Behind the scenes with the Cougarettes

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Ari Davis
The Cougarettes perform during a timeout during the BYU vs. Cincinnati game. The Cougarettes learn new choreography weekly. (Ari Davis)

Four hours in and everyone is dripping with sweat. Mentally and physically exhausted, the Cougarettes aren’t even halfway through their practice.

Royal Flux Dance’s Artistic Director Jaci Royal came to BYU for two days in November to teach the Cougarettes choreography for an upcoming show. The Cougarettes typically spend a few hours a day practicing, but when a choreographer like Royal comes to town, they go all out.

Jennica Overman is one of three fourth-years on the Cougarettes and has worked with Royal three times now. Overman loves working with Royal even though the choreography is extremely demanding.

“She’s unlike any other choreographer,” Overman said. “She definitely pushes you to your limits.”

The Cougarettes always put on a great show, but the hours of learning choreography and perfecting it often go unrecognized. Between rehearsal, games and individual practices, the Cougarettes spend upwards of 20 hours a week dancing.

Expectations for learning the choreography are high for the Cougarettes. They’re required to have it the first or second time through. Sometimes they’ll even learn a piece, dance it once or twice, and then head up to whatever game they’re performing at.

McKenna Juergens is another one of the three fourth-years on the Cougarettes. She’s used to the expectations now, but the adjustment was a challenge at first.

“At my studio we learned [choreography] pretty slow,” Juergens said. “When I first came on the Cougarettes I was stunned at how fast we had to pick it up.”

The Cougarettes have a wide variety of experience in dance, from hip hop to ballet. They also have varying talents for picking up choreography. Rachel Nash was on Alta Dance Company in high school and while she’s a fantastic dancer, choreography hasn’t come easily to her.

“You have to pick up choreography really fast,” Nash said. “All growing up that was the thing that I struggled the most with.”

The Cougarettes perform their hip hop routine during the BYU vs. UConn game. The Cougarettes won the 2015 national title for hip hop. (Nathalie Bothwell)
The Cougarettes perform their hip hop routine during the BYU vs. UConn game. The Cougarettes won the 2015 national title for hip hop. (Nathalie Bothwell)

Many of the Cougarettes have their own way of remembering choreography. Juergens says what the move looks like to herself and rarely uses counts. Nash uses similar techniques with noises and sounds that match how short or long the movement is. Ultimately, it comes down to practice.

“Whenever I get a second I’ll go over it as full out as I can,” Nash said. “I’m just constantly doing it so when I come back to practice next time I have it down.”

One of the major differences for a lot of the Cougarettes is that they weren’t used to performing or competing, especially at such a high level. Shanae Sainsbury had never worked with Royal before and she really had to push herself beyond what she’s used to.

“The bar is set really high, but it inspires you and pushes you to reach that bar,” Sainsbury said. “It helps you to find potential within yourself you didn’t know you had because that expectation is there.”

The Cougarettes continue to bring Royal back because she has such a unique perspective on choreography. Royal’s choreography has been featured most famously on FOX’s Emmy-winning show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“[Working with Jaci] was amazing, she’s so visionary,” Juergens said. “It was one of my favorite experiences on Cougarettes.”

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