I’m aware that I am not alone in missing Michigan football — I do believe, however, that my specific reasoning for missing football is more unique than most others, because I do not miss the actual game. I barely know what a fourth down is, and I could not tell you our quarterback’s name. I also do not miss tailgates, or the smell of beer on State Street, or my brother’s inevitable depression whenever we lose to Ohio State. But I do miss the marching band running out of the tunnel, the voice of James Earl Jones on the loudspeaker and the flight of cheerleaders as they’re tossed into the air.
Most of all, though, I miss our dance team. Each year, I pay for a full season ticket package of entrance fees so I can march down State Street, climb into the bleachers and spend all four quarters of every gameday watching the dancers spin and jump and cheer with impeccable precision.
One of those dancers is Music, Theatre & Dance senior Brendan Ryan, who currently serves as a 2020-21 team captain. Pre-COVID-19, one could easily spot him by looking for the lone male on the sideline of female dancers — when he was recruited out of high school, Ryan became the first man to ever join a Big 10 dance team. Superlatives aside, his spot on the field was well deserved: What he lacked in hair flips he made up for with dynamic facial expressions and absolute sass. Rain or shine, win or lose, Ryan’s dancing was always a joy to watch from the bleachers.
“I can’t picture myself doing anything but performing,” Ryan recently told me over a FaceTime call. He phoned from the couch of his Ann Arbor apartment, backed by a massive Block M flag and wearing a Michigan t-shirt. His maize and blue pom poms hung on the wall off to the right. The decor was probably a good metaphor for the zealous dedication required of any successful dance team member.
He and his teammates dance at every football and basketball game, through the supposed breaks of timeouts and halftimes. To do so, every dancer must memorize more than 60 sideline routines, each of which is assigned a codename. On gameday, when the band begins to play, the captain will yell out a code (it might be “Pineapple!” or maybe “Bubble!”) and the dancers have less than three seconds to begin dancing, on the beat, synced with the rest of their teammates.
“We constantly get referred to as ‘Oh, they’re just there to look pretty on the sidelines,” Ryan said, “and that is so not the case.” The system requires an immense amount of prep — practices start in early August, a month before classes begin, during which new members must learn all 60 routines. Throughout the year, they continue to clean each sideline, aiming for more precision and better positioning each time. Simultaneously, the team also learns and cleans three full-length routines — jazz, hip hop and a school-spirit-based game day program — for competition at the Universal Dance Association collegiate nationals in January. Their performances often become contenders for the top ten placement and this past year, they made the hip hop finals for the first time since 2013.
“We’re cheering on our sports teams and having a season of our own at the same time,” Ryan said. During the school year, the group works like any other sports team: four days of two-and-a-half hour-long practices alongside two more days of cardio and strength training at the University’s athletic facilities.
“The only day we have off is Saturday,” Ryan said, “but those are typically game days.”
It’s a full-time, physically demanding gig, but 2020 marks only the ninth year that the University will classify its dance team under athletics. Ryan’s coach, Valerie Stead Potsos, worked diligently to build the team’s reputation to the point that they could receive funding from the athletics budget. “That was huge,” Ryan said, “She worked so hard to get us looked at as a sport.”
Potsos’ fight represents a larger effort for dancers to be recognized as the physical practitioners that they are — to raise awareness for the athleticism behind the accolades, and push for more people to peer down from the stands of the Big House and cheer in awe of the work that goes into the precision of each dancer’s movements. To go for the football and stay for the dancing.
But even inside the dance world, Ryan walks a tightrope between two different microcosms — he is one of six team members to also pursue a BFA in dance. “It’s two different worlds,” Ryan said. Athletic facilities converge with conventional studios that teach theory, history and composition. The two denominations do not always get along: “We have professors here who have danced all their lives and have somewhat of a traditional view of dance,” Ryan said, “and they kind of roll their eyes when they hear about dance team stuff.”
As a result, Ryan and his team members can often find themselves contending with a double-edged sword. Outside the dance world, they defend their right to be viewed as a sport. Inside the dance world, they defend their right to be viewed as dance. The melee between both sides can be quite common for those who work in creative fields structured through competition. Where does the dancing stop and the sport begin?
To Ryan, this question may not entail a strict line in the sand. In fact, there might not be a linear answer at all. After four years of competitive and concert dance, he sees himself as an embodiment of the back-and-forth overlap between the two.
“Being in both worlds, I know what it takes, and I respect both viewpoints,” Ryan said. Now, as he looks to the future, this overlap will inform his professional dance career. To start, he hopes to join the ranks of a growing number of men in NFL and NBA cheer teams. “I think there’s at least 20 males now, nationwide,” Ryan said. Just a few years ago there were none.
From there, the sky will be the limit. “I don’t know, backup dance for Lady Gaga one day?” Ryan said, or maybe Broadway. The open-ended career options come from the breadth of styles he tackled while here at the University. He is sports, art and hard work wrapped up into one.
Daily Arts Columnist Zoe Philips can be reached at email@example.com.
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