the crowd to Chiles. When the game is about to begin, they line up at one end of the court, ready to keep energy high throughout the whole game no matter how long it goes.
But the team isn’t a cheer squad. The dancers do play a role in promoting Pilot pride and getting the crowd hyped during a game, but that’s only part of what they do as the dance team. They also talk to donors and volunteer in events that contribute to the university’s culture.
“(Students) don’t realize how big of a role we play,” Tessner said. “So, people that call us cheerleaders, I think, just to say it simply, they don’t know what we are.”
Although you can’t find the team’s roster on the athletics website, since they aren't officially a team within the athletic department, they consider what they do a sport, with hours of practice and game time per week.
“This team works really hard. Even though we’re not an official athletics team, I think (the dancers) are definitely athletes,” Franz said. “They push their bodies every practice to be better and better, and I’m super proud of them.”
But, to the team, the most important aspect of their sport is each other and the bonds they form. They have a sister system where one upperclassman is partnered with one or two lowerclassmen to be their “big sister” on the team.
“Just being on a team with all of these girls is literally the best thing ever,” Tessner said about her teammates. “It just makes your college experience what it is. I couldn’t imagine not being on this team.”
At the end of the day, however, what it really comes down to is the passion they all share for their sport.
“Having a three-time-a-week practice that can take me, you know, take me away from the school part of things and just focus on dance and let everything else go, I think that’s my favorite part,” said senior captain Hannah Sullivan.