There’s sport behind the spirit: an inside look at the UW Spirit Squad.
Sporting the famous Motion W across their chests and big smiles on their faces, they entertain crowds of rowdy Badger fans at football and basketball games with fearless flips and nose-high kicks. At first glance, both the UW Cheerleading Squad and Dance Team appear to effortlessly beam Badger pride. Whether they’re building human pyramids or perfectly performing choreography, members of the UW Spirit Squad make what they do seem easy.
But at a practice one very warm day in June, it’s obvious: being a member of the UW Spirit Squad is not all fun and games.
It’s a little after ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and it’s already eighty-some degrees outside. At Gate C of the Field House, the members of the UW Dance Team are returning from a twenty-minute run.
The members of the Cheerleading Squad, having finished their warm-up run, are exercising their skills as gymnasts, acrobats, and stunt artists. Entering behind the gaggle of sweaty athletes, Josette Scheer ’97, UW Spirit Squad director, gives a quick explanation of what is going on. Today, the cheerleaders are working to strengthen wobbly human pyramids. They’ve had several close calls as shaky arms and legs cause the top tier to tumble.
Despite the giant fan running at louder-than-life speed, the temperature inside the Field House is anything but pleasant. Still, both teams are hard at work as the veterans teach the rookies classic UW routines, moves, and stunts.
Meanwhile, the Dance Team is following its typical practice schedule: endurance training (e.g., running), a ten -to twenty-minute warm-up, a dynamic stretching session, a run-through practicing routines, lessons on new steps, and a cool-down session.
As the team gets ready to break for lunch, there’s no denying it — being a member of the UW Spirit Squad involves more than just dancing, clapping, and a whole lot of cheering. It’s an intense combination of athleticism, dedication, drive, and perseverance.
The Teams That Spirit Built
The UW Spirit Squad is actually a three-part athletic team composed of the Dance Team, Cheerleading Squad, and Bucky Badger mascots. Despite slight differences, the student athletes who make up the Cheerleading Squad and the Dance Team share the same goal — to support intercollegiate athletics and serve as ambassadors for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Currently, the Cheerleading Squad consists of twenty-eight athletes: fifteen female and thirteen male. Following tryouts in the fall, the team can expand to include a maximum of eighteen female and eighteen male athletes.
The UW Cheerleading Squad upholds its main objective of supporting Badger athletics at both home and away football games and at men’s and women’s basketball games.
“As cheerleaders, we try to perform cheers that the entire crowd can take part in, so we collaborate with the band during football and basketball games for maximum effect during our Let’s Go, Red; Let’s Go, Badgers; and Defense chants,” says Vanessa Koys x’14, one of the squad’s captains. “There are dozens of variations of these cheers that we perform, utilizing the band, our voices, and our signs and megaphones.”
But, from high-flying acrobatics to complex tumbling and gymnastic routines, the cheerleaders do more than just cheer.
“We also perform partner stunts, pyramids or pyramid formations, basket tosses, and much more,” says Ben Luedtke x’14, the other captain.
The UW Dance Team, which is composed of eighteen female athletes, also supports Badger athletics by performing at football and men’s basketball games. Often, they assist the cheerleaders by adding motions to cheers and chants.
“During the summer, we learn various fight songs used during football games and short basketball time-outs,” clarifies Dance Team co-captain Tori Laedtke x’14. “We also learn drum chants, which are short combinations performed on the sidelines at football games.”
Focusing on entertaining the crowd, members of the Dance Team also work to perfect a variety of choreographed routines to perform during time-outs.
But the Dance Team does more than support Badger varsity sports. It also competes for the UW in its own right. In January, the team takes its perfected routines to Florida to represent the university at the Universal Dance Association (UDA) College Nationals.
“We spend the fall semester and winter break learning and perfecting two routines — including jazz, hip hop, or pom [routine] — to compete against all other college dance teams in our division,” explains Laedtke of UDA College Nationals.
It’s hard work that pays off, as the UW has consistently ranked within the top ten at UDA College Nationals for the past ten years.
Starting in June, the UW Spirit Squad comes back to campus once a month for a weekend of intense practice. Then, in late August, the teams typically return to campus, where they practice for three hours, twice a day, in preparation for football season. Unlike other sports, which are governed by NCAA regulations, there are no limitations regarding how much time the Spirit Squad can spend at practice.
Aside from regular summer practices, the squad also participates in a college camp offered through UDA in early August. There, the team will work on everything from choreography to technique and team building.
“We prepare a jazz routine and the Badger fight song at summer practices to compete against other college dance teams attending the camp,” says Dance Team co-captain Vanessa Iorio x’14. “During UDA camp, each of our team members also learns and performs three routines to earn ribbons.”
Once school starts, the Spirit Squad practices as much as of nine hours a week, according to Scheer. And that doesn’t count the hours spent in the weight room each week, or performing at games and public relations events.
“Being part of the squad and being a full-time student is like having two jobs. One has to be committed and be able to manage their time wisely,” says Luedtke.
On top of their commitment to the team, members of the squad must also be committed students. Team eligibility requires all dancers and cheerleaders to be enrolled at UW-Madison on a fulltime basis, carrying a minimum of twelve credit hours per semester. And they must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.
“Managing to balance your priorities and your time is probably the most difficult struggle as a member of the team,” says Koys. “We are students first — and our time in classes and in the library has to be balanced with upwards of fifteen hours a week with the team.”
There’s no doubt that these Badgers are extraordinary. It takes a special kind of college student to sacrifice time with family and friends to support his or her school, just like it takes an exceptional athlete to compete in a sport with a season that runs nearly year-round.
“It is not always easy having to schedule the rest of my life — work, school, family gatherings, et cetera — around being part of the squad,” Luedtke admits. “Yet it is something I would never give up.”
The Risks Behind the Rah!
From concussions and separated shoulders to sprained ankles and contusions, the men and women of the UW Spirit Squad are at a high risk for injuries, due in part to the strenuous nature of their
sport and a season that’s ten months long.
“I personally have experienced a sprained ankle, a torn biceps, and a pulled hamstring,” says Koys. “I sprained my ankle performing a gymnastics skill at practice, a very common injury. My injuries to my muscles were caused by over-training them — we are practicing and performing from June to April, so it’s very important to keep a balance between rest and work during our long season.”
Working with professional athletic trainers and strength coaches twice a week, both cheerleaders and dancers learn how to prevent injury. According to cheer assistant Tara Pyles ’10, this has helped to reduce the number of muscle-related injuries.
“[The trainers and strength coaches have] given us exercises on how to properly warm up, how to properly cool down, so that we can sort of step away from straining injuries that were happening,” Pyles explains.
For cheerleaders, tumbling, stunting, and pyramids present the greatest danger and risk for injury. To make learning these elements as safe as possible, Jerry Wheeler, the Spirit Squad’s assistant director for cheer, focuses on progression-based instruction, which involves learning each skill one step at a time.
Pyles notes that one of the best ways to prevent injuries while performing acrobatics or stunts is to have extra spotters on the ground, especially if a cheerleader feels uncomfortable performing a certain skill.
“Cheerleading involves very athletic activities during its gymnastics and stunting portions, and just as with any sport, this training puts strain on the body,” says Koys. “Our staff and ourteam do everything possible to prevent [injuries],” says Koys.
Due to the physical demands of dancing, members of the Dance Team also experience a high number of impact-related injuries. Requiring a great deal of athleticism, dancers are expected to move gracefully in all directions — a task that calls for both coordination and strength.
“We do quite a bit of cross-training in order to prevent injuries. The stronger you are, the less injuries happen,” says Iorio. “During the year, we weight-lift twice a week in combination [with] conditioning. While lifting at the same time as doing cardio, we are building our endurance, which also prevents injuries.”
Whether learning how to fall properly or land a jump correctly, dancers often face sprains and muscle injuries to quads, ankles, knees, and shins, as well as hips and back.
“During my first year on the UW Dance Team, I fractured a bone in the ball of my foot,” recalls Laedtke. Overuse related to dancing and physical activity meant that she needed surgery and had to undergo rehabilitation halfway through the team’s season.
Badger Experience of a Lifetime
In spite of the demands, members of Spirit Squad are devoted to their team.
“Being on the squad has made me who I am as a person today. It has made my experience in college that much more exciting,” explains Luedtke. “I have made numerous friends, had amazing experiences traveling, and have developed skills, such as leadership, that I will be able to continue to apply to my life as I grow up.”
And what these athletes take away from their time on the squad isn’t limited to dance moves and stunts. Rather, being on the team instills a sense of confidence. Whether they’re performing on the field or mingling with fans and alumni at public relations events, cheerleaders and dancers learn to master the art of social interaction.
“Cheerleading has taught me how to express myself, how to handle adversity and failure, how to exude confidence in any situation, and how to combine passion and perseverance to be successful,” says Koys.
A former UW cheerleader herself, Pyles says that her experience helped her become comfortable opening up and talking with people — a skill that has already proved valuable in her teaching career.
With practices, performances, and travel, student life often takes a backseat to the squad.
But if you ask any member of the team, chances are they wouldn’t trade their spirited adventure for the typical college experience.
“It’s incredible to be a part of a school with such spirit of its own, and I just add to it,” says Iorio. “The traditions of our school and team are unlike any other; I’m very grateful to have been a part of it.”