Last April, my classmate invited me to the 2021/2022 Mariners’ Spirit Showcase by VIU’s Dance Team. Usually, I don’t attend dance events, but I wanted to show her my support.
What followed was an amazing evening of routines—solo and group, cheer and dance, jazz and contemporary—with emceeing by coaches Elissa Miranda and Payton Berrigan. At the end of the event, they handed out awards and certificates to the graduating students.
I’ll admit I didn’t know too much about the Dance Team before that night. I’d seen them perform at the Mariners’ games, but I hadn’t considered what being part of the team was like.
At the Showcase, I listened as Miranda and Berrigan talked about each members’ accomplishments during their time with Mariners Spirit.
Miranda’s voice broke as she spoke about Berrigan, who’d coached with Miranda for many years and was now also leaving VIU. I cried with her and the team, and I saw that many of the audience members did, too.
Fast forward to September 2022. I wanted to write about Mariners Spirit, to put a spotlight on the hard work they do on campus. Then, I heard about the VIU Memes Instagram page. The account had posted disparaging memes about the dancers in the past.
I didn’t understand why the team was talked about so negatively when I saw with my own eyes how dedicated they were to each other and their craft.
I caught up with the dancers at one of their practices at Harbour Dance Studios, Inc. (The Dance Team practices downtown twice a week and at VIU Gymnasium once a week.)
First, let me clarify: Mariners Dance Team, under the Mariners Spirit umbrella, is a club team divided into two teams since last year. Spirit Blue has more experienced dancers and is competitive, while Spirit Silver is for less experienced dancers and is more community-focused.
Amanda Chacon Brown is in Spirit Silver. She joined during her first year at VIU, but it wasn’t something she’d planned on doing. She first saw the Dance Team at RockVIU, and her father told her, “Go talk to the girls with pompoms.”
Chacon Brown, who described herself back then as a “super grumpy teenager”, followed her dad’s advice. The girls, who she said were “so wonderful,” told her to try out for the Dance Team. She did.
“Lo and behold, they actually let me in,” she said.
Prior to joining, Chacon Brown had no dance experience, wasn’t extremely athletic, and didn’t know anyone on the team. With all these factors, she came to practices in a panic. But with the support from her teammates, she started to become more confident.
“[I started] off scared to be here, convinced I’m gonna quit every week, and then [came] back to it, loving it more each week,” she said.
Her hard work paid off. That night at the Showcase, Chacon Brown won the Spirit Silver Rookie Award. It came as a big surprise for her.
“I never thought I’d win an award my entire life,” she said.
I talked to another dancer, Hannah Muller, who is on Spirit Blue. Besides dancing, she does street-style choreography for both teams. Muller is from Whitehorse and has been dancing since she was a kid.
When Muller came to VIU, she wanted to continue dancing, but she didn’t want it to take over her life. Her mom encouraged her to try out for the Dance Team, and Muller did, despite feeling scared.
She’s happy she did. For one thing, it gives her a break from school. “You get to focus on yourself, your team, [and] get your head and body into something else,” she said.
Muller also loves the community she’s found within the Dance Team and how they treat their teammates. She said, “Everyone has mental issues, everyone goes through stuff, and they are so caring about that.”
The coaches, including Miranda, want to foster a healthy environment with less of a studio mentality and more of a focus on teamwork. Miranda listed the Dance Team’s priorities. “It goes, ‘You and your health and your safety, and then school, and then dance somewhere below.’”
The coaches also encourage dancers to let them know if they need a break. They tell students: “If you need a break, if you can’t be at practice one night because you need a good mental health day … as long as you let us know that you need a minute, we’ll give you that minute.”
It was about this point that I, with hesitation, brought up VIU Memes. Miranda rolled her eyes. “Our best friends.”
She told me that the campus is divided this way: one third of VIU loves and supports everything the Dance Team does, one third thinks they’re cool but not as cool as the other teams, and one third (including VIU Memes) doesn’t like them or see them as relevant.
Last year was especially difficult with that account. Miranda said some nasty memes from the page were shared with the dancers, some of whom were fresh out of high school and struggling with self-confidence.
She found it hard to see the dancers go through that experience.
“As much as I can say, ‘Brush it off, we can do this, we’re stronger than one account that is not a fan of us for some reason,’ people’s words can definitely take a toll,” she said.
Miranda and the other teammates are trying to portray the Dance Team in a positive light, compared to what it has been in the past.
The year before Miranda joined the team, there were rumours involving the dancers and members of other sports teams. Comments began circulating that the Dance Team was just a prop for the male teams on campus.
Even now, the Dance Team encounters people who tell them they are just a distraction and shouldn’t be at the games.
Miranda told one person, “I’m really sorry you feel that way, but we’re asked to be here by (Mariners) Athletics and by this team, so it’s not your call. If you don’t want to watch, you’re more than welcome to turn around or walk out of the gym.”
Jaya Chowlia is one of the Dance Team captains. She thinks that telling people about what goes on behind the scenes will help them see the team differently.
“When I tell people that we practice three nights a week, if not more, and the amount of work we put in aside to do events and games, that’s kind of when they start realizing, ‘Oh, this is a big deal,’” she said.
Chowlia’s experiences with the Dance Team has enriched her life. It’s brought her friends, job opportunities within the Athletics & Recreation Department, and a new perspective on university life.
“[Being with the team has] showed me how much people on sports teams have to do within the campus and how highly we can be seen,” she said.
After attending the Showcase in April and speaking to these women, I was more aware about how much dedication goes into being a dancer. It saddened and angered me that somebody would dislike the Dance Team without understanding what they do.
When the interviews were finished, I stayed to watch some of the practice. Muller went over a routine for the upcoming games. Miranda turned on the music. It was Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair.”
Muller led the team through a series of hand and leg movements that I, with my lack of hand-eye coordination, would have a hard time following. At certain points, the dancers paused the music and asked to repeat and clarify some steps.
Being on a Dance Team is more than carrying pompoms and learning fun dances. It’s about welcoming shy students to campus, providing an outlet from schoolwork, and developing one’s mind, body, and spirit.
And they’re always happy to accept new members.
When asked what she would tell students who may want to join, Muller said, “I would tell them how positive, how welcoming, how supporting, and how fun it is to just come here and dance and learn and be with your friends.”
Chowlia added, “We are a safe place for people, whether you have very little dance experience or you’ve been dancing for twenty years. It’s just a big family.”
“Speaking as someone who was very apprehensive to join in the first place … you need to be open to it,” Chacon Brown said. “I recommend giving it a try, even if you don’t make it.”
The Dance Team usually holds tryouts in September, but they take students in January who will only be on campus for one semester. There are also upcoming tryouts open to all current students for the burlesque-style fundraising Cabaret Show in March 2023. If you’d like to try out, email Mariners Spirit at <email@example.com>. And if you’d like to support the team by attending one of their fundraisers, check them out on Instagram and Facebook.