BYU Cougarettes keep winning national titles. Dancers share how they physically and spiritually prepare

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BYU Cougarettes received national titles for their performance in jazz and hip hop at the NCA & NDA College Cheer and Dance Championships in Dayton Beach, Florida, April 2023.
Photo taken by Krissy Swallow, courtesy of Lauren Billings Gambill

You already know and love their energetic routines—here's an inside look at how these national champions prepared to take home their 23rd and 24th national titles.

Twenty-two. That’s how many national titles the BYU Cougarettes had when they arrived at the 2023 NCA & NDA College Cheer and Dance Championships. And after placing first in the jazz and hip-hop divisions at nationals in 2022, the Cougarettes knew that everyone was asking one question: Can they do it again?

McKinley Hawkes joined the Cougarettes in 2018—since then, she’s danced on the last five national championship-winning teams. But when the Cougarettes arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, in April, McKinley says the pressure was higher than ever had before. “There was a lot of pressure this year because the Cougarettes have never won back-to-back titles in both jazz and hip-hop,” she says.

But the Cougarettes had been preparing for nationals ever since the beginning of the school year, and they were ready to prove that they had what it took to win. “It begins in August when we choose our team scripture and create a short phrase which serves as our theme of the year,” says Lauren Billings Gambill, who also started dancing with the Cougarettes in 2018. “This year, our scripture was Doctrine and Covenants 6:36, ‘Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.’ … We recite our team scripture together every day at practice.”

The Cougarettes don’t just recite a scripture before rehearsal—they also set spiritual goals as a team, like reading the Book of Mormon daily and attending the temple regularly. “[Spiritual preparation] is vital to our success,” Lauren says. “We even watched conference together between rehearsals the week before nationals.”

Even though the Cougarettes’ spiritual preparation began in August, they only spent roughly six weeks rehearsing their hip-hop and jazz routines for nationals—a stunningly short amount of time for the level of precision they achieve on stage. McKinley shares that the team began learning their national routines in early February. “It’s very intense,” says McKinley. “We practice at least three hours a day, and that’s just as a team. You do a lot of outside work on your own … so you can come back to practice and keep pushing as a team.”

Each dancer was committed to bringing their very best dancing to rehearsals, and the Cougarettes practiced their routines to perfection so they could beat their biggest competitor: themselves. “There was more pressure to do better than we did last year,” says McKinley. “And obviously, there are people that are waiting for us to mess up, because they want it so bad too. But we just come to dance. We are just happy to be there. And we're just trying to out-dance ourselves.”

On April 7, the Cougarettes wowed audiences with their mesmerizing performance of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” winning first place in the jazz division.

Two days later on April 9, the Cougarettes took their places on stage at the Bandshell, a large outdoor stage right on the beach in Daytona Beach, Florida. As the dancers walked on stage for their hip-hop finals performance, Lauren remembers that the crowd was a sea of BYU blue and they chanted “BYU, BYU, BYU!” The sound of the cheering crowd motivated Lauren and her teammates to flawlessly perform their energetic hip-hop routine called “Part the Red Sea.” Under the hot Florida sun dancing on the Bandshell stage, the Cougarettes’ endless hours of preparation finally paid off—they won their second national title for the second year in a row.

To say that winning back-to-back titles was rewarding for both McKinley and Lauren would be an understatement. Both dancers would agree that the very best part of their experience at nationals was being able to dance and perform at the highest level they could. “[It is rewarding] to work so hard and have it pay off, but not necessarily by getting a trophy,” says McKinley. “It’s literally just dancing your very best. And then whatever happens at the awards, it doesn’t matter because we did our best and it just feels so good to do that. There’s nothing like that.”

▶ You may also like: Watch: BYU Cougarettes take national titles with 2 jaw-dropping routines

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For the first time, the BYU Cougarettes have won back-to-back national championship titles in both jazz and hip-hop.
Photo by Krissy Swallow, courtesy of Lauren Billings Gambill

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