‘I wouldn’t trade it for nothing’: Pitt cheering and dance team members talk about match experience
On match day at Heinz Field, many fans have their eyes riveted on the football field and miss out on what is available outside of the game itself. Located mostly in the corners of Heinz Field, the cheerleaders and dancers add a layer of excitement with their artful routines. What many don’t know is that much of the act is made up on the fly.
“We do the same for the kickoffs and touchdowns, but everything else is pretty spontaneous,” said senior cheerleader Kendall Johnson.
As the match day captain, Johnson arranges for when the team sings some of their chants and prepares the team for the terms of the match.
Being a part of these squads takes a lot of time and dedication. Second-year cheerleader Ma’kiihl Plunkett has to manage her time as a cheerleader, student, and resident assistant while maintaining a social life.
“I have very good time management skills,” Plunkett said. “But sometimes things happen and my coach is always understanding.”
Football is a sport in which teams tend to make mistakes. But on any given game, someone can make a mistake and fans might not notice. For the cheer and dance teams, their mistakes are just as, if not more, noticeable, and the team hopes to keep those hiccups as low as possible.
“It’s stressful, sure,” Johnson said. “You never want to fail or fall in front of so many people. However, if we mess, we know it’s not the end of the world and we pick ourselves up and keep going. “
The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the 2020 season and prevented both teams from being on the pitch, or even fans from being in the stands. Needless to say, everyone is happy to have lighter restrictions this year.
“It’s just nice to be back with the fans and the team,” Johnson said. “We still have to be safe, but be back with the fans because the crowd is great.”
The Panthers have played seven home games at Heinz Field this year. For cheer and dance teams, the home games put groups of cheerleaders and dancers in each corner performing various routines. Groups perform different choreographed dances or cheers during down times and between shifts. Between the different groups, Roc the Panther and the playing on the pitch, fans are never left without something to watch.
One segment that occurs in every home game in the third quarter is a choreographed dance in which all dancers participate. Senior dance captain Samantha David, a member of the dance team for four years, is heavily involved in the planning of the third quarter routine.
“It’s a way for us to engage the crowd,” said David. “We choose songs and dances that will engage the crowd. “
There are certain hurdles teams need to overcome at home, including early morning festivities and all day long festivities.
“Sometimes after games we hurt,” Johnson said. “But eventually you get used to it and learn to prepare. It is worth it if we win.
The road games bring different obstacles. At home, both teams know what songs will be played and what will keep the crowds entertained. But for away games, the dancers have to invent dances on the fly.
On the road, teams must travel, mainly by bus or plane, to different stadiums. Since teams have fewer routines to do and fewer fans to engage, more improvisation is needed for road games.
“We don’t do that much in away games,” Plunkett said. “We’re just trying to engage our fans to the best of our ability.”
The soccer team has had a lot of success this year, including its first 10 regular season wins since 1981 and an undefeated road record. The cheer and dance units are honorary members of the football team on game days and are just as proud of wins and losses as the players, according to Plunkett.
“I’m so nervous during games,” Plunkett said. “Especially when they’re close, I just want us to win.”
As the season draws to a close, selected members of both teams will travel to the CCA Championship game in Charlotte, NC. There, they will participate in the “Battle of the Bands”, a competition between groups of ACC Championship teams. Johnson and David are among the members making the trip.
As seniors, when asked about their time at Pitt, Johnson and David recalled their favorite memories from that season.
“Between extra time, the rain and the supporters, the UNC game was my favorite, ”Johnson said.
David said that the Clemson game took the cake. Between the fan atmosphere and the scale of the victory, David said the match was a special experience for her.
“I made a lot of memories here at Pitt,” said David. “But one of my favorites was the Clemson game because the fans stayed the whole game.”
The chance to be part of a Pitt game day has been an experience many squad members say they won’t forget. Asked about her time in Pitt, David was very grateful for her experience as a Pitt dancer.
“I love being a dancer here in Pitt,” said David. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Whatever the outcome at Charlotte next weekend, the teams will remain united and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the fan experience.
“My favorite part of game day is the end,” Johnson said. “Singing the song of the fight and knowing that we made it as a team is always rewarding and it’s even better when we win.”