Keeping spirits high: How Lafayette’s spirit teams have weathered the pandemic

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The Lafayette dance team performed at the home football game last Saturday in front of a few hundred fans. (Photo courtesy of Athletic Communications)

Caroline McParland

College spirit teams have suffered from the lack of the crowds on game day just like the other athletes. But with fans now being allowed into sports games in limited numbers, the role of spirit teams in bringing excitement and energy is more important than ever.

The cheer and dance teams have had a plethora of adjustments during the pandemic, including Zoom lag while practicing strictly-timed choreography, social distancing while performing and keeping the spirit up while wearing a mask. 

“It was definitely different, but I think we made the best of it,” said Issy Bongiovanni ’22, one of the cheerleaders. “Everyone just did practice from their rooms, so it was easy to see that everyone’s motions were the same, but saying the cheers are an important part of what we do, and we really weren’t weren’t able to do that over Zoom.”

Not everything worked right away, but the camaraderie was usually there, said dancer Stephanie Davidson ’23.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” Davidson said. “As a junior captain, it gave me a whole new respect for teaching dance because I had to be extra specific with what I was doing. It was definitely a challenge, but I think it made the team closer and it was a nice break from sitting in our rooms during quarantine.”

One of the challenges, Davidson said, was the fact that the Zoom camera is inverted, which meant she had to teach facing backwards.

Despite coming from different spirit teams, Bongiovanni and Davidson agree that the best part of being at the games is raising the energy of the crowd. 

“I really miss being able to feel like I’m getting the crowd excited,” Bongiovanni said.

“The dance team really likes performing at basketball games because we like the energy of the crowd,” Davidson added. “It’s a smaller space, so it feels very interactive with the fans and the team. Because of that tight space, we weren’t able to perform this past season, but we definitely missed cheering on the basketball team.” 

Despite the many challenges, both the cheer and dance teams were happy to get back out and hype up the fans and the football team in their season opening win against Colgate last Saturday. Over 400 fans attended the game, including 100 students who were given the opportunity.

“It felt so good to be back, and it definitely helped that we won. It almost felt like normalcy, minus a lot of the fans and having a mask on,” Davidson said. “We couldn’t perform on the field, however, due to COVID. We can only perform on the ledge, so there was also a struggle with spacing because we have to be socially distant.” 

Perhaps the cheer and dance teams’ energy has an impact on the athletes’ performances, too.

“It was really exciting, and it actually felt closer to normalcy than I thought it would,” Bongiovanni said. “Even though it wasn’t the same amount of fans, I think us being there with the limited people that could come definitely help the football players.”

Bongiovanni and Davidson both agreed that wearing masks can make it harder for the audience to tell if people are smiling, which increases the importance of the teams’ body language and dancing.

“The biggest challenge so far is we haven’t been allowed to stunt due to [maintain] social distancing,” Bongiovanni said. “Especially when you’re on a spirit team who’s supposed to be smiling all the time, no one can really tell when you’re wearing a mask, so it puts more pressure on us to try to be enthusiastic in our movements as much as we can.” 

“There’s a struggle of being able to perform with a mask because when you’re dancing, you’re smiling,” Davidson added. “It’s harder because you have to express with your eyes. But it was definitely good to be back on such a nice day, and it was fun.”

Meanwhile, other groups like the college’s Pep Band have been unable to continue rehearsing or performing this year.

“COVID has shifted literally everything in every aspect of what we do,” said Katie Rice ’21, a student conductor and saxophone player for the Lafayette concert band. “For Pep Band, we just decided that because we didn’t have the proper equipment, nor did we have the ability to be at basketball games and football games, [we’d] go on halt.”

“It was hard, but it was for the betterment of the band and for preparation purposes,” she added. 

Rice was the student conductor last year as well and was able to experience conducting the band during both basketball and football games before the pandemic hit.

“Having taken the last semester of lessons for conducting online, it feels so different to not actually have a music group in front of you,” she said. “All of it becomes very hypothetical.” 

Unfortunately, the band’s inability to play at games this season has also caused a lack of communication between the group’s members. 

“Some people in Pep Band are also in concert band so we see them around, but not everybody is, and so anybody who isn’t gets kind of lost, which is sad,” Rice said. “I know that there are band people who…haven’t touched their instruments for a year.”

The Pep Band has still found a way to participate, however, in making the athletic teams feel some sense of normalcy in their pre-game events. Over the interim, members of the band recorded the national anthem, the fight song and the alma mater to be played over the speaker system since they couldn’t perform live.

As a senior, Rice looked back on her favorite memories playing at basketball games. 

“I think in particular, I really miss this thing we’d do after the halftime show,” she said. “Everybody comes back up to the bleachers to go back to their seats and I high-five everybody before they come back. I miss having that post-performance feeling of ‘we did it.'”