This article originally appeared in the New University on February 3, 2015 and has been republished with the author’s permission.

Under the soaring ceiling of the Bren Events Center, a UC Irvine logo is stamped proudly on the middle of the floor. This glistening wooden floor that squeaks under the sound of basketball shoes is not only a home court for UC Irvine’s athletic showdowns, but it is also the home stage for the athletic performances of UC Irvine’s Spirit Squad.

Standing off stage, the squad is recognized in the sea of blue and gold by their pom-poms, which are utilized as eye catching props and, at certain times of collective rallying, become signal flags guiding the audience through chanting and cheering. The squad’s unison is perfectly timed as strong beats from the band is playing nearby in the stands.

“Red lipstick is the dance team’s thing,” says the dance captain, Ashley Doan, a fourth-year chemistry major. “The cheer team has their own preferences, but it is required for them to wear their hair pulled back because they stunt.”

The team reaching to the sky with blue pom-poms, wearing flesh colored tights and jazz shoes, hair down and bright, bold red lipstick is UCI’s dance team. The team shaking yellow pom-poms, wearing white sneakers and socks, with bouncy pony-tails is UCI’s cheer team.

Standing on their own, these teams are strong and athletic. The dance team specializes in hip-hop derived movements and technical jazz turns in second position called alisicones and bounding ballet leaps. At performances, the teams showcases their professional, eye-pleasing routine with roll-off movements and formation changes.

On the other pom-pom-holding hand, the UCI cheer team specializes in standing stunts, long tumbling passes and pyramid-style flying that involves bases and spotters. The cheer team’s thrilling, flashy teamwork reads high into the stands.

Working as a unit, the Spirit Squad is an energetic, bright, smiling force to be reckoned with, wooing the crowd and inducing cheers, applause and audible “Wows!”

The current head coach of UCI’s Spirit Squad, Andrea Marcantonio, studied biological sciences at UC Irvine as an undergraduate from the class of 2009. Marcantonio was a spirit squad member all four of her Anteater years. She says there is a lot more to those sparkly uniforms than meets the eye.

“Every year, the squad has to re-audition for their spots,” Coach Marcantonio said.

Annual auditions are usually held between May and June. The team will cap out at 30 members, but there is no set number for the squad from year to year. About 50 Anteater hopefuls come to the auditions every year and even more throw in their talents through video submissions.

“We have outside judges that come in and evaluate through score sheets, so the choosing is very objective,” explained Coach Marcantonio. “Cheer and dance, learn separate material and perform it in smaller groups.”

“Most on the team want to continue what they loved in high-school,” Coach Marcantonio said.

Coach Marcantonio explained that the criteria for the dance team is a strong technical, dance studio background, while the cheer team requires a previous gymnastic and team stunting background.

A week after auditions, the final team roster is posted on the UCI sports website and there is a follow-up orientation meeting, where they will sign their contracts and meet brand-new teammates, who they will spend hours with the rest of the school year.

The Spirit Squad doesn’t just automatically know a polished, final routine and sideline cheers and dance segments. To perform the routines they showcase at games, the squad practices three hours, twice per week.

On special occasions, the dance team hosts special outside choreographers from the United Cheer Association, while the cheer team participates in special stunt clinics to perfect their next tumbling passes and team stunts.  When not choreographing, rehearsing or perfecting their small and large performances, the team does charity work.

Doan, dance captain for a second year for the squad, lovingly refers to her teammates as “my girls.” She relays that “her girls” and her will go to events in uniform to perform or just socialize.

“Once during a Girl’s Scout event, there were no cookies, but we were asked for our autographs,” Doan said.

This year, the squad has appeared at the Parkinsons Walk at William Mason Park and American Heart Walk at the Honda Center. Before the end of the school year, they will have appeared at at least 20 events on and off the UC Irvine campus.

A favorite time of year for the squad is during the Big West Conference for men’s basketball.

“It is the only time we get to see squads from other schools because we aren’t funded enough to go out to away games,” said Doan, with excitement in her eyes when she talking about the performance. “We get to perform for them and they for us, and of course, we cheer for each other.”

Marcantonio continues this commentary, relaying that University of Hawai’i seems to be “stepping up their game,” reinforcing the idea that UC Irvine has a strong position in the spirit squads throughout the Big West Conference.

Competition is not at the center of the squad. Every year the coach asks the team if they want to attend a competition. They have voted against it for the last three years.

“We are first and foremost a spirit group at games. We amp people up,” said Coach Marcantonio.

The coach expressed the precarious balance between academics and the squad. A competition means added hours and commitment, and most members do this for performing, not the pressure of competing.  Some girls do use the spirit squad as a springboard into more well-known spirit teams, like the Los Angeles Clippers, San Diego Chargers and Golden State Warriors. Current dance team member and third-year Jayda Walker made it to the final round of the most recent Clippers audition before being cut.

“In some schools a squad gets a stipend or free books. Here at UC Irvine the girls get warm-ups, a uniform and some pom-poms. Most of the squad’s first priority is academics, and this program is perfect for that,” Coach Marcantonio said. “They are a close team, they go out to dinner all the time [and] have sleep overs.”

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