With black and gold pom-poms in hand, VCU’s Gold Rush Dancers take the court at halftime of each home game with a burst of energy that further excites the already-rowdy crowd.
The team, which has 23 dancers, has been directed by Vicki Wells for the past 15 years. Wells was contacted about coaching the team after the university was looking to give athletics a face-lift after the Siegel Center finished construction, she said.
“I’d say that getting involved with VCU was fate,” Wells said. “The university wanted to revamp the cheer program and add a dance team to help promote athletics and ‘the Stu.’”
With more than 25 years of dance experience under her belt, Wells choreographs the routines and coaches the team along with the team captains and lieutenants.
Previously, Wells was involved with the Washington Redskins’ cheerleaders and performed with their traveling troupe. She is a former member and instructor for the National Cheerleaders Association. Many of the dancers Wells has coached over the years have since moved on to bigger projects.
“I have alumni Gold Rush Dancers (who) have danced for Beyoncé, Lil Kim, Lil Wayne, performed in music videos, joined professional dance companies, (danced for teams in the) NFL, NBA, been on stage with Madonna and performed on Broadway,” Wells said.
The choreography performed by the dancers is a mixture of ballet, tap, jazz and hip hop. Incorporating the styles and backgrounds of the dancers from those with technical training to competitive cheering or dancing backgrounds.
Erin Coumes, a senior elementary education major, has been a Gold Rush Dancer since she was a freshman.
“One of my good friends freshman year was trying out and asked me to come with her so she would have a friend at the auditions,” she said. “I ended up loving it and four years later I’m still lucky to call myself a Gold Rush Dancer.”
The auditions for Gold Rush are a two-part process. The first is the preliminary audition, which took place over a span of eight hours this past year. Dancers learn a routine and perform in front of a panel of judges, who determine which hopefuls will return the next day for callbacks.
Those called back are given the chance to perform their own personally choreographed routine, which will determine whether they gain a spot on the Gold Rush Dance Team.
“The audition process is stressful, but fun at the same time … it’s always fun to learn and perform new choreography while being surrounded by very talented dancers,” Coumes said.
Kiana Wood, a junior dance and choreography major, is one of the Gold Rush captains. She described the audition process as a major commitment.
“It’s an all-weekend event, roughly around 14 hours (total) consisting of warm-up, technique drills and choreography,” Wood said. “We usually get about 50 or more girls that come out — this past fall audition we had about 70 girls audition. It’s a pretty hardcore weekend as everyone’s nerves are on a thousand.”
Wood, who has danced for the past 17 years, has been a Gold Rush Dancer since her freshman year and has seen the ascension of VCU basketball in the past three years.
“I’ve always been able to perform in front of big audiences, but audiences as big as the screens of ESPN took my experience to a new level,” Wood said.
Although the Gold Rush Dancers have been an integral part in the halftime show for many years, when the VCU men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four, expectations rose for the performers.
“After that year, VCU basketball became more popular and there was a higher expectation for the spirit squads to meet,” Coumes said.
Jade Mallard, a junior mass communications major, tapes the performances and is often right at the center of all of the action.
“They definitely spice the game up,” Mallard said. “I always see people cheering and dancing with them.”
When the basketball team travels during the season, six dancers are chosen to travel with it to perform at away games.
The Gold Rush Dancers don’t just perform during men’s basketball games, however. They also dance during women’s basketball games, volleyball games and even occasionally at community events, such as breast cancer walks, charity events and the homecoming parade.
“I love working with talent, and we have plenty of that on this team,” Wells said. “However, the most rewarding part of my job is recognizing in each dancer their unique gifts, ones that they don’t recognize in themselves, then helping them to develop the confidence in that gift and push them to the extreme.”
With basketball season just around the corner, students can expect to see the VCU Gold Rush Dancers during halftime, ready to excite the crowd.