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Nine Things You Don’t Know About The Lionettes

You see them break it down at Beaver Stadium or the BJC. You watch their hair flips and line kicks in awe. Now, learn a little more about your Penn State Lionettes as they rapidly approach their biggest (and only) competition of the year.

They are the only Division I-A school without a coach

Instead, they are led by their three captains, seniors Tal Sarver and Jenna Dolce and junior Melissa Diehl. The sense I got from talking to various team members made it obvious that, while having a coach wouldn’t hurt, they don’t seem to mind.

“I personally enjoy having my teammates critique us,” said sophomore Alexa Schear. “They have grown up dancing in the same time as us, but we all have different styles and come from different technical backgrounds.”

The captains explained that the biggest challenge exists in finding the balance between friend and authority figure. It requires making tough decisions, they said, but sharing a common goal helps the team overcome any issues caused by self-policing. While all they agreed that some days they wish they had a coach, the captains also feel a stronger sense of pride in what the team can accomplish without a coach. One example they cited was their first place finish at camp this past August, topping some teams with up to five coaches on staff.

“That was probably one of my most rewarding experiences on this team,” said Jenna Dolce. “It’s a really good feeling when you can make something happen like that on your own.”

Well, okay, they sort of do.
While not a coach, team advisor Sue Sherburne assumes some of the job as she continues her second decade in the position. Sherburne acts as a liaison between the team and athletic department, handling everything from the team’s budget to scheduling issues to coordinating game day routines.

“Sue is like our mom,” said Sarver. “She’s our go-to for everything.” Dolce referred to her as “without a doubt one of the strongest women that I’ve ever met.” To deal with this group of girls, she may have to be, considering…

You wouldn’t want to be in the room when they practice.
Seriously, the idea of this frightens me. A room containing so many exhausted, hungry, sore, sweaty (their words, not mine!) girls in an environment described as “extremely high stress” and “tense” sounds like the definition of Hell. Still, the captains noted that they try to emphasize communication as much as possible and “always leave feeling better,” according to Sarver. To me, it sounds like…

“Nationals season” is pretty intense
After a few minutes of careful math (which I learned is not a strong suit of the Lionette captains), they estimated that the team spends 25-30 hours per week practicing during the spring semester, or “Nationals season.” That number adds up to about 362 total hours, or 15 full days, of practice. Yikes.

Sarver noted that every girl has a role in contributing to the team’s success at Nationals, from helping to “clean” the dance to providing encouragement and motivation during the grueling practices. Dolce stressed that it’s difficult for those on the Nationals squad to see their friends not able to participate, but a mutual understanding exists that makes it much easier and their support plays a huge part in the team’s overall success.

They’re among the best dance teams in the country
Nationals occur from April 10-14 in Daytona Beach, FL. The Lionettes will compete in the prelims on Thursday for a spot in the finals on Friday. They’ve finished in the top four in three of the past four years, but want to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish.

As for the dance, Nationals Coordinator Nicole Symenonides gave me a rough idea of how it compares to what we see at football and basketball games, referring to it as “very intense” with a “harder, faster, more in-your-face” feel and noting that it runs over a minute and a half longer. This is even more impressive when you find out that…

They choreograph every dance themselves
“It’s really rewarding,” said Symenonides of that experience. “It’s a bit of pressure because you want (the dance) to be your best work, but it’s awesome.”

“We try to put in crowd pleasing stuff like hair whips, the bernie, stuff we know is visually pleasing,” added Dolce. Speaking of hair whips…

They don’t plan hair whips, and the team is a lot shorter than you think
“Hair whips are NOT planned,” exclaimed Melissa Diehl randomly at one point during our conversation. Jenna Dolce then informed me that the Lionettes have no hair length or height requirement, but somehow almost everyone on the team happens to be around 5’2″. Sarver commented that the team often hears that they look “shorter in person,” prompting Nicole Symonides to joke that their legs “act as an illusion.”

“Still, if you’re a tall, blonde freshman, we want you!” joked Jenna Dolce. Funny, most of my guy friends say the same thing.

You can see them perform this weekend!
This Sunday, the Lionettes will hold their annual Family & Friends Performance at Rec Hall. Sarver called it a “dress rehearsal” for Nationals, while Symonaides noted that Sunday will mark the first time they will perform the dance outside of practice.

“It’s really cool to have the opportunity to show our friends why we’ve been blowing them off for six months,” Dolce said with a laugh. “I definitely get nervous though. There’s a lot of pressure, and we have a lot of alumni come back.”

They’re “not just hair-flippy girls”
The above heading comes from Melissa Diehl, who responded with that gem (while also demonstrating a hair flip) when asked what stereotypes they face on campus. Every Lionette I spoke with also echoed Jenna Dolce’s hope that the Lionettes would receive more recognition as an athletic team.

As far as personality goes, what you see on the field or at the BJC definitely does not depict the true essence of the Penn State Lionettes.

“We’re goofy, weird, funny, down-to-earth girls,” said Sarver of her team’s personality. “I don’t think people see that because they see us on the field looking and acting proper.”

A few more bite-sized facts:

  • The Lionettes were not recognized as an athletic team until 2007.
  • On top of practices and school, the Lionettes make a total of around 90 appearances during the year, which includes every home football and basketball game.
  • The 27-member team has a cumulative GPA of around 3.6, which puts them on the Dean’s List as a team.
  • Almost every Lionette has some sort of involvement with THON. even extending to dancers and captains. As a team, they raised over $22,000 for THON 2012 despite not being able to go canning.
  • They clean the stadium after home football games. Yes, even the locker rooms.
  • They love food. Like, love food. Especially grape salad, a dance team tradition.

Now that you know just about everything about the Penn State Lionettes, go support them on Sunday at Rec Hall!

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About the Author

John Tecce

John is a senior in the Smeal College of Business majoring in Marketing. He currently serves as the President of the Paternoville Coordination Committee and as a THON Chair for Nittany Nation. He tweets a lot.

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