Kent State Cheer and Dance head south for Nationals


Photo courtesy of Brianna Neal.

Nick Shook

The familiar sounds of Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop the Party” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” mixed and mashed together into a fast-paced, high-energy dance track echo throughout the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center during an early Saturday evening showcase.

Kent State’s dance team, its members clad in black, rhinestone-dotted costumes, precisely performs a routine in front of friends and family. Kent State’s cheerleading team, seated at the top of folded-in bleachers, claps and shouts encouragement as the dancers run through their routine for what to them seems to be the 1000th time. The day marks the culmination of months of exhausting practice — that is, until both teams board a bus headed south Tuesday night.

The cheer and dance teams will spend their week competing for championships in the National Cheerleading Association and National Dance Association Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship on April 10-14 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The 18-hour journey from Kent to Daytona is a milestone that has not been reached by the dance program since 2008, and the cheer program since 2010. The specific NDA competition will be the first in the history of the dance team, and the NCA competition will be the second in the cheer team’s history.

Whitney Cleland, current Kent State assistant spirit coach, was a Kent State cheerleader from 2006 to 2009 and competed each year.

“It was probably the best memory of my life,” Cleland said. “It’s just kind of one of those lifelong dreams. You watch it on ESPN growing up as a kid, as you always want to get there.

“For us cheerleaders, college nationals is like the Olympics. That’s as high as you can really go with your cheerleading career.”

Lindsy Weisel, dance team head coach, and freshman dancer Lizz Henrich both explained that the competition is no small matter.

“It’s a huge deal,” Henrich said. “People don’t realize how big of a deal it actually is that we’re going, and that we got accepted to go. Not many teams can say that they’re competing in a Division I dance team at Nationals.”

“It’s a really, really big deal in the dance world,” Weisel said, “and we only get one shot to compete. […] Making it to the competition and then making it past that to the finals round is a huge accomplishment.”

More than 6,000 student-athletes and coaches from 40 states, Canada and Costa Rica will compete in a total of 29 divisions (12 dance, 17 cheer), but it’s not an open event. The cheer and dance teams each submitted qualifying videos showcasing different required routines and skills, and had to be invited by the associations.

After receiving their qualification notification, Weisel consulted two dancers who had captained the University of Illinois dance team to the NDA Nationals to choreograph a dance for the team. After breaking down the dance, the team has implemented and repeated it time and time again.

Both the cheer and dance teams have been tirelessly working to perfect their routines since January, and while many students were spending their spring breaks on Florida beaches, the teams were busy practicing inside the M.A.C. Center nearly every day.

“I don’t think people realize how much time and effort they have put into preparing themselves,” Weisel said. “We’ve been practicing four or sometimes even five days a week over spring break.”

Despite the commitment, both the dancers and cheerleaders were fine with the demanding schedule.

“They all were really willing to come in, there were no complaints,” Cleland said. … “It’s just a matter of continuing to do it, being comfortable with it. […] They know they get this awesome opportunity to one, go on vacation and enjoy the Florida weather, but also do something that is really important to them.”

While fans may harbor the shallow view of the cheer and dance teams as simply groups holding pom-poms and leading cheers in support of the school’s teams, Cleland explained that both cheer and dance are much more than just sideline supporters, and that the national competition is their true moment in the spotlight.

“It takes a lot of athleticism to do what cheerleaders and dancers do,” Cleland said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the full picture of it. It’s not just, you know, being on the sidelines…It’s the one time when they get to go out and it’s just for them, and they get to show off their skills and how athletic that they are.”

The cheer and dance teams will participate in preliminary competition Thursday, and pending results will either compete in the consolation Challenge Cup on Thursday evening or the team finals on Friday. The dance team will compete in Division IA and the cheerleading team will compete in Intermediate Coed I.

“We’re just really expecting the team to go out there and do their best,” Cleland said. “We just want the kids to come off the floor and feel like they achieved something they’ve been working on, to hit a clean routine that they feel great about.

“If we happen to rank in the top, then that is an awesome cherry on top of the sundae, and if we win that would be even better, but our main goal is to go out there and do something that everybody is proud of.”

The event will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network, and can also be viewed online via live stream at For more information, go to

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].