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The Life Of A Lionette: Dancer Talks Overcoming Injury, Sisterhood, & Sidelines

When asked to describe her experience with the Penn State Lionettes Dance Team in only three words, junior Kelly Johnson answered quickly and without hesitation.

“Dream come true,” Johnson said. “When we were little girls, this is what we pictured… This is the epitome of what we all wanted to do.”

Beginning as a ballet dancer at just two years old, Johnson trained for 18 years and graduated from Dance Xtreme New York. After falling in love with the Lionettes at a dance clinic for high school students, she earned her spot on the team as a freshman in 2020.

Courtesy of Kelly Johnson

While most recognizable from gameday field dances, the Lionettes Dance Team is far more than what is seen by fans in Beaver Stadium. A tribe of 28 athletes, the team pursues excellence in its united passion while also forming an unbreakable sisterhood along the way.

“This isn’t anything solo… If we don’t work together, our team won’t succeed,” Johnson said. “We want the best for each other and want the best for our team.”

Since the Lionettes are also three-time national champions in the Universal Dance Association College Nationals, it’s clear that friendship lays the groundwork for success. In this multi-round competition at the highest level of collegiate dance in the country, the team goes head to head against other powerhouses, including Ohio State and Minnesota, in the Division 1A category.

They are set to compete again this upcoming weekend at the annual competition, beginning January 13 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. 

“We are different from other sports in that way…and a lot of people don’t know that because it’s only once a year,” Johnson said. “We compete these routines, so that is what we put our emphasis on and focus on throughout the season.”

Under the leadership of coach Jesse Hernandez, the team trains daily through various trainings that include lifting sessions, weeknight practices, and weekend rehearsals. Organized into squads labeled as blue, white, and silver, the team also demonstrates commitment by staying late during student breaks and returning early to the spring semester for the friends and family performance. 

In another unique aspect of the sport, the Lionettes also perfect a distinct style of dance called pom, a series of poses hit by dancers that allow unison for a dramatic and spirited effect. 

“It’s very sharp,” Johnson said. “It’s like hitting a wall with your arms as strong as you possibly can.”

Describing this specific style, Johnson also explained a piece of sisterhood in the life of a Lionette: the spiriting routines known to the team as sidelines. Matched up in pom style to classic Blue Band songs, sidelines are often choreographed by team members and recognizable to team alumni.

“One of the captains will call out ‘Cara’s’ or ‘Mary’s’ or ‘Haley’s’, and we’ll perform it during the games… It’s a big tradition,” Johnson said. “We all know them….and Lionettes from years and years and years ago will know them, too.”

The theme of calling out names also supports the team as the members cheer each other on during training.

“We’ll call out each others’ names if we know one of us is about to do something we’re struggling with,” she said. “Let’s say I’m having a hard time with this one jump, my friend will call out my name and say, ‘You got it, girl.’”

Passionate as ever, the Lionettes are empowered by each other’s energy both on and off the field. But as the result of an unfortunate accident at practice, Johnson found herself with a broken wing in her toughest challenge yet.

“I hyperextended my knee at the same time my ankle was rolling… I was really scared,” Johnson said. “I’ve never gotten injured and been like ‘I don’t think I can get up,’ but it was one of those moments.”

Awaiting the results of an MRI, Johnson was forced onto crutches by the painful knee injury and left unable to straighten her leg in September. She faced a fear unimaginable for a Lionette: losing an entire season of her sport with the risk of missing the national competition. 

“It was definitely a hard time for me physically and then also the mental part of it,” Johnson said. “I was trying not to get crazy about sitting out and being like, ‘When I come back, I may not be as good as I was before.’”

Showing her dedication, the Lionette still attended each gameday appearance to cheer on her teammates and made every effort to do what she still could, including participation in morning lift sessions.

“That was my big thing,” Johnson said. “If I can do something, I’m going to do it, just to keep myself going.”

Despite being a lifelong competitor, Johnson was challenged in a way she had never been before. Yet with the support of her teammates turned sisters, the stresses of the healing process were alleviated exponentially. 

“It’s really hard not being able to do what you love, almost feeling disconnected from what you’re doing in a way,” Johnson said. “But with them there, it still made me feel like I was a part of everything going on.”

As the Lionette’s injury healed, bonds with her teammates also strengthened for life. 

“They all feel like my sisters,” Johnson said. “We all have to be there for each other and support each other through everything we do.”

While cleared of the dancer’s worst nightmare, a torn ACL, the Lionnette still faced an eight to 12 week recovery time. This prolonged her return to the field with her best friends, but Johnson rose above the roadblock.

“As much as I wish it didn’t happen, I’m very thankful that it did because I was able to overcome that in my life,” Johnson said. “It helped when I kind of recognized that my struggle would become my strength.”

Just in time for the Penn State vs. Maryland matchup in November, Johnson was cleared for performance and able to rejoin her teammates in the Lionettes’ famous kickline.

“When we do hit that kickline and we hear that, it’s so special to all of us,” Johnson said. “It’s our favorite thing.”

Explaining the uniqueness of moments like these on the field of Beaver Stadium, she recalled a favorite memory: her first White Out in Beaver Stadium against Auburn.

“All I could see was this white because everyone is shaking those poms, and I couldn’t even comprehend what was going on because of the energy,” Johnson said. “There were just tears of happiness coming out of my eyes.”

Reliving this unforgettable memory each gameday, Johnson and her team are grateful for the student section, noting that not all collegiate dance teams across the nation receive the same support.

“I’ll always get that feeling during the kickline,” Johnson said. “It’s never going to be something like ‘Oh yeah, this is cool.’ It’s always a feeling of ‘I just can’t even believe this is real.’” 

Courtesy of Kelly Johnson

While the Lionettes may be over a thousand miles from Penn State for this weekend’s national competition, Penn State pride will never be far from Johnson’s heart or mind.

“I love Penn State and what Penn State is: a great community of people with all our hardworking students across every single campus,” Johnson said. “If I can show that to somebody, that means a lot to me.” 

Grateful for the blue and white community cheering them on, Johnson and the team will continue to spread joy as they represent the university at the highest collegiate dance level.

 ”I wish I had a lifetime more of this,” the Lionette said.

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a junior majoring in marketing and psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 18-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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