If you’re active on TikTok, you’ve probably seen the video.
A group of dancers pose on stage in matching black and white uniforms. When the music starts and the women turn to the front, the crowd bursts into cheers. Their dance is sharp, energetic and confident — and when the women freeze in formation at the end of their routine, the crowd goes wild.
The event is the 2022 Universal Dance Association College Nationals, where dance teams from the top colleges in the nation have competed for more than 35 years. The song is Ciara’s hit “Like A Boy,” in which the pop star muses about acting more like a man.
But the most important thing is the young women who stand on stage — women who, just a year before, were not allowed to compete. They’re the LSU Tiger Girls, and their dance, which has since gained millions of views on TikTok, is more than just a routine, they say. It’s their reclamation.
Hard work and heartbreak
The Tiger Girls Dance Team at Louisiana State University is one of the nation’s elite collegiate dance teams, with two national titles over 23 seasons.
Team members dance on the sidelines for most major sports, including the SEC and NCAA basketball championships, but their focus is competing nationally as dancers, head coach Kandace Hale told CBS News. Even though dance is not recognized as a sport by the NCAA, Hale said Tiger Girls are required to live by student athlete guidelines, including attending 10+ hours of rehearsal every week and maintaining a minimum average GPA.
So when the LSU Tiger Girls requested to attend the 2021 UDA College Nationals, as they do every year, Hale said they were surprised by the school’s response: They weren’t allowed to go.
Hale said she was told the team would not be able to attend the competition, which is usually held in Orlando, Florida, during a meeting in January 2021. She said the reason for the refusal changed constantly during several meetings: first COVID-19, then funding, then because no athletic trainers could be spared for their season. Hale said she was told the NCAA-recognized sports “came first.”
“Last year was very devastating because that trust was broken,” Hale told CBS News. “It happened so fast.”
But while the team wasn’t allowed to compete for their national title, they were still expected to cheer on other sports teams throughout the year — all of whom were allowed to attend their National Championship competitions — Hale said.
LSU Athletics did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the decision.
In a last-ditch effort, LSU alumna and current assistant choreographer Samantha McFadden started the #LetThemCompete campaign, criticizing the department for their treatment of the team.
But despite those efforts, the decision remained the same. “We fought tooth and nail,” McFadden said. “Ultimately, time ran out.”
Twenty-one-year-old Ariel Brumfield called the decision “devastating.”
Brumfield, one of the team’s captains, said the decision highlighted the “social stigma” dance teams face, especially compared to the respect and financial support given to male athletes.
Caliea Koehler, 20, told CBS News that it was difficult to watch their peers “do what they love” when they weren’t given the same opportunity.
“It was honestly heartbreaking. We have been training since we were 2 to 3 years old to finally get to a collegiate level and compete against the best of the best,” Koehler said.
An “inspired” routine
When the Tiger Girls came back for the 2021-2022 season, they had something to prove. Tribe 99 choreographer Carsen Rowe told CBS News that she and McFadden spent hours picking the season’s routine.
The previous year’s heartbreak presented an “inspired” opportunity, she said — but that also meant taking a risk. Many routines use snippets of multiple songs to keep the energy high. Only using “Like A Boy” meant there was nothing for the dancers to hide behind.
“On our end as the choreographers, this year was terrifying for us just because it was so different. [Sammy and I] would call each other every week and ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Or are we setting them up to fail?’ It was a roller coaster,” Rowe said.
But when Rowe and McFadden told the dancers their plan — to channel the lost energy of 2021 into a routine dedicated to what happened — Rowe said their response was amazing.
“I think it just really hit home for us,” Koehler added. “Listening to the lyrics and what the song stood for was motivation and brought out a different side of all of us to tell this story to the world.”
On January 15, the Tiger Girls arrived at the UDA National Championships for the first time in two years after countless hours of practice.
Dancers perform the same dance multiple times at the competition and are told which teams lead at the end of each night. McFadden and Rowe were overjoyed to learn LSU was ranked first after their semi-final performance. But they soon realized something bigger was happening.
When the women had finished their semi-finals performance, teams from other schools met them outside. As they walked outside in a now-viral video, other dance teams cheered and clapped while blasting “Like A Boy” from the speakers.
“Honestly, between semi-finals and the final performance, so literally 24 hours, there were people in the audience that knew the memorable parts of the dance and were doing it along with the girls,” Rowe said. “I was like, what is going on?”
A new challenge
When the Tiger Girls danced for the last time during the finals, they were on stage for less than 3 minutes — but sophomore Lily Dodge said “hitting the last pose and peering out to see a standing crowd was something I’ll never forget.”
That memory was only outshone by her next one: crying and clutching the hands of her fellow Tiger Girls as the emcees announced they were the 2022 UDA Hip Hop National Champions.
But the team’s moment in the spotlight wasn’t over. Twenty-four hours after the competition, the routine had millions of views on TikTok. One week after nationals, dance teams from other schools were posting their own versions. Ciara even re-posted their dance to her Instagram Story, with the caption, “Go Girls! Get it done!”
“We never expected it to get this big,” Brumfield said. “We were literally on the bus coming home from nationals when Ciara posted us, and we all started bawling and going crazy. This has gone beyond our wildest dreams.”
But what the team noticed most in the comments was how much the routine meant to other collegiate dancers, many of whom said they had faced similar treatment from their own athletic departments.
“While this just happened to LSU, the injustices within Spirit programs are extremely common, ” McFadden said. “And in that moment, that whole auditorium was rooting for LSU.”
The LSU Athletic Department has since asked the team to perform their routine at a women’s basketball game, and has said the win will be recognized at another sporting event, according to Hale. But Rowe says after such a frustrating and demeaning year, she hopes other athletic departments do more to support their athletes.
“Though LSU is being highlighted right now, what happened to them happened to dozens of other dance teams during COVID-19,” she said. “Some got told they couldn’t compete, some of them were chopped, others are completely gone. There is such an outdated perspective on what we do.”
None of the LSU Tiger Girls think they’ve changed the face of the dancing world. But they’re hopeful that their moment of popularity could bring more attention to collegiate dance.
“It’s really about recognition,” McFadden said. “What [these athletes] do is incredible and it’s so under-appreciated and misunderstood and all we can hope is that this continues to spark a larger conversation to close that outdated gap of people in athletic departments. Our dancers are more than just the pretty girls on the sidelines.”