The Lionettes Dance Team
For nearly 20 years, the Penn State Lionettes Dance Team has entertained fans attending Nittany Lion football games at Beaver Stadium. This season, for the first time, the Lionettes will be performing as the defending National Dance Alliance Champions.
The team won the championship in April, besting Brigham Young and Louisville.
Formed in 1995, the Lionettes started as a kick line that performed at various sporting events. They quickly became a regular fixture in the stands of Beaver Stadium during home football games, and when current team advisor Dr. Sue Sherburne and former academic advisor Don Ferrell joined the team in 1997, the team’s exposure only grew. The two worked to move the Lionettes’ performances from the stands to the field. They also had the team perform at men’s and women’s basketball games and other sporting events during the year.
The dance team also has become increasingly involved in activities such as Penn State Homecoming, THON, and various charity events in the community. They have become a huge part of the CHAMPS Life Skills Program at Penn State, where they read to children and participate in All-Sports Day for Special Olympics.
“We have made an effort to build a program where the girls are, yes, getting better at dance and getting more skilled at dance — but in addition are able to enhance their involvement in the community, their involvement on campus, and also involvement and participation in different leadership opportunities around campus,” Sherburne says.
To have the opportunity to be a part of the Lionettes, team hopefuls audition each April. Tryouts consist of an open clinic where young women learn a series of routines consisting of jazz, hip-hop, and pom dance styles. Each person trying out also needs to show a basic set of technical skills.
After the initial round of tryouts, a cut is made. Those who are invited back for the second round are put into groups of three to perform the same routines from the first round. Sherburne says this is to let the participants prepare a bit more. After another evaluation and another cut, those who are invited back go through an interview process with a panel of judges. Sherburne says after hearing the young women’s interests and what each believes she would bring to the team, the new Lionettes are chosen.
Sherburne says that even if someone is on the team from the previous year, they must try out for the team each year, as no position is guaranteed.
“I don’t think you get better unless you push yourself,” she says.
Natalie Sarver, a captain of the 2011-12 team, says this is why having the chance to dance for Penn State is something every Lionette truly appreciates.
“It’s an opportunity that you can never forget. I never took it for granted, that’s for sure. Every day was a new experience,” she says, adding that when they are dancing, “you have chills because you are representing Penn State.”
Sherburne says because the dancers do represent Penn State as spirit leaders, they also are ambassadors for the university. Because of this, she believes the members of the dance team are great role models for the younger generation. With the amount of negativity shown to young women by the media, Sherburne says the Lionettes take their positions as role models very seriously.
Melissa Diehl, a captain of the 2011-12 team, says the team looks up to Sherburne as their role model.
“She really takes this team beyond dance. She shows us that we can be strong, smart, beautiful, independent women,” Diehl says. This feeling is exactly what Sherburne hopes the dancers achieve during their time with the team.
“We just want to be a group of women who are classy and who are good role models, because there’s an opportunity to do it differently and we just don’t want to do it that way,” she says.
Since the team doesn’t have a full-time coach, Sherburne, as advisor, takes on all roles except leading practice directly. This she leaves to the three Lionettes captains, who are voted in each year by their peers.
Sarver says captains take control of delegating roles to others, while making sure each member of the team is on the same page. She says it was important for her and fellow captains Diehl and Jenna Dolce, to have team unity during the entire year. The three worked to make sure that each member felt just as important as another.
Captains also work to create a rotating choreography schedule for their performances during football and basketball games. Dancers who have been on the team for more than one semester are eligible to help choreograph routines.
In order to keep these routines fresh and exciting, no dance is used twice during either season. This means dancers must create, retain, and perform a large amount of choreography during each season.
Diehl says being able to lead the team with Sarver and Dolce was an amazing experience, as it provided her with much more than just a continued passion for dance.
“I have been able to enhance my leadership skills far beyond what I ever thought they could be. I have become such a better person by just being on this team,” she says.
The Lionettes also elect a nationals coordinator, who serves as a nationals captain. For the 2011-12 season, Nicole Symeonides filled this role. By working directly with the team choreographer, Laura King, Symeonides was able to show her passion for dance. As soon as basketball season ended, Symeonides increased practices for nationals, pushing members to work even harder than before.
“It gets exhausting, but it’s so worth it,” she says.
For the national-championship competition, the Lionettes worked on perfectly performing a routine composed of jazz, hip-hop, and pom dance styles created by King.
“You’ve got to be elite in all those three styles,” Sherburne says.
Though the past few years have shown an increase in gymnastic skills, a team’s core base, Sherburne says, is still in technical talent because scores are based on choreography and performance. Additional scores for overall impression and collegiate image also are included. Sherburne says this makes it common to see more theme-based dances.
For their theme, the Lionettes kicked back to the Victorian era.
“This year was different for us. We did more of a Victorian theme, sort of like a queen on her throne with class and poise. She had a bit of sass to her,” Sarver says.
She adds that the theme allowed the Lionettes to come out of their shells and dance as if they owned the stage.
“We’re confident dancers, but we’ve never explored that sort of sassy side. We’re pretty conservative on the field,” Sarver says.
Once the Lionettes stepped on stage for the preliminary round in Daytona, Florida, Sherburne was speechless.
“It was the best performance I have ever seen from this team from years past,” she says. “And in a preliminary competition, they couldn’t have done better. It was that good and you knew it. When they hit, they hit. You could feel it. You could see it.”
Sarver also could see that the team was ready to perform prior to their final-round routine. “We saw the fire in our eyes. It was literally electric! We were ready to go,” she says, “There was no doubt in my mind we were going to kill every move on that floor!”
In the three previous competitions, the Lionettes had two fourth-place finishes and a third-place finish. When the announcement was made that they had defeated previous champion Brigham Young by just one one-hundredth of a point, the team was astonished.
“It was such a proud moment for us because we had worked so hard to get up to that level and up to those standards,” Sarver says. “When they announced that we were in first place … it was pure joy. I was so proud of my team!”
In such a trying year for Penn State, Symeonides says the Lionettes’ winning their first national championship meant much more than just a trophy and title. “We wanted to do well at nationals for us, for the school,” she says. “It shows miracles do happen. Good things come out of bad things, so there is still hope for us!”