Caliea Koehler could feel the heat of their eyes upon her.
As the 20-year-old co-captain of the LSU Tiger Girls got off the bus after a 12-hour drive to Orlando, she noticed young athletes from all around the country buzzing with nervous energy and suited up in bedazzled warm-ups boasting their school letters. It’s easy to get bogged down by the pressure of these high-stakes showdowns, but Koehler was grateful she had the chance to step off that bus at all. Against their will, the Tiger Girls, one of the most prestigious dance teams in the country, had been notably absent from the UCA and UDA College National Championship—the Super Bowl of collegiate dance and cheer—the year prior. In 2021, Louisiana State University had barred the team from competing in-person at nationals due to the “many constraints of COVID-19,” as an official had told local news station WAFB. Koehler told Jezebel, however, that LSU had allowed the Tiger Girls to perform in-person and masked at university sporting events, including football and basketball games and gymnastics meets, waving their pom-poms in support of other competitive athletes during one of the dreariest seasons of the pandemic.
Across the nation, dance teams found themselves trapped in similar battles for resources and budget, stuck somewhere between a poorly funded competitive sports team and an amateur student club. Long considered secondary to men’s and women’s “revenue sports,” dance still struggles to establish itself as a “serious” sport in the eyes of the NCAA—as well as naysayers, misogynists, and swaths of the general public. The Tiger Girls even have a term for it: They call themselves “half-letes.”
Now, the entire collegiate landscape had turned its gaze upon LSU’s dancers, waiting to see if their return would be triumphant, marked by anger, or perhaps unremarkable. Headphones in, Koehler and her teammates marched forward. They had a job to do.
A blur of rehearsals, mark-throughs, sit-ups, and face gems later, the LSU Tiger Girls took the mat for the Division IA Hip Hop finals. Koehler’s adrenaline was pumping. She felt her tunnel vision kick in, as the sound of the crowd chanting, “LSU, LSU!” faded to a muted rumble. They had trained their entires lives for this moment: here, with their best friends on the mat. “We’d been through so much,” teammate and junior Sanai Frierson said. “I remember thinking, we’re here, we’re finally here.” Then the speakers erupted, filling the room with the first few orchestral notes of Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” The dancers’ heads snapped up and the crowd roared, the gravity of the team’s message tugging the entire room into their orbit. Ladies, I think it’s time to switch roles.
That night, the LSU Tiger Girls danced for the right to be seen as equals to their male counterparts. With every wide-legged stance, every step that dripped with masculine swagger, every pelvic thrust, and every crotch grab, they demanded attention and respect, as is customarily given to cisgender male athletes simply existing in the world. They fought back… and won. Within one minute and fifty-three seconds, dancing to a women’s empowerment pop anthem written over a decade earlier, the LSU Tiger Girls architected their own revolutionary sports comeback story.
“All our Spirit Squads represented LSU proudly at nationals, and we are very happy their hard work led to deserved success. The talent, passion, and energy they bring to every performance are unrivaled, and we will continue to work to ensure their efforts are fully supported,” Cody Worsham, LSU’s director of strategic communications, told Jezebel in an email comment.
As Koehler put it, “They definitely know who we are now.”
Koehler always craved the rush of competition. Each national showdown served as an opportunity to showcase her bag of impressive tricks and skills accumulated over more than a decade of intense dance training. She had never missed a year of competing.
But as a 19-year-old sophomore at the peak of her collegiate dance career, Koehler’s streak was halted by an unbudging obstacle wrapped in red tape: LSU’s athletics department. The circumstances surrounding what happened last year remain murky, according to LSU Tiger Girls coach Kandace Hale, but the gist is that when it came time for the Tiger Girls to prepare for nationals in early 2021, LSU’s athletic department told Hale they would not be permitted to travel to Orlando because of unspecified covid concerns—despite football, basketball, track, and other teams traveling regularly for their own matchups.
This heartbreaking announcement prompted an immediate groundswell of support. One of LSU’s choreographers Sammy McFadden, a former Tiger Girl, posted a now-viral video with over 95,000 views featuring alumni Tiger Girls pleading with the university to “LET THEM COMPETE.” A second video featured current and former LSU athletes across sports chanting the same warcry. Veteran industry choreographer Brian Friedman added his voice to the growing crowd, demanding a fair shot for the dancers, and the teammates even started a petition, which gathered over 27,000 signatures.
Aubree Lavergne, a 20-year-old junior and co-captain on the team, recalled how precarious the situation was to navigate as a student. “It’s definitely a rocky, fine line that you have to walk. I love this university and I would die for this university, my sister was a Tiger Girl, and I grew up with this university,” she said. “You’d never want to bad mouth something that you love. But you also need to speak out for things that aren’t right.”
It wasn’t enough. Desperate for more information, Koehler sent an email to the athletics department requesting an opportunity to talk through the situation; the dancers just wanted the university to hear directly how much competing meant to them. She received no response for about three weeks, despite multiple follow-ups. Finally, Koehler and several of her teammates were able to schedule a meeting with administration. In the meeting, according to Koehler and confirmed by McFadden, who heard the same reasoning in additional meetings, one of the school officials now provided a more specific refusal: It would be impossible for the Tiger Girls to compete at the 2021 nationals because the university didn’t have enough athletic trainers to accompany the team on their trip, supervise their rigorous practices, and handle covid testing and contact tracing. The Tiger Girls shared a trainer with the men’s basketball team who was busy gearing up for March Madness, and the rest of the staff were supposedly tied up with other sports.
But both Hale and Koehler said they’d never been required by the university to practice or compete under a trainer’s supervision. Instead, Hale would send the teammates to the training room in the case of injuries or for preventative measures. Even amidst negotiations with administration, under “reduced” activity covid guidelines, the teammates were allowed to practice and train difficult technical skills in small groups—socially distanced, masked, and without a trainer—in their private facility on campus. At games, they wore masks and danced in their own area; competing a hip hop routine wouldn’t be all that different. Couldn’t they sign a liability waiver and go without a trainer? “We asked all the questions, and I never really got answers,” Hale said.
McFadden also recalled that in one of her several meetings with administration and athletics department officials, a university employee asked in all seriousness, “What are the Tiger Girls?” The team was founded in 1999 and attracts students to the school every year; Hale says they only have seven in-state students on the team, the rest of which attended LSU specifically to dance.
“We all were so devastated because as Tiger Girls, you come on this team to compete,” said Ariel Brumfield, a 21-year-old senior from Louisiana. “They expect us to support everybody else, but took away the one thing where others could support us. We had to stand up for ourselves at that point.”
To help them on their quest to compete, Jennifer DePaola, the founder and CEO of Doctors for Dancers, a service that connects dancers to medical professionals, joined the fight. She linked up with advocacy groups and Ochsner Health, which offered pro bono athletic training, covid testing, and contact tracing services to the Tiger Girls. In a Zoom conversation with several members of LSU’s athletics department, however, these offers were mostly met with resistance, as the university cited questions of injury liability, shifting testing protocols, and other bureaucratic red tape.
The fundamental issue underlying this prolonged tug-of-war appeared to be a lack of education: Officials told DePaola they’d never attended a Tiger Girls practice and weren’t familiar with the women’s training process. Instead, DePaola said they repeatedly alluded to the Tiger Girls as “workers,” rather than student athletes. Using imagery of dancers and cheerleaders smiling in uniform for marketing purposes or media requests is common university practice, and, in normal times, dance and cheer teams are often tapped to wine and dine donors, or entertain fans at campus events. To DePaola, it seemed that LSU’s administration, who regularly saw the Tiger Girls “working” during school spirit events like orientation or fundraising galas, was unable to grasp the idea that these women were actually competitive athletes who could do aerials, four pirouettes, and weight lifting.
“I think their perception was that the women just shake their pom-poms, look beautiful, and that they’re eye candy, and that’s kind of it,” she said.
To make things stranger, the UDA nationals offered a virtual option for schools who felt uncomfortable asking dance teams to travel, but according to Hale, administrators dragged their feet on making a decision. By the time LSU told the team they’d consider the virtual option, it was too late to choreograph and perfect a nationals-worthy routine—something they’d be proud to showcase.
“As a coach, I felt helpless,” Hale said, explaining to her dancers that the administration likely wasn’t trying to “diminish” them on purpose. “Obviously I am the leader of this program, and to have something pulled away from us that I had no control over was horrible. We were so broken last year, and we lost a lot of trust within each other, with our coaching, and with our university.”
Across the country, collegiate dance and spirit teams were pummeled by covid restrictions, however justifiable, in the 2020-2021 season. Their already-measly budgets were slashed, if not removed entirely. Some teams were not allowed to practice in-person or had limited access to on-campus resources and facilities, while others were forced to ask the public for help keeping their programs alive. But attorney Mercedes Townsend, who started the online platform Friend of the Court dedicated to developments in women’s sports law, says that covid-related issues have only just begun to expose the bleak reality for student dancers nationwide, who continue to fight outdated gender stereotypes.
“When you look at what’s happening right now in collegiate cheer and dance, the athletes who present as traditionally feminine aren’t respected as athletes, and as a society, we don’t take them seriously. On the other hand, when you have women athletes who challenge traditional gender norms because they are muscular, athletic, strong, or fast, that makes people uncomfortable, too,” Townsend said. “We keep putting women athletes in this double bind.”
From a media perspective, collegiate dance competition is also nearly invisible. While ESPN televises the UDA and UCA nationals, which are owned and operated by cheerleading conglomerate Varsity, the outlet contributes only ten hours of coverage to all of Varsity’s competitions per year. The ESPN website does not have a tab for “Dance.”
That lack of coverage, as well as dance’s wobbly perch on the tightrope between sport and art, impacts how dancers are perceived on college campuses. Koehler and McFadden both said that the university tends to pick and choose when the dancers will be thrown into the student athlete bucket. Both women said they were drug tested while on the dance team as part of an NCAA requirement, for example, although dance is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport (nor is it currently covered by Title IX). The teammates said that their grades counted towards the athletic department’s GPA average—their team typically performs well academically—but they did not have access to the tutors other athletes received.
“The argument will always exist that we need to protect these popular, revenue-generating sports, no matter the cost of what that means for gender equity,” Townsend said. “We have a very heavy burden and task of changing hearts and minds, and in seeing the value in women’s sports. It is the universities or institutions proactively preventing it by underfunding or completely excluding women’s teams from their athletic departments.”
LSU did not provide an updated response to Jezebel explaining the reasoning behind their decision.
The Tiger Girls never won back the right to compete that year. They formed an independent, non-affiliated dance team and fundraised their way to a dance convention called Monsters in May of 2021 instead. There, they performed a hip hop routine to a mix of songs.
The last section of the routine was set to “Like a Boy.”
At last, the LSU Tiger Girls were able to resume their high-level competition training. They were hungry for another chance. They were, some might say, back on their bullshit.
Carsen Rowe, founder and CEO of Tribe 99 Choreography, partnered with McFadden on the Tiger Girls’ instantly iconic routine. After the Tiger Girls executed the “Like a Boy” section the duo had created for Monsters, McFadden and Rowe said they “saw the vision right away:” The Tiger Girls’ comeback nationals routine had to be set to this song. While tensions with the university had cooled off—the dance team would be getting their own trainer, which would allow them to resume competition the following year—the teammates still wanted to memorialize the battle they’d fought.
“There is no better song to share what happened and what they went through as a team. They really got kicked down and kicked down and kicked down and kicked down,” Rowe said. “And you can knock them down, but they’re gonna come back stronger.”
Choosing to perform to just one song presented a massive risk, as it’s easier to keep choreography entertaining when it’s set to multiple, high-octane musical snippets. Instead, Rowe and McFadden presented the stripped down idea to the team, who immediately “bought in” and started piecing the routine together in October. With a season longer than most athletic teams, the dancers trained 40 to 50 hours a week with consecutive eight-hour days, including weight and strength training, and stayed for the duration of winter break to nail down everything from the aggressive scowls and nose-thumbing to the smooth, fluid grooves that make the dancers look like they’re moving through Jell-O.
“Carsen and Sammy would always tell us to be nasty with it, and we truly embodied that in our facials every time we did the routine,” said Brumfield. “We are good enough to be supported. We’re worth every second of that dance.”
There’s one particular moment in the routine where the music cuts out to make way for a haunting silence, broken only by a heartbeat that nearly shakes the room. In many ways, that silence seemed to strip away the picture-perfect smiles, the diamond earrings, and the slicked-back buns that distract audience members—exposing the fight and the hurt and the tears of being misunderstood that persists in the background of every young dancer’s athletic career, as though their brand of athleticism is invalid because it appears, at least on the surface, feminine. But it’s just for a moment. The music cuts back in, and the dancers carry on, as they always do.
On January 16, the LSU Tiger Girls took home the Division IA Hip Hop National Championship. It was the third national title won by the LSU dance team in program history and the first in twelve years. It was also one of the only times in recent history that a dance team had publicly dared to ask for more.
The choreography has since been reposted by Jennifer Garner and Ciara herself, and one of the routine’s many “don’t f*ck with me” gyrations went viral on TikTok—and rival teams even hopped on the trend. As videos crossed hundreds of thousands of views, dancers from past eras, too, began to relive how little support they’d received in their day. In an industry that encourages dancers to step up to the front of the room and make every effort to be seen, it’s as if every team in the nation stepped aside to create space for the LSU Tiger Girls alone.
“For so long, we have just accepted that in the dance world, dance is not a ‘sport,’ and that we are there to support other [sports], which we are happy to do,” Hale said. “But we never really found a voice or knew to speak out until our situation fired that up in everyone.”
Rowe and McFadden said they were hyperventilating when the team won. “These kids were pretty much a vessel to describe what is happening and the lack of understanding of dance,” Rowe said. “We faced so much adversity as women athletes. Now, they are the message.”
To its credit, Hale said the university has “stepped it up” as of late, which started with the appointment of the trainer (who used to be a competitive dancer), along with a strength and conditioning coach. Administration took meetings with the dancers and choreographers, at the very least trying to understand what it is that they do. The team is set to be recognized for their national championship title at upcoming sporting events, which has never happened before, and the women’s basketball coach requested that the Tiger Girls perform an encore at a recent game. “We don’t hate our university,” Hale reiterated. “We actually love LSU, and that’s why everyone stayed.”
But to repeatedly strive for excellence for the love of dance only to be told “no” or “not right now” is to bang your head against the wall, waiting to be noticed. It’s the sort of reaction that molds the remainder of a woman’s life, implying that she can wait, that she should be grateful for the morsels she’s been given. According to Townsend, sports are a mirror of our political, social, and cultural zeitgeist. While the Tiger Girls’ conquest has everything to do with dance, it also has everything to do with the systematic devaluation of women in sports, and, really, women everywhere.
As McFadden said, “They’re not asking for a lot. They’re asking for equality.”
For decades, dancers have watched as the universities they love remain lodged in a dusty time capsule—just as indifferent towards these women as they always were. But change has arrived in the form of the LSU Tiger Girls. And perhaps, at long last, the universities will begin to love them back.