Practice, pain, pure energy: North Carolina A&T cheerleaders are the real MVPs
As Aggies enjoy The Greatest Homecoming on Earth, the Gold Squad’s athleticism is the heart of stomp ‘n’ shake
GREENSBORO, North Carolina — It’s 7 o’clock on a muggy August morning. The air is still. You can see rolling hills, historic buildings, newly erected amenities and acres of landscaped spaces. At the largest historically black college or university (HBCU) in the nation, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, all points intersect at the new Deese Clock Tower. The only sounds echoing throughout Aggieland are game-day chants from the Aggie Gold Squad cheerleaders. But this is not just your regular preseason practice — it’s Camp Week. And it’s the last day.
It’s been a journey. These are the young women, rookies and veterans, who went through the grueling process of making the squad. In the week’s kickoff meeting, co-head coach Adjoa Botwe-Rankin, adorned in Aggie colors, told the 2018-19 Gold Squad: “During Camp Week, we’ll take your keys and your phones,” she said. “So let your moms know … you are safe, and you will be well taken care of.”
The Gold Squad cheerleaders are North Carolina A&T’s premier campus team. They are expected to perform advanced levels of tumbling and stunting, and they have a stringent selection process. During the spring ’18 tryouts, 80-plus potential team members were whittled down to the strongest 21 athletes to form the 2018-19 Gold Squad.
The squad is often required to travel and to make special campus and community appearances. Like most cheerleading programs around the world, the first Aggie cheerleaders were men. Over the years, the team has been both coed and all-girl, with tryouts focusing less on gender than skill. In the past few years, however, the Gold Squad has been dominated by Black Girl Magic.
And now, a coach’s voice shouts: “Camp Week is upon us! The most challenging week of the year. If it’s raining, we will stay out there — even if it’s a monsoon!”
5, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 … let’s go, Aggies!
When dawn breaks on the first day of Camp Week and the sun peers over what most still call Aggie Stadium (though it’s now branded BB&T Stadium), voices are chanting in unison. Over and over, on the track, the Gold Squad goes over game-day stunt drills. They lift and prep and lift and prep. As sweat trickles down foreheads, each extension is flawless. The top girls gracefully rise, as they are thrust into the air by their bases, and contort their bodies into beautifully appointed positions.
The team rotates through four stunt groups, adjusting for the inevitable variances. The coaching staff provides direction. “Other people lift weights,” said coach Wenalyn S. Bell Glenn, “we lift people.” And when people are lifted, stuff happens. It’s still early in the day when one of the athletes is off to the side with an athletic trainer, nursing an apparent ankle strain.
As the squad breaks to grab water and stretch, Botwe-Rankin offers direction on how to properly massage aching wrists. Some women sit in therapeutic splits, while others stand and stretch their shoulders. A makeshift infirmary has formed, as there are now three athletes out temporarily because of pain.
“This wouldn’t be cheerleading if things didn’t happen this way,” says Botwe-Rankin. “People have preconceptions about cheerleading, but there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Even newly appointed team athletic trainer Jaime Payamps is surprised. “Before working with the Aggies, I didn’t think that cheerleading was a sport,” he said. “But after what I’ve seen from these young ladies, it absolutely is.” Studies have shown that cheerleading has become the most dangerous sport for female athletes and carries a greater risk for catastrophic injury than even football does for young men. Injuries range in severity from ankle and wrist sprains to the head injuries and concussions associated with the risks of stunting. Stunting is a skill set in which teams build pyramids and toss their mates in the air upward of 10 feet as they perform a variety of acrobatics.
“We do all of this and we don’t even have a facility to do it in,” said Glenn. “Nobody knows what we go through, or [even] where we’re practicing, in order to make the brand look good.”
Aggies get up / ’Cause we don’t take no mess / We’re gonna rock / You / ’Cause we shake the best / Aggie … Pride!
Those who are able resume practice. The coaches and the team pride themselves on a blended program that combines elements of both the HBCU stomp ’n’ shake style and traditional, more technical cheerleading models. Stomp ’n’ shake cheerleading originated in the late 1970s among African-American cheerleaders in the Carolina and Virginia regions.
This style incorporates popular dance and step moves and features added rhythmic flair. Stomp ’n’ shake forgoes a conventional perky image for a more bold, in-your-face style filled with sass. Traditional cheerleading focuses primarily on the technical aspect of sharp motions and heavily features stunting and tumbling sequences.
“When people think of HBCU cheerleading,” said Botwe-Rankin, “all they think about is stomp ’n’ shake. Here at A&T … we want to preserve the history [of] A&T cheerleading.”
Meanwhile: “If you’re gonna die, die where we can see you!”
Glenn is shouting as the team gets in position to run Aggie Stadium. The sounds of Snoop Dogg and Lil Jon blast as the Gold Squad makes its way from one end of the stadium to another and back. Glenn jogs alongside the young women, providing as much comic relief as motivation.
Members of the football team leisurely pass the squad, peering in admiration. Up the bleachers then down the Gold Squad members go, pacing themselves as they traverse Aggie.
The team can’t finish the run until the last person makes it in. No water, no breaks, no nothing until every last squad member finishes her laps. One of the young women, with golden locks tightly secured away from her face, lags behind. As the squad continues at a steady trot, she leans over a railing and collects her breath.
“Come on, Talia! Push through! You got it!”
There will be no one left behind among this tightly knit team, least of all their co-captain.
“Jog it in, Talia!”
And the Gold Squad applauds as Talia rounds her final curve around their home base.
There’s no rest for the weary as the sun, now high in the sky, beats down on the squad as the Ying Yang Twins, playing in the background, encourage the squad to “shake it like a salt shaker.” Now there are lunges, squats, pushups and more. “You guys are a cheerleading team, right?” trainer Darlene Mitchell shouts. “You all need to be in sync with one another!” They work their way through drill after drill, focusing on stamina and paying close attention to synchronization.
“A lot about Aggie cheer,” said co-captain Kenya Merritt, “and about growing itself is about taking criticism the right way. … It’s a humbling experience.”
When they’re finally dismissed, most of the cheerleaders lie on the track, wiped. This week of practice is designed to push the squad beyond individual limits. As the Aggies finally retire for the day, cautiously ready to reset and do it all over again tomorrow, squad member Talia Thomas adds, “We’re all going through this together. You’re not the only one struggling. Lean on your teammates.”
But now Camp Week is almost over. It’s the last day, and the Gold Squad has a long run coming up.
Rock and roll / Bleed that Blue and Gold / Rock and roll / Bleed that Blue and Gold.
Upon leaving BB&T Stadium, the cheerleaders make their way down Benbow Road, passing Craig Hall, a center of global economic studies. Then they approach Proctor Hall — the School of Education is an architectural gem, built in 2011, and is often referred to as the face of the university. The girls in long colorful socks and matching gray shorts and sports bras chant as they jog in a line. Their coaches and team documentarians follow in cars and golf carts.
The Gold Squad includes athletes who hail from a variety of dance and movement and cheer backgrounds. Some, like Thomas, are trained gymnasts. Others, such as veteran members Kayla Womble and Ndi Patterson, are All-Star cheerleaders. Some young women have only ever had stomp ’n’ shake (also known as nontraditional) cheerleading training, while others have participated solely in traditional recreation and school cheer programs.
“The program is growing and changing for the better,” captain Brianna Tyler said earlier. “I’ve been on the Gold Squad for four years, and this is way different from what I did freshman year. We have to trust the coaches … and the process.”
The Gold Squad makes a left onto Market Street and comes upon the administration building. It’s named after Lewis C. Dowdy, the sixth president and first chancellor of North Carolina A&T — he spearheaded construction of Aggie Stadium. The team then makes what will be its last tour past the old engineering building. It was demolished on Oct. 29 to make way for a new engineering and research complex.
North Carolina A&T is historically known for its production of agriculturalists and engineers, making this passage particularly significant. The young women on the team represent a variety of academic programs, but the greatest percentage is concentrated in engineering and education. The leveling of the old engineering building creates a space for continued growth and innovation, a circumstance that is not lost on the team. “At the end of the day,” Thomas said later, “we are leaving a legacy. … We won’t be here forever.”
When the Gold Squad cheerleaders round the corner of Dudley Street, they’re near the precipice of their run: the monument commemorating the Greensboro Four. In February 1960, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Jibreel Khazan (then Ezell Blair Jr.) and Joe McNeil, four North Carolina A&T freshmen, were frustrated with their experiences of being denied service at Woolworth’s. Famously, influentially and successfully, they sat at the store’s lunch counter calmly asking to be served. They made and changed history.
The team switches its cadence and marches through an area called The Strip, the epicenter of campus life. People watch as the women make their final turns. Sweat pours down faces and limbs. Expressions are distorted by discomfort and fatigue as they fight their way through exhaustion back to Aggie Stadium.
But with their base in sight, there’s a renewed burst of energy. North Carolina A&T, and everything it stands for — this is why the Gold Squad stomps and shakes and shouts.
Lawn sprinklers click to life as if welcoming the team home.
Aggie Pride is more than just a phrase or social media hashtag. To have Aggie Pride is to believe in the precepts outlined by the university’s founders, it is to be in tune with the university’s heritage, it is to be invested in its continued advancement, and it is to carry all of that with you far after graduation. Aggie Pride has now paved the way for the more modern mantra #AggiesDo.
In the locker room of the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Fitness and Wellness Center, Glenn, an A&T graduate, reviews the expectations detailed in the women’s contracts. Technically, the Aggie Gold Squad is sponsored by the North Carolina A&T Athletics Department, which covers most of their participatory costs. Upholding the outlined standards are non-negotiable.
“You must be a representative of the university in appearance, total conduct and effort,” said Glenn. She announces that the squad has been invited to perform in Jamestown, an affluent suburb of Greensboro. “People don’t call in and say, ‘Send the football team.’ They want the cheerleaders, or the band. That’s a huge deal! Be mindful of who you are representing.”
The outdoor backdrop shifts to gloomy as storm clouds move in. Thunder can be heard, but the women in the locker room are unfazed. A particular moment that the Gold Squad has been waiting for has arrived: The team’s new Nike tote bags are to be distributed. Nike has been in partnership with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) since 2005 and, as of September 2016, expanded the partnership to become the official brand of the MEAC. Glenn proudly marches across the length of the room modeling the tote for all to see. The Aggie Gold Squad also gets set for uniform distribution.
Anticipation mounts. The rookies are separated from the veterans as each young woman is directed to a locker with her name on it. Soon, there are gasps and oohs and aahs.
Each locker has been neatly filled with exclusive Aggie paraphernalia and game-day essentials. The cheerleaders pull out each of their spirit items. Some carefully remove their spirit items, while others more impatiently free gear from its packaging. There are bows in Aggie blue and gold, tumblers, bullhorns, tank tops, water bottles, shoes … then:
This is the sound made when a member of the Gold Squad catches a glimpse of one of several uniforms. As coaches distribute the ’fits, the locker room is transformed into one large try-on party.
They are a team, but the individual strengths of the Gold Squad are unmistakable. Each athlete is muscular and toned. Shoulders are chiseled. The girls laugh and share moments of endearment while giving each other compliments on hair and nails as they swap uniform pieces among themselves until perfectly comfortable and appealing sizing is achieved.
The only occasion that rivals the annual five-day year-end Aggiefest is The Greatest Homecoming on Earth, aka GHOE, happening this year on Saturday. It’s Aggies football vs. Norfolk State.
But homecoming at North Carolina A&T is more than your run-of-the-mill football game sprinkled with some pageantry. The entire week is a production from start to finish. Over the years, it has featured artists such as Babyface, Cardi B and Kirk Franklin. It’s an event befitting the largest HBCU in the nation, with a football team that until Sept. 22 could tout a winning streak that spanned 665 days over several seasons.
For the Gold Squad, it’s an arduous week of appearances and performances that require every ounce of grit they possess — especially as they’re balancing rigorous academic requirements as well. They are spirit leaders charged with energizing the crowds and ensuring that Aggie Pride resonates throughout the stadium.
And what a unit they are. The Gold Squad’s training and practice enable them to stomp, shake, groove with the band, showcase their acrobatic prowess and recite familiar chants as spectators join in the celebration. If Aggie Pride can be summed up in one week, this is what it looks like. And these young women are the face of it.
When the Gold Squad cheerleaders made the final lap of their campus run and sprinkler water showered them with coolness, they knew the purpose of the run was not to learn the campus highways and byways but to provide perspective. Being a member of the Gold Squad has prepared them for games and events — and for life. As Botwe-Rankin says, “Go ahead and … let those tears flow. The day is gonna end, and tomorrow is gonna come.”
Go … Aggies!