Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” comes over the PA and, if only for a moment, Sam Boyd Stadium’s cheering fans forget all about football.
In glitzy red, white and black outfits, the Rebel Girls have commanded their attention, using an arsenal of tricks—from hair flips to sky-high kicks—during a spirited, fleeting performance set to the red-hot hip-hop track.
The dance team might be present for support and entertainment purposes at UNLV football and basketball games, but between all that hair flipping and high kicking, these 22 ladies are student athletes themselves.
The Rebel Girls share the same requirements and perks as UNLV’s sports teams, from yearly physicals to GPA minimums and an athletics academic advisor—not to mention a rigorous practice and training schedule. And not only are the Girls athletes, they’re national champions. With 2008 and ’13 wins in the hip-hop division of the Universal Dance Association College National Championships, they’re one of only three UNLV athletics teams that can claim that distinction.
After the squad is chosen in April, the group begins preseason practices in early July—five times a week for three to four hours a day—rehearsing the 40-plus routines they’ll perform throughout the year. UNLV Cheer and Dance Director Marca DeCastroverde says half of those dances are learned over the summer in a professional dance camp (Pro Action Dance) attended by other collegiate and professional dance teams—so if the Luvabulls’ routine at the Chicago Bulls game looks familiar, you know why.
The busy practice schedule continues into the school year, in addition to game days, performances, individualized workout regimens and training sessions.
“Between all of our practices and workouts, I don’t even know how many hours that is,” says captain Kaitlyn Thompson, adding that the team doesn’t really enjoy an off-season like other athletic groups do.
“U-N-L-V!” A quick echo reverberates off the walls in an old, wood-floored dance room at UNLV’s McDermott Physical Education building, where the Rebel Girls are mid-rehearsal, practicing standards like Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” and UNLV fight song “Win With the Rebels.”
The ladies don’t hold back just because they’re in a smelly, old gym—and not in front of thousands of screaming fans (not to mention anyone watching the UNLV game on TV). They dance with such mechanical precision, it’s hard to spot the mistakes—but DeCastroverde can.
“Buckets, candlesticks, buckets, up,” says the former Rebel Girl, directing one team member through hand positions. Later on it’s, “high kicks, no slouch, bend the knee” during that Elvis showstopper.
And it’s not just stylized dance and cheer moves that the squad needs to master. The competitive routines feature serious lifts and rapid-fire back handsprings, and the team’s high-energy dances (check out the YouTube video of the 2013 hip-hop title performance) keep fans in the seats when the buzzer hits double zero for halftime at Sam Boyd or the Thomas & Mack.
Of course, those aren’t the only arenas where the Rebel Girls perform. They routinely make appearances at community events and in local commercials; they’ve even taken the stage on America’s Got Talent.
“The list is never-ending. We just danced for Team USA, the basketball team, which was really fun,” Thompson says. The Girls also engage in charity work around town, and Thompson says a highlight for her was feeding the homeless with Catholic Charities.
“It’s basically some really dedicated young ladies with a lot of drive who really want to represent our university in the highest light,” DeCastroverde says.
Here’s hoping they do just that this January—and win a third national title.
UNLV Football vs. Northern Illinois September 13, 4 p.m., $14-$35. Sam Boyd Stadium, unlvtickets.com.