Despite a lack of official athletic status, the Diamond Gems dance team finished in fourth place at Nationals.
Fourteen girls stuffed into an aerosol-filled room the size of a cubicle snapped on tights and pushed in bobby pins. Warm-up outfits were stripped off, and shimmering Cherry and White body suits replaced them.
Junior Stephanie McCaffrey piped up amid the laughter and chitchat.
“Welcome to the life of a Diamond Gem.”
But to be a member of Temple’s dance team entails more than the girls’ glittery faces and pom-poms might lead on.
On Jan. 16, the Diamond Gems placed fourth at the 2010 Universal Dance Association College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
“We were too inexperienced to be nervous because we didn’t know what any other team had, but we know what we had, and we looked at the whole thing like, ‘Well, we’re just going to do our own thing,’ and it worked out,” junior Lacie McGowan said.
“And, we’re all hams, so being in front of a lot of people gave us the extra energy,” McCaffrey added.
This year’s trip to Nationals was a first for the team, which, until now, has gone three years without a steady coach.
“Every team in our division has competed at least once before, if not for the past 10 to 15 years,” said Megan Teesdale, the team’s coach since August 2009. “It was amazing to not only crack the Top 40 percent but the Top 5 teams.”
For a group of girls who was used to supporting other athletic teams, the adrenaline rush that comes from being the center of attention was worth the trip to Orlando.
“In the beginning of our routine, we start in a huddle, and we’re all touching and holding on, squeezing so hard that we’re all shaking, and we’re whispering, ‘Give it all you’ve got, no regrets,’” McGowan said. “And then the music starts and it’s just, ah, that feeling , it’s indescribable.”
Choreographing the squad’s routine, which was compiled from Philly-style dance moves and songs like The Fresh Prince and Rocky theme songs, was a collaborative effort among Teesdale and the team members – after overcoming a few road blocks.
“We had a lot of Bring It On moments,” junior Chelsea Wargo said. “We had this one choreographer come in from off the streets. He was teaching these moves that kindergartners could pick up, but he would be like, ‘Oh, you girls are so good. Can I tape that? That’s hot!’ He would do this one move that would go on for two eight-counts, and we would just stand there in awe.”
“And I cried in the bathroom while they were learning it,” Teesdale added with a laugh.
But the Gems did bring in some serious help when it came time to add outside influence to their choreography. They worked with Ja-mel Vereen, a Temple alumnus and brother in Gamma Phi Sigma, and Fresh Select, a group of break dancers.
“We wanted to bring the Philly swag to the dance team,” McGowan said. “[Vereen] brought some stepping and fraternity things, and Fresh Select brought the break dancing, and we brought the dance team aspect to all of that.”
“It was truly our routine,” Teesdale said. “Most teams pay thousands of dollars for choreographers.”
The team’s budget was one of many obstacles to overcome before taking the Nationals floor. In order to compete in Orlando, each Gem paid $500 from her own pocket. Practice space is also paid for from the team budget, as the Diamond Gems are not an official athletics team and are not granted gym time.
“The girls don’t get any of the perks of being what is considered athlete status, but they’re also not a student organization,” Teesdale said. “We’re kind of in limbo.”
Prior to January, the girls made do with whatever practice space they could find.
“We’ve practiced in Kardon[-Atlantic Terminal Building], in the lobby of the Liacouras Center,” Teesdale said. “We were fortunate in January, though, when [Facilities Director] Karen Williams blocked us out a space. We had Pearson Hall 145, and we basically lived in that room.”
Starting Jan. 2, the girls practiced for as many as 10 hours per day. On game days, the squad would practice for four hours in the morning, take a lunch break, practice for three more hours and then show off their moves at basketball games at night.
“They worked so hard and didn’t complain – too much,” Teesdale said with a laugh.
Diamond Gems founder and former coach Shelley Pope-Keitt said working hard through adversity has been what the Diamond Gems have prided themselves in since first setting foot on the gym floor in 1991.
“Our first year, we didn’t have much of a budget,” Pope-Keitt said. “The administration wanted a dance team, but it was kind of a pilot. We knew that other major universities had dance teams, and we wanted to try it out to see how it went.”
Pope-Keitt said about 50 girls tried out to be part of the 15-member team in 1991. When she returned to coach in 1994, she said as many as 200 girls showed up to the tryouts.
“I think about the camaraderie the girls had, how hard they worked, and when I see [those same girls] today, you can tell that a lot of what they learned as a Diamond Gem has carried out through whatever they decided to do with their lives, because they’re all doing extremely well.
“I think when I started the program, we kind of started it just because we wanted to get back into dance as a group,” Pope-Keitt added. “We never imagined that 10 years later we’d still be seeing the same caliber of excellence. We’re really proud of that. They’re not just girls jumping around in cute outfits. They’re athletes.”
Teesdale and the rest of the girls agreed that among all their physical and monetary obstacles, being respected as student-athletes is perhaps the greatest struggle in the life of a Diamond Gem.
“We need people to understand how hard we work,” senior captain Alyssa Spangler said. “We don’t just do this to be out on the court and flip our hair and get attention. The hours we put in, the stuff we put up with and that we have to do are tough, but I can’t imagine college without it. When I think back at college, I’m going to think of the Diamond Gems.”
Maria Zankey can be reached at email@example.com.