From Heartbreak to TikTok Stardom: The LSU Tiger Girls’ Incredible Journey
If you’re active on TikTok, you’ve probably seen the video.
A group of dancers pose on stage in matching black and white uniforms. When the music starts and the women turn to the front, the crowd erupts in cheers. Their dancing is lively, energetic and confident – and when the women freeze in formation at the end of their routine, the crowd goes wild.
The event is the 2022 Universal Dance Association College Nationals, where dance teams from the nation’s top colleges competed for more … than 35 years. The song is Ciara’s hit “Like A Boy,” in which the pop star dreams of acting more like a man.
But most importantly, it’s the young women taking the stage – women who, a year ago, weren’t allowed to compete. It’s the LSU Tiger Girls, and their dance, which has since gained millions of views on TikTok, is more than just a routine, they say. It is their recovery.
Hard work and heartache
Louisiana State University’s Tiger Girls dance team is one of the nation’s elite collegiate dance teams, with two national titles in 23 seasons.
Team members dance on the sidelines of most major sports, including SEC and NCAA basketball championships, but their goal is to compete nationally as dancers, said head coach Kandace Hale to CBS News. Even though dancing is not recognized as a sport by the NCAA, Hale said the Tiger Girls are required to adhere to student-athlete guidelines, including attending more than 10 hours of rehearsal each week and maintaining a Minimum average GPA.
So when the LSU Tiger Girls asked to attend the 2021 UDA College Nationals, as they do every year, Hale said they were surprised by the school’s response: They weren’t allowed to go.
Hale said she was told the team couldn’t attend the competition, which is usually held in Orlando, Florida, during a meeting in January 2021. She said the reason for the refusal keeps changing during several meetings: first COVID-19, then funding, then because no sports coach could be spared for his season. Hale said he was told NCAA-recognized sports “come first.”
“Last year was very devastating because that trust was shattered,” Hale told CBS News. “It happened so fast.”
But although the team was not allowed to compete for their national title, they were still expected to cheer on other sports teams throughout the year – all of whom were allowed to attend at their national championship meets — Hale said.
LSU Athletics did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the decision.
In a last-ditch effort, LSU alumnus and current assistant choreographer Samantha McFadden launched the #LetThemCompete campaign, criticizing the department for its treatment of the team.
But despite these efforts, the decision remained the same. “We fought tooth and nail,” McFadden said. “In the end, time ran out.”
Ariel Brumfield, 21, called the decision “devastating”.
Brumfield, one of the team’s captains, said the decision highlights the “social stigma” of dance teams, particularly over the respect and financial support given to male athletes.
Caliea Koehler, 20, told CBS News it was hard to see her peers “doing what they love” when they didn’t have the same opportunity.
“It was honestly heartbreaking. We’ve been training since we were 2 or 3 years old to finally get to a collegiate level and compete with the best of the best,” Koehler said.
An “inspired” routine
When the Tiger Girls returned for the 2021-22 season, they had something to prove. Tribe 99 choreographer Carsen Rowe told CBS News that she and McFadden spent hours picking out the routine for the season.
The heartbreak of the previous year presented an “inspired” opportunity, she said, but it also meant taking a risk. Many routines use snippets from multiple songs to keep the energy high. Using only “Like A Boy” meant there was nothing for the dancers to hide behind.
“From our side as choreographers, this year has been terrifying for us simply because it was so different. [Sammy and I] called each other every week and said, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Or are we setting them up to fail? It was a roller coaster,” Rowe said.
But when Rowe and McFadden explained to the dancers their plan – to channel the lost energy of 2021 into a routine dedicated to what happened – Rowe said their response was incredible.
“I think it really touched us,” Koehler added. “Listening to the lyrics and what the song stood for was motivation and brought out another side of all of us to tell this story to the world.”
On January 15, the Tiger Girls arrived at the UDA Nationals for the first time in two years after countless hours of practice.
The dancers perform the same dance several times during the competition and are informed of the leading teams at the end of each evening. McFadden and Rowe were thrilled to learn that LSU was seeded first after their semifinal performance. But they soon realized something bigger was going on.
When the women finished their performance in the semi-finals, teams from other schools met them outside. As they walked outside in a now viral videoother dance crews clapped and cheered while playing “Like A Boy” from the loudspeakers.
“Honestly, between the semis and the final performance, so literally 24 hours, there were people in the audience who knew the memorable parts of the dance and did it with the girls,” Rowe said. “I was like, what’s going on?”
A new challenge
When the Tiger Girls danced for the last time in the finale, they were on stage for less than 3 minutes – but sophomore Lily Dodge said ‘taking the last pose and watching a standing crowd was something something I will never forget.”
That memory was only eclipsed by its next: crying and shaking hands with fellow Tiger Girls as the hosts announced they were the 2022 UDA Hip Hop National Champions.
But the team’s moment in the spotlight wasn’t over. Twenty-four hours after the competition, the routine had millions of views on TikTok. A week after the Nationals, dance teams from other schools were releasing their own versions. Ciara even reposted their dance on her Instagram story, with the caption, “Come on girls! Go!”
“We didn’t expect it to get this big,” Brumfield said. “We were literally on the bus coming home from Nationals when Ciara dropped us off, and we all started bawling and going crazy. It exceeded our wildest dreams.”
But what the team noticed most in the comments was how much the routine meant to other college dancers, many of whom said they had experienced similar treatment from their own athletic departments.
“While this just happened at LSU, inequities within the Spirit programs are extremely common,” McFadden said. “And at that time, this whole auditorium was rooting for LSU.”
LSU’s athletic department has since asked the team to perform their routine at a women’s basketball game and said the win would be recognized at another athletic event, according to Hale. But Rowe says after such a frustrating and demeaning year, she hopes other athletic departments do more to support their athletes.
“Although LSU is highlighted right now, what happened to them happened to dozens of other dance teams during COVID-19,” she said. “Some were told they couldn’t compete, some of them were cut, some were gone completely. There’s such an outdated perspective on what we do.”
None of the LSU Tiger Girls think they’ve changed the face of the dance world. But they hope their moment of popularity could bring more attention to collegiate dancing.
“It’s really about recognition,” McFadden said. “What [these athletes] doing is amazing and it’s so underappreciated and misunderstood and all we can hope is that it continues to spark a larger conversation to close that stale gap of people in athletic departments. Our dancers are much more than pretty girls on the sidelines.”