‘Unapologetically us’: How the LSU Tiger Girls are building a legacy beyond the dance floor

With their heads down and hands held together, the Tiger Girls eagerly waited as the final results in the hip hop division were revealed at the Universal Dance Association Championship. 

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, aiming to defend its championship title, was announced in second place. Only one team was left to be called. 

As tears rolled down their faces and the crowd chanted “L-S-U”, the Tiger Girls reclaimed the first place trophy in Division IA hip hop, after winning it back in 2022. 

The LSU Tiger Girls brought home a national championship after winning Division IA Hip Hop at the UCA and UDA College Cheerleading and Dance T…

While most teams are nervous to find out the final placements, LSU knew its preparation, hard work and performances were enough to secure the win. 

“Initially, I wanted to be shocked and amazed,” senior captain Brielle Poche said. “But, I truly knew we had it.”

The second weekend in January, the Tiger Girls brought home two trophies, including one for third place in DIA jazz. Weeks later, their hip hop dance to “Smooth Criminal” is still stealing the spotlight on social media. Youth to professional dancers have learned their choreography and posted clips, demonstrating over and over again that the Tiger Girls are not just another college dance team.

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“It’s super exciting because they sometimes don’t get recognized as much as they should,” head coach Kandace Hale said about her team. “I want them to get all the recognition in the world because they deserve it.” 

The team’s championship hip hop routines in 2022 and 2024 went viral. Both dances were choreographed by TRIBE 99’s Carsen Rowe, founder and CEO of TRIBE 99 Choreography, and Sammy McFadden, a former LSU Tiger Girl.

The Tiger Girls bring a new style to the stage every year. Rowe and McFadden never stick to what worked in the previous season. They take creative risks and avoid following the usual trends in college dance.

“We like keeping people on their toes, making unpredictable choices and getting people talking,” Rowe said. “When we choreograph, we really have such a bigger picture in mind and purpose for why we do what we do. Ultimately our goal is to push the boundaries.” 

For last year’s hip hop routine to “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, the team danced in heels. This season, the choreographers aimed to maintain the same entertainment caliber.

“Sammy and I asked ourselves, ‘Who is a more iconic artist than Beyoncé’… to which there is really only one answer, which is Michael Jackson,” Rowe said. 

McFadden and Rowe both agreed this was going to be one of their most challenging pieces to create, but they always knew Michael Jackson was the way to go.

“Usually, we have a couple options for nationals routines with Tiger Girls, but for this one, ‘Smooth Criminal’ was really our first and only option,” McFadden said. “I guess it pays to put all your eggs in one basket.”

After spending months researching Michael Jackson performances, Rowe and McFadden used his classic moves in their choreography, but added their own flavor to it. They created a classic and retro feeling routine. The dance exhibited an old-school, funk-dance vibe, showing off the versatility of these athletes. 

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“We’re always going to try something new because it’s exciting,” Hale said. “We want to give a good show, but it’s really more for the experience of the athletes, for them to push themselves and learn something new.”

Junior member Jillian Miller said the team’s motto, “unapologetically us,” reminds them to extend the limits, and to “never let anyone hold us back.” 

The team not only spends months perfecting its nationals routines, but also cheers for football, women’s and men’s basketball and baseball. The Tiger Girls have no offseason and train all year, which can make it challenging to juggle multiple dances and learn material for games.

“Even when we have tough days, I could never let my teammates down,” Miller said. “That for sure gives me motivation throughout some of our hard training days and to be the best version of myself.”

McFadden encourages athletic administrators to step into dance practices once in a while to understand the athletes’ unique schedules, seeing how they balance national competitions while representing their university.

“Education is the first step towards gaining equality for these athletes,” McFadden said. 

For all of the activity and appearances, the Tiger Girls and college dance seem to be everywhere – except part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). 

With the help of social media, the Tiger girls and college dance has become increasingly popular. But, “there is still a massive gap in proper support and equal opportunity for dance team members on collegiate campuses with athletics,” McFadden said. 

Today, dance is still not recognized as an NCAA sport, which begs the question: how much longer will these internet-famous teams be overlooked?

“It’s definitely being talked about, and I definitely think it’s probably in the movement of happening,” Hale said about dance becoming an NCAA sport. “I don’t know if that’s on a 20-year timeline or next year, but it’s super exciting even just getting it started in the works.”

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With their social media notoriety, the Tiger Girls are paving the way for other teams to gain acknowledgment, as the sport of college dance fights to earn full recognition. 

“I hope college dance teams will continue shattering glass ceilings, and proving that collegiate dance deserves to have its moment in the spotlight,” Rowe said. “It is time.”

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