Rachel McAuliffe waited patiently for her cue. It was a warm afternoon in September of 2015, and when the wait was finally up, McAuliffe ran out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium in front of 109,651 people.
It was so overwhelming, she’s pretty sure she cried.
“It was fun. It was scary, though,” said McAuliffe. “It was just so unreal, an indescribable feeling. I don’t want to say you get used to it, but you adjust to the amount of people and can enjoy it a lot more after you’ve done a couple of games.
“The first one’s a little scary, but still nothing you could ever imagine doing. It took me probably like three or four games to get comfortable down there and not look scared out of my mind.”
Her first game on the field came after a freshman year of preparation. She watched from the sidelines and auditioned to be in each game every week. In dance, only one week is guaranteed. A month of summer conditioning featured learning 60 pre-prepared sideline sets and a lot of hope her hard work would pay off. A year after joining the Michigan dance team, it finally did.
Dancers like McAuliffe run out onto that same field six-to-eight times per fall, and each time, they’ve put in that same workload.Their motions on the field may look effortless, but that’s only because the work that goes into them goes largely unseen.
McAuliffe now serves as one of two captains for the 27-person squad, along with senior Karyn Heissenbuttel. A late-bloomer in the intense world of competitive studio and high school dance, Heissenbuttel joined Michigan’s team as a state champion and aspiring Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience major.
For her, the experience has been everything she hoped it would be.
“From dancing at the Big House to being in Wichita last week for the (NCAA Tournament) basketball game, and leaving for L.A. today, there are so many cool little perks I get to have from supporting other teams,” Heissenbuttel said. “But also, the thing I’m most proud of is the intense pride I have of this university and the pride I have in wearing the block ‘M’ and representing Michigan. It’s just amazing to say like, ‘Hey, I’m a student athlete and I’m competing for my school and I want to do well for Michigan.’ ”
The perks don’t come without a tough schedule. The dance team practices four or five days per week for two or three hours per practice, with lighter workouts the other days.
On top of the intense practice schedule, the team itself has a fairly comprehensive game schedule. When most people think of the Michigan dance team, they think of one of the teams on the sidelines of the Michigan Stadium field. But on top of football, at least eight members of the dance team appear at each of the women’s and men’s home games for basketball — all 36.
And on top of that, they have their own competitive schedule. Constant competitors in the Universal Dance Association National Championship, the Wolverines compete in two out of three sections — hip-hop, jazz and poms. And if the past few years have been any indication, Michigan is a frontrunner in the jazz and hip-hop sections.
This past season, the team placed fourth in jazz — its highest placement in program history. The advancement came after last year’s team set a record with a fifth-place finish in the Division I-A section, and has since moved up in the rankings.
For McAuliffe, nothing compares to that improvement.
“There’s no feeling like coming off of a national floor, that is for sure,” McAuliffe said. “But there’s also no other feeling like being in front of 110,000 people. Every other sport has a game every week or games all the time, but we get one chance. We get to do the dance one, maybe two times, and then that’s our whole season. That’s it.
“Imagine if football all season just relied on one game. Football season is fun, it’s not a lot of high stakes, but when we go to nationals, we’re very focused. That’s all of the time we’ve been working on this dance for five months and this is it, this is the one time we get to do it. So, there’s definitely a lot of preparation that goes into it.”
The commitment process to be on the dance team is complicated — the 27-person roster is selected from around 120 applicants, including high school seniors who have (and have not) been admitted to the university. Students who are deferred or are still weighing options can audition but won’t know their acceptance into the program until they’ve been admitted and have committed to the university. Applicants need both studio and pom experience to succeed in the program.
Once in, it’s a balance game of practice and class. McAuliffe — a nursing major — has spent days working 12-hour clinicals before returning for three-hour practices. For Heissenbuttel, she’s balancing a major in BCN with a part-time job on top of those strenuous practices.
In addition to all of that and the football and men’s and women’s basketball schedules and their own competitive schedule, they’ve made a few extra appearances to other programs, including wrestling, volleyball, soccer, swim and dive, field hockey and baseball.
Just to name a few.
“It is very unique,” said Michigan coach Valerie Stead Potsos. “When you think about other sports, they’ve only got to focus on their own sport and their own competition, whereas we’re not only got our own competition, but we’re focusing also on performing at other sports as well. It’s pretty amazing … you make it work though. There’s mental toughness, being in this program, and having to make those kinds of challenges work — it’s going to make them a much healthier professional someday.”
With a budding alumni program for the team, the connection between program graduates and current team members is growing. The coaching staff integrated a setup where current team members in a particular field are matched with team alumni in similar career paths — like a nursing student and a pediatrician — during homecoming weekend in order to help the athletes build their professional resumes and network.
For 38 years, the Michigan dance team has existed on campus, and programs like the alumni association are just another step to the ever-evolving history within the program. They made the transition from club level to team recognition by the athletic department in 1998. They became a Michigan football staple starting in 2002. They’ve made program history — two years straight, with more on the way — worthy of every article, video segment or vote of appreciation they get.
And although McAuliffe won’t be running through the Michigan tunnel again, she sure has a lot to be proud of.