College Dance Team Central

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rice Spirit Squads Stepping It Up

Despite lack of funding, student-run spirit groups are rising to the challenge of a growing athletics department
The Rice Thresher

Two Bowl trips, a $27 million dollar renovation of the basketball facilities and the signing of one of the winningest basketball coaches in the nation are all just parts of Athletic Director Chris Del Conte's vision for the future of the Rice athletics. Simultaneously, with neither the resources of a full-time staff nor the ability to raise six-figure alumni donations, students leading the Rice spirit squads have been working to move their teams in a direction parallel to Del Conte's vision.

The Owls' cheerleading and dance teams have both been through many changes in recent years after making concerted efforts to improve the quality of their performances. Their goal has been to significantly bolster student support on the sidelines.

"Both of [the squads] have improved tremendously," Megan Dodge, director of marketing, said. "I think a lot of it has to do with the passion of their leaders."

Since the beginning of the academic year, Dodge has been assigned as the liaison between the athletics department and the spirit squads. The seemingly arbitrary addition to the director of marketing's work description exemplifies a confusing trend in the relationship between the groups.

There exists a long-standing gray area when it comes to categorizing the spirit squads as either clubs or parts of the athletics department. In the past, this self-imposed relationship worked well for both parties. But a concerted effort has arisen from the leadership of the student groups to improve their on-field performance, and when added to the current financial troubles, the students feel as though their efforts have been stifled by an inefficient system.

Balancing act
For the cheer squad, there is one piece of the system in particular that brings the most challenges: The coaches of the squad are students taking on an extreme additional burden.

"Athletics sees cheerleading as our job, as our number one priory," said senior co-captain Nina Xue. "But we don't get treated like that's our number one priority."

Xue and junior co-captain Darren Arquero were central figures in pushing for a squad with improved skill. To get the team where they wanted them to be, the captains arranged for the team to train every week at a gym located in Sugarland, Tex. While the move has manifested itself in strong on-field performances, problems arose when it came to deciding how to pay for these kinds of endeavors.

"Darren and I have to talk to athletics, run a team, do all the administrative stuff and we are in charge of fundraising," Xue said. "And then we work, and we have school."

The presence of a full-time coach, she claims, would significantly lighten the burden on the students and increase the squad's ability to raise funds. But the team is stuck in an enigma. While a coach would ease the burden of fundraising, they do not have up-front money to pay for a coach.

"Chris Del Conte said throughout this year, 'Prove to me that you guys do deserve a coach,'" Russ Dean, Associate Athletics Director, said.

Xue believes that they have done just that.

"[Del Conte] thinks that we would be more legitimate if we were really coed, but that is because he doesn't understand the sport," she said. "Just because we don't have huge guys launching us in the air doesn't make us less legitimate."

But the fact that they are the only cheer squad with no full-time coach in the conference has implications beyond the quality of their performances. The athletics department pays for one of the members of the squad to be certified by the National Cheerleading Association every year, as conference regulations require there to be a certified coach present at every practice for safety reasons.

Cheerleading has one of the highest rates of injury of any sports - ESPN has named it the most dangerous sport for girls - and the burden of keeping the squad safe falls on the shoulders of the on-field captain.

"I am the one that is legally responsible if people get hurt on the team," Xue said. "If we had a coach, they could watch everything. [But] when Darren and I are involved in all the stunts, we can't see everything that is going on."

While safety in the practices is left up to the members of the squad, the medical resources that are available to any varsity athlete are given to the cheer squad, as well. But the gray area makes it difficult, at times, for the system to deal with the cheerleaders. For example, when Arquero was injured last year though cheerleading, his request for a motorized scooter from health services was repeatedly denied, because he was not classified as an athlete.

"Going through that process is very difficult," Arquero said. "It is basically [saying] that we are not being appreciated."

Owning the squad
While the two squads carry many of the same responsibilities, the dance team has responded to their unique relationship with athletics in a different manner.

"We are highly self-governing," senior Jennie Wilburn, captain of the dance team, said. "People take up their responsibility. It is a lot of work, but people do a good job of trying to spread it out."

The members of the dance team take turns creating choreography for their performances, a point in which the squad takes great pride. Without the safety hazards associated with some of the cheerleaders' routines, the dancers have been able to place that same emphasis on constantly improving without seeking out extra help. Instead, Wilburn said, the members have simply been putting in more time and effort.

Many other dance squads dedicate themselves to traveling for competitions in addition to supporting their teams. While this may be a potential direction for the team, they are currently focusing on raising the bar for their game-day performances.

"I think that as we slowly take our steps to make ourselves more serious, the student body takes you more seriously, and athletics will too," Wilburn said. "It is something that will happen over time as long as people remain committed. I don't think people realize how much time we put in. We put in as much time as some varsity sports."

Wilburn says that despite the team's recurring problems with funding, she understands the difficulty that the athletics department has when it comes to defining the position of the spirit squads.

"I would say it is not because they don't want to help," she said. "I think they want to do everything that they can for us."

When it comes down to it, the most important issue for all parties is supporting Rice athletics. The spirit squads saw the models put forth by the highflying connections between Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard, and they have been trying to raise their level of performance to coincide with the increased national recognition.

"I would never want to say that I am comparable to Dillard or Clement," Wilburn said, "But at the same time, when we do a lot for a team we don't feel the same appreciation."

And they intend to bolster the resurgent basketball programs as signs of support for the immense amount of money and resources placed into those programs, as well.

"Our team can do things that would have been impossible in previous years," Xue said.

But the reshaping of an entire department cannot happen overnight. There is a mutual recognition, though, that the process will have to take a great deal of effort and communication.

"We will try our hardest to give them all the tools to be successful that we can," Dean said. "Now, every sport will probably want more, but of course we will sit down with them."

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