Meet the dancers formerly known as the Sugar Bears

The UM Dance Team has a new name, a new coach, a new look and new moves. But we just wanted to call them Sugar Bears one last time.



Tell me this doesn’t sound like a nightmare: You’re standing on the floor of a packed basketball arena, in the spotlight, alone. You’re wearing tight black pants and a close-fitting top. There are supposed to be 11 other women out there with you, but none of them made it tonight, and your coach told you to get out there anyway. So there you are. All eyes on you. The music begins. And in front of all those people, you have to dance.

Most people would rather have a root canal.

For Sugar Bear Libby Riddle, though, dancing alone at a UM men’s basketball game over winter break in 2003 when all her UM Dance Team members were out of town (except for Callie Yeager, who drove three-and-a-half hours from her home in Conrad to join Riddle, only to get food poisoning before the game) was just one slightly more memorable performance in years’ worth of high school cheerleading and college dance. “People laughed at me,” recalls Riddle. “And then I guess it made ESPN radio. They were like, ‘What’s up with this lone dancer down there?’”

But on the flip side, how’s this for an all-American dream:

You’re sitting at a college football game on a Saturday afternoon, under a bright blue sky. You’re warm with the sun and a few tailgate beers, and the home team—your team—is up by 10. On the field, your guys make an interception, and along the sideline a dozen beautiful girls shake their pompoms in the air. The pompoms catch the sunlight. The girls swing their hips. Their smiles go from ear to ear.

Five minutes into my first Griz game, I would have danced alone on national television just to be 19 again.

For the 12 dancers and two alternates on the UM Dance Team, though, these game days aren’t just about smiles and pompoms. They’re about keeping their ears on the music, their eyes on the game, their postures perfect, their moves uniform, their muscles warm—all at the same time. What these days are about for them, really, is orchestrating a dance performance in the midst of an athletic event.

But judging by a random sampling of Griz fans and UM students, there isn’t much understanding of what the UM Dance Team, formerly (and still casually) known as the Sugar Bears, is. Organizationally, the dancers are part of the UM Spirit Squad, made up of the UM Cheer Squad, the UM Dance Team and mascot Monte. They dance on the sidelines during Griz football games and at center court during basketball time-outs and halftimes. Yes, their former name triggers grins and blushes among some male students.

But all fantasies aside, the facts about the UM dancers are these: They are serious dancers. They wear tasteful costumes. They don’t spend hours doing their hair. They don’t even chew gum.

Watching these 14 dancers (who, for the record, refer to themselves as girls) at work for the past few weeks, I’ve weighed the stereotypes against the realities of being a college dance team member. Somewhere between the nightmare of dancing in tight clothes in the spotlight and the dream of being one of a dozen beautiful girls in a can-can line lies the true definition of what it is to be a Sugar Bear. Part dream-girl, part athlete, part hard-working student, each member of the UM Dance Team exhibits what Libby Riddle demonstrated alone on the basketball court that night:

It takes more than loose hips and a big smile to be a UM dancer. It takes spirit and energy, commitment and discipline, the ability to laugh at yourself, to be comfortable with yourself, to put yourself out there and forget what those boys in the stands might be saying. In short—and perhaps contrary to your wildest dreams—it takes balls to be a Sugar Bear.

With the Griz/Cat football game this weekend, and with the UM Dance Team instituting big changes this year, there’s no better time to find out who these girls are.

So without further ado:

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Sugar Bears.

Sugar Bears. Sugar Bears. Sugar Bears. Sugar Bears. Sugar Bears. Go ahead and get it out of your system, and then speak those words no more. Because as of this fall, the Sugar Bears have changed their name to the UM Dance Team. Grizzly Athletics Marketing Director and Spirit Squad Program Director Christie Anderson, a former UM cheerleader and Cheer Squad coach herself, says some people found the name derogatory—“I don’t know if it’s the word ‘sugar,’” she says. But the name change was really about clarifying who the Sugar Bears are, she says. New Dance Team coach Meagen Hensley and Anderson envision future squads having “a very collegiate, professional image, and if we call it the UM Dance Team, then there’s no questions. We have the UM Cheer Squad and the UM Dance Team, and we don’t have to wonder who the Sugar Bears are,” says Anderson.

But the question lingers, so here’s the answer:

The Sugar Bears formed in 1973, when men’s basketball coach George “Jud” Heathcote (who went on to win the 1978–79 national championships with Magic Johnson at Michigan State University, against then-captain Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State University) “wanted to get something more festive for his basketball program,” says Mary Sullivan, one of the original eight Sugar Bears, who today lives in Butte. She recalls that UM was fairly “anti-athletics” at the time; there was no UM mascot back then, she says, and Coach Heathcote “was trying to entertain people, so he asked a group of young ladies, mostly from Sentinel High School…if we would be interested in dancing. We weren’t supposed to be cheerleaders. We were just supposed to dance and entertain the crowd.”

Coach Heathcote ran a campuswide contest to name the dancers. Sullivan remembers that bears were “pretty much the focus” of the entries. Sugar Bears won.

In 1973, the dancers’ outfits were handmade: turtlenecks, knee-length skirts and pompoms. The eight Sugar Bears danced along the south end of the court during basketball time-outs and performed different halftime routines every weekend. Sullivan says a highlight of her Sugar Bear experience was dancing at the UM men’s postseason NCAA Sweet Sixteen basketball game against coach John Wooden’s UCLA team in 1975 (UCLA went on to win the national championship). “The UCLA cheerleaders would run out on the floor, and we’d be standing at the end zone like we always were, and just seeing the bigness—it was quite amazing,” she says.

But listening to Sullivan reminisce, it sounds like the Sugar Bears never quite took center stage. She says there was “a kind of apathy” for the dancers at the University, which could explain why, according to Christie Anderson, the Athletic Department shifted its focus away from the Sugar Bears to a coed cheer squad in the 1980s. But around 1990, Anderson says, that focus shifted again when Debbie Sharkey, a former Sugar Bear, was hired to coach the Sugar Bears and the Cheer Squad. “[Sharkey] was able to talk to the administration and prove the importance and the value of what a dance team could bring to the atmosphere,” says Anderson.

But Sharkey left in the fall of 2002, and the Sugar Bears have had a different coach each year since. The turnover has resulted in some disorganization in the program, Anderson says.

The Dance Team captain, senior Elisa McLaughlin, recalls her first year on the team: “We basically didn’t have a coach,” she says.

“So our captain or co-captain would run everything from fund-raising to [practice]. Everything was really disorganized, but it was still really fun.”

So as of last year, Anderson, who has been around long enough to know the ins and outs of the Athletic Department, has taken over all administrative duties for the Dance Team and Cheer Squad in order to “allow [Dance Team coach] Meagen and [Cheer coach] Crystal to only focus on coaching. Anything else besides that is up to me.”

This new structure has led to a new focus for the dancers, too. Says McLaughlin, “Meagen and Christie taking over is just completely changing everything…what we are doing now in my fourth year is just incredible. It’s a completely different team. Night and day.”

For the first time this year, the Dance Team takes a technique class once a week at On Center Dance & Music in Missoula. They also have new rules from new coach Meagen Hensley: no chewing gum, and no cell phones at practice.

On Center owner Lisa Jourdonnais has been strict about the girls dressing like role models in her studios: no low-rise pants, no midriff-baring, no showing tattoos or belly-button rings. Young girls who take classes at On Center see these girls as role models, says Jourdonnais, and “they get enough bad press from Britney Spears.”

Hensley has ordered the dancers new outfits, too. “One of the reasons we get full-cover tops is because I think it helps them a bit with their body image,” she says. “I think it helps them perform better because they’re not trying to hide anything.”

Not that the Dance Team has anything to hide. At an unseasonably warm home Griz football game against Northern Arizona University two weekends ago, the team looks perfectly comfortable with their shirts riding up enough to show those belly buttons. When “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” comes over the loudspeakers, they all run for their cowboy hats piled up against the stands and jump into one of their hip-swingiest sideline routines.

Sullivan says that the dancers’ moves today are more provocative than the original Sugar Bears. But even with a new director, a new coach, new classes, new clothes and new moves, these girls are, happily, creating the same memories as did Mary Sullivan in 1973. On the football field and the basketball court, they’re fitting a girl-next-door wholesomeness, a come-hither sexiness, an I-can-do-anything youthfulness and a school-spirited sassiness all into dance routines that range from 10 seconds to a few minutes.

Sullivan says her sister ran into one of the other original Sugar Bears last summer, and in their brief exchange that woman remembered Mary’s dancing. “You know,” the woman said, “She was the Sugar Bear you always loved to watch.”

At On Center Dance & Music on a Monday night, the girls go one-by-one across the room practicing leaps and sequences as instructed by technique teacher Ashley Sherrill. Their hour-long class is followed by another two hours of rehearsal with Hensley.

You don’t need much dance knowledge to see that Dance Team captain McLaughlin and senior Molly Grinnell have a ballerina’s grace, or that sophomores Mica Clarkson and Callie Yeager have eyes that could light up a stadium. Thirty minutes into this part of practice (which takes place every Monday night, plus practices for two hours on Wednesdays and three hours on Fridays), I learn that senior Kelsey Small is a good go-to person for tips on technique; freshman Bobbie Bush does the fastest sit-ups; freshman Emily Hurst is more flexible than a blade of grass.

But this Monday night it’s coach Hensley who shines. At 24 years old, and fresh from two-plus years dancing in Las Vegas, Hensley is a fireball. Raised in Anaconda taking dance classes at the Dixie School of Dance in Butte (now Dynamic Dance Company) since she was 2, she says her dad told her that if she was going to go away to Missoula for college, she should get involved with the University through an activity like cheerleading. Hensley cheered for two years when Christie Anderson was coach, and then tried out for the annual Missoula Harley Davidson-sponsored “Leather Forever” show in town the spring of her sophomore year.

Through those auditions she met On Center owner Jourdonnais, who put her in touch with a dancer friend in Vegas, and by spring break Hensley was invited to perform in a gig at the Bellagio hotel and casino. She came back to finish out the school year at UM and then headed back to Vegas, performing in the “Show in the Sky” at The Rio, and in the Sigfried and Roy show at the Mirage.

In the spring of 2004, with the UM Dance Team in need of its third new coach in three years, Anderson got in touch with Hensley and convinced her to move back to Missoula to coach the team and finish school.

“Because I was a cheerleader here, I have the passion for this school,” says Anderson of her decision to hire Hensley. “And you can definitely see the difference with people who may not be as tied to the University as people who have been. And if you are passionate about what you do, if you love what you do, it is going to come through in your job, and that’s why I completely trust Meagen. She’s been through my program, she knows my philosophy, she knows my work ethic, she knows my expectations, and so it was a very easy fit for her to come in.”

At 8 on Monday night, Hensley announces she’s going to teach the team eight new eight-count sequences for their halftime routine to a remix of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” During a break between technique class and rehearsal, she plays them a videotape of one of her own high-school dance recitals in Butte. She wants to show them a few “tricks” her team used to do—tricks being moves “that are very technically advanced, but that you’re not necessarily going to do every single day,” explains Hensley.

The lingo is tough to keep up with. Dancers do “tricks,” while cheerleaders do “stunts.” Like ballerinas, the dancers do traditional chainés, pasés, grand jetés and saut de chats—but they also do jazzier shimmies and lay outs (back arched, chest out) and hip rolls.

Hensley leads the girls into a larger studio to learn the halftime routine, and what follows is dizzying. In front of a wall of mirrors, Hensley counts aloud as she demonstrates the new segments: “One, two, three, look four, five, throw six, pull seven, throw eight.”

The next eight-count: “One, drop two, shimmy three, hit four, hold five, switch six, hold seven, switch eight.”

“What do we hit on?” asks one dancer.

“Hit on one, five, seven; move on two, six, eight,” says Hensley.

Hensley starts the music, runs to the front of the room and dances like she’s back in Vegas. She shimmies, holds, throws, switches—and behind her, the girls look like they’ve actually made some sense of this.

They go over and over these sequences, and I sit in the corner of the room growing more ungainly by the minute. Not because these girls are younger and fitter and bazillion times more graceful than I am, though they are all of those things, for certain. But what’s separating them from me in that studio is just their plain hard work. They look strong. They look engaged. They look confident. Sitting idly watching them, I’m reminded of the basic truth that whether you’re a girl or a guy, 19 or 30, an athlete or a dancer or a writer planted at her desk, being into something, whatever it is, makes you attractive.

Sophomore dancer Mica Clarkson didn’t make the Dance Team when she tried out her freshman year. The Polson High School valedictorian and cheerleader, who graduated from high school in three years and captained the cheerleading team for two of those three, says that “when I didn’t make it the first year, it was a big upset. But at the same time, it pushed me to take more [dance] classes that were oriented to things I needed to learn to be able to make it the next year.”

Clarkson almost didn’t try out this year, and while she admits she may not be as strong on technique as the dancers who have a ballet background, there’s no question that her showmanship is tops.

She says that who she is day-to-day is “totally different than who I am on the field. I could see how some of [our] moves are provocative, but it’s mostly that we do use our body. That’s what dancing is, being able to control and to use what you have to make something out of nothing…You can make a dance out of walking. If you change it a little bit, swing your hips a little bit, it’s going to be a little sexier. I would say, though, it’s more that I feel more attractive while I’m out there…Someone that doesn’t dance wouldn’t feel that way. They’d feel clumsy.”

Freshman Bobbie Bush feels neither clumsy nor nervous in front of a crowd. The Darby/Missoula native has been taking dance since seventh grade and says that being out on the field “is what I live for. It’s the biggest rush ever, and it’s so much fun just to feel the energy of the crowd.” Bush was thinking about going to nail school (as in manicures), not college, until she checked the Internet one day senior year in high school to see when UM Dance Team auditions were being held; turns out they were being held that day. Bush arrived two hours late, made the team, and says, “so then I changed my plans.”

Senior Libby Riddle changed her plans, too, after two years on the Cheer Squad. She started having trouble with her back handspring, a requirement for cheerleaders: “I was really good at them, and then all of a sudden something happened and I had a mental block,” she says. “All I thought about was my back handspring—eat, sleep and drink back handsprings—but I started not to be able to do it…and so I tried out for the Dance Team, and I made it.”

Riddle danced at UM men’s basketball games while her brother, point guard Sam Riddle, played. “My parents would come, and they’d get to watch me and they’d get to watch him. The last time that happened, that a brother and sister were on the court,” she says, “is when my aunt and uncle did it.”

Dance Team captain Elisa McLaughlin’s family comes to watch her perform, too. McLaughlin grew up in Missoula and started taking ballet when she was 4, but says she didn’t return for a second round of auditions when she first tried out for the Dance Team senior year in high school because she just got busy. The coach, Debbie Sharkey, called and asked her to come back, she says, and so she did.

“When I came into the Dance Team, I expected to meet the worst group of girls imaginable,” she says. “I really did, and I was on my guard. I think people expect us to be a group that gets in cat fights and that has cliques. And I’m pretty cynical…I’m not a girls’ girl. I’m not the kind of girl that can just love being around 14 girls every day, and honestly I’ve never met a group that works better together.”

On a recent Friday night, McLaughlin, Clarkson, Bush and senior dancers Kelsey Small and Katie Sullivan go out for dinner at the Iron Horse. As per Dance Team rules, no underage dancer drinks alcohol, and no girl wears anything that identifies her as a member of the team while they’re out on the town. Only a little glitter around McLaughlin’s eyes might give away that she’s a performer.

She says the team does do things together other than dance—a Halloween party, a Christmas dinner—but also says that all the dancers have busy lives outside of the team. Bush works at a dentist’s office each day after classes and before team practice. Libby Riddle, a broadcast-production journalism major, broadcasts UM news on PBS and KECI as part of her major; but before Dance Team performances, she borrows an edit studio in UM’s PAR/TV Building to cut and paste pieces of the songs the team will dance to during basketball time-outs. Using Cool Edit software, she transforms a four-minute song into a 50-second clip that still has a distinct beginning, middle and end.

Mica Clarkson, an elementary education major, works up to 18 hours a week at Old Navy, depending on the Dance Team’s performance schedule. She says she looks forward to practice because it’s one time when she doesn’t have to think about her job or homework.

“I just think about what I’m dancing, and what I love to do,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about anything that’s going on.”

Anything, that is, except for show time.

“‘You’re putting on the biggest show in Montana today,’” Christie Anderson recalls former UM Athletic Director Wayne Hogan telling her, with a pat on the back, each Saturday before a Griz football game.

As Anderson says, “Griz football is Montana, and our fans are so [invested] in this program that they each feel like they have ownership of it.”

Current Athletic Director Don Read says, “Every time we have an event, we look at it as being an entertainment model, bigger than just a game, and [the Dance Team] is a big component of that mission.”

Asked how Griz mania impacts her job as Spirit Squad director, Anderson says, “We have an expectation, and that’s why we have a top-notch football team and a top-notch basketball program. And that’s why if we’re going to be out there…being visible, that’s why I expect the Cheer Squad and Dance Teams to have top-notch programs as well.”

And, Anderson says, the Dance Team helps sell the Griz. “They market the University,” she elaborates, citing community volunteer work the Dance Team participates in, such as visiting a nursing home or working at Camp Mak-A-Dream’s Camp Limberlimbs for children with arthritis. “They are ambassadors to the University,” she says. “These kids are out there doing the same things the student athletes are. They have jobs. They have homework. People don’t understand how much practice these guys put in, and on top of that they have to do fund-raisers.”

The Dance Team is not a UM “sport,” and the dancers don’t receive scholarships as do some student athletes. But the girls can take Dance Team as a two-credit class—which also means they can fail. At the beginning of the year, the dancers each sign a contract that outlines attendance and tardiness rules.

“Essentially, this is a job for them,” Anderson says. “And I want to put this in a positive light. When you don’t receive much, it’s easy to not want to follow the rules. The student athletes that are on scholarship are bound to do everything because they’re getting their school paid for, but when these kids are on a volunteer basis…you just need to do something to give them incentive to succeed.”

In fact, the Dance Team does receive some perks it wouldn’t receive if it were considered a part of, say, Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) or a band department, as some other school’s dance teams are, says Anderson. As a part of the Athletic Department, the dancers have access to the Grizzly weight room and the training room and have to pass a physical before they are allowed to practice or perform each season.

Asked if dance might ever become a sport at UM, Anderson says she doesn’t think so. While both UM Athletic Director Read and Idaho State University Athletic Director Jim Senter say there is discussion among athletic directors in the Big Sky Conference about adding a female sport to the conference in coming years, everyone acknowledges the downsides to making dance a sport.

“To be considered a sport, the primary purpose must be competing,” says Senter. “You could have a dance team, and if they don’t compete as much as they perform, what is their primary purpose?”

To Anderson, the primary purpose is supporting your teams, not traveling to competitions: “We instill here being able to cheer for your team, and I think that a lot of girls would miss that part of it.” She and Senter both add that recognition as a sport would also put the dancers under NCAA rules, such as the matriculation rule (based on a five-year college plan) that an athlete must pass 40 percent of her degree by the beginning of her third year, 60 percent by the beginning of her fourth year, and 80 percent by the beginning of her fifth.

Not to mention that traveling to competitions is expensive. To go to the Universal Cheerleaders Association’s College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in 1999, the UM Cheer Squad had to raise $13,000 on its own. Idaho State’s Senter tries to imagine flying a dance team all the way to Vegas for a two-minute, 15-second routine, but then admits that’s not so different from flying a track team to a meet where some races last 11 seconds. “So I see some of the contrast and inequities of saying one is competing and one isn’t competing,” he says. “The [dancers’] work is every bit as strenuous and taxing.”

Coach Hensley says that for the most part the dancers understand that they’re not going to get the same scholarships or travel opportunities as some of the other UM teams. The Cheer Squad, which is also not a sport, had to build up their program for years before they started receiving some scholarship money a few years ago, says Cheer Squad coach Crystal Marquart.

“It’s a process,” Hensley says, “and you can’t expect to jump in and get something right away. You have to work for it.”

So that’s what the Dance Team is doing these days. They collectively wrote a set of goals for themselves at the beginning of this year. They made laminated cards with their top five, and each dancer keeps her card in her pom bag, Hensley says.

“Enhance our technical ability as a team. We are only as strong as our weakest link!” reads one goal.

“Maintain our high level of energy throughout the entire season. Go Griz!!” reads another.

And of course: “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM.”

Captain McLaughlin says that in her four years on the Dance Team, she’s never met a group of girls with better attitudes. They accept long hours and little recognition just because they love what they do. “I’ve danced for my whole life, and I don’t want it to be over, and I’m lucky to be able to continue it in college,” she says. “We’re all really dedicated, but we’re pretty normal. Life won’t be over when this is over.”

Then she adds: “We’re not just a bunch of little divas.”

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