‘Wouldn’t trade it for anything’: Pitt cheer and dance team members talk gameday experience

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

The Pitt cheer and dance team performs on the sidelines of the Pitt vs. UNC game in November.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

On game day at Heinz Field, many fans have their eyes locked on the football field and don’t take advantage of what’s available outside of the game itself. Located primarily in the corners of Heinz Field, cheerleaders and dancers add a layer of excitement with their crafty routines. What many don’t know is that a lot of the act is made up on the fly.

“We do the same thing for kickoffs and touchdowns, but everything else is pretty spontaneous,” senior cheerleader Kendall Johnson said.

As a game day captain, Johnson organizes when the team does some of its chants, as well as prepares the team for game conditions.

Being a member of these squads requires a good deal of time and dedication. Ma’kiihl Plunkett, a sophomore cheerleader, has to manage his time as a cheerleader, student and resident assistant while also maintaining a social life.

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“I have very good time management skills,” Plunkett said. “But sometimes things come up and my coach is always understanding.”

Football is a sport in which teams are prone to make mistakes. But on any given play, someone can make a mistake and the fans may not notice. For the cheer and dance squads, their mistakes are just as, if not more, noticeable, and the team hopes to limit these hiccups as much as possible.

“It’s stressful, definitely,” Johnson said. “You never want to fail or fall in front of that many people. However, if we do mess up, we know it is not the end of the world and we just get back up and keep going.”

The COVID-19 pandemic restricted the 2020 season and prevented the two squads from being on the field, or fans from even being in the stands. Needless to say, everyone is glad to have lighter restrictions this year.

“It’s just nice to be back out there with the fans and the team,” Johnson said, “We still have to be safe, but being back out there with the fans as the crowd is great.”

The Panthers had seven home games at Heinz Field this year. For the cheer and dance teams, home games put groups of cheerleaders and dancers into each corner performing various routines. The groups do different choreographed dances or cheers during timeouts and in between quarters. Between the different groups, Roc the Panther and the play on the field, fans are never left without something to watch.

One segment that occurs every home game in the third quarter is a choreographed dance which all dancers participate in. Senior dance captain Samantha David, a four-year member of the dance team, is very involved in planning the third quarter routine.

“It’s a way for us to get the crowd engaged,” David said. “We choose songs and dances that will get the crowd engaged.”

There are some obstacles the squads have to overcome at home, including early mornings and day-long festivities.

“Sometimes after games we are sore,” Johnson said. “But eventually you get used to it and learn how to prepare yourself. It is worth it if we win.”

Road games bring different obstacles. At home, the two squads know what songs will be played and what will entertain the crowds. But for away games, the dancers have to come up with dances on the fly.

On the road, the squads have to travel, mostly by bus or plane, to various stadiums. Due to the teams having fewer routines to do and fans to engage, more improvisation is required for road games.

“We don’t do as much during away games,” Plunkett said. “We just try to engage our fans to the best of our ability.”

The football team has seen plenty of success this year, including their first 10-win regular season since 1981 and an undefeated road record. The cheer and dance units are honorary members of the football team on game days and take just as much pride in wins and losses as the players, according to Plunkett.

“I am so nervous during games,” Plunkett said. “Especially when they are close, I just want us to win.”

Heading into the end of the season, select members of the two squads will travel to the ACC Championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, they will participate in the “Battle of the Bands,” a competition between the bands of the ACC Championship teams. Johnson and David are among the members making the trip.

As seniors, when asked about their time at Pitt, both Johnson and David recalled their favorite memories that occurred this season.

“Between the overtime, the rain and the fans, the UNC game was my favorite,” Johnson said.

David said the Clemson game took the cake. Between the fan atmosphere and the magnitude of the win, David said the game was an experience that was special to her.

“I have made many memories here at Pitt,” David said. “But one of my favorites was the Clemson game because the fans stayed for the entire game.” 

The ability to be a part of a Pitt game day has been an experience that many on the team say they will not forget. When asked about her time at Pitt, David was very thankful for her experience as a Pitt dancer.

“I love being a dancer here at Pitt,” David said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

No matter the result in Charlotte next weekend, the squads 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 fight song and knowing that we made it to the end as a team is always rewarding and it’s even better when we win.”