After entertaining football and basketball fans with dazzling routines on the sidelines when they were WCU students, five alumnae danced their way into the national spotlight as cheerleaders for NBA and NFL teams.
The women and their cheer teams are Molly Prentice Cabrera ’98, Atlanta Falcons; Kelly Owens-Rastegari, Washington Redskins and the Washington Wizards; Monique Douglas ’02, Charlotte Bobcats; Tara Mull Ryan ’05, Carolina Panthers; and Kristin Davis Edick ’06, also the Redskins. All were members of a dance team founded and coached by Donna Buckner, the auxiliary coordinator for the WCU Pride of the Mountains Marching Band for many years.
To be accepted for the elite cheer teams, the young women, along with hundreds of other hopefuls, participated in a lengthy audition process, which was repeated every year. Once on the team, they were required to meet a demanding schedule of practice, plus rigorous strengthening and conditioning programs. They say the WCU Dance Team was good preparation for the experience.
“When I got to the Charlotte Bobcats it was practice, practice, practice until we got it right. I was used to that because of my WCU days,” said Douglas. “I also learned at WCU how important it is to be uniform and in sync to look good as a team.”
In addition to cheering for home and tournament games, the pro cheerleaders made special appearances to support causes in support of AIDS research, homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and many other charitable foundations. They visited exotic locales including Aruba, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic to be photographed for team calendars. All of them stayed with their squads from three to five years in the late 1990s through 2013 before deciding to hang up their pompoms to focus on family and career.
“I often miss the sisterhood and performing, but, just like my WCU experience, I was left with only the fondest memories and admiration for the entire program,” said Ryan.
A highlight for the women was the opportunity to perform for U.S. troops at military bases all over the world. Owens-Rastegari overcame a fear of flying to travel aboard C-130s and Chinook helicopters to bases in Kosovo, Macedonia, Germany, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Oman, Honduras and Bosnia. “I must say, there is no better audience,” she said. “Whether our shows were on a full stage or in the middle of the desert, we gave 110 percent to see them smile.”
The history of the WCU Dance Team dates back to 1995, when Cabrera and several other student-dancers who were looking for performance opportunities approached Buckner for help. The wife of the now retired director of the WCU marching band, Bob Buckner ’67, she was an experienced group organizer who went to the university administration to seek support for the dance team concept and helped the students find campus funding to pay for simple costumes. She also volunteered to be their coach. Jeanna Carswell, who owned a dance studio in Sylva, served as choreographer. The team started with nine members and grew every year.
“I knew that the students would be disciplined performers because of their background in dance training. What I didn’t know was how quickly our group would evolve into a dance team that would join our cheerleaders and band to create spirit and energy for our athletic events,” said Buckner.
Her coaching philosophy was based on discipline, leadership and teamwork. “Our ladies held each other to a higher standard, not only as performers, but also as dependable, loyal and dignified representatives of our university,” she said.
The dancers not only were accomplished in jazz, hip hop and ballet, they were athletes who lifted weights and worked out regularly. They faithfully practiced their routines each week and attended a summer dance camp together. “Be there for practice and be ready to work. That’s what I learned at WCU, and that also was the basis of our practice on the Washington Redskins cheerleading team,” said Edick.
“Donna understood the value of commitment and the positive impact that it can have,” said Cabrera. “We practiced a lot. I think the experience prepared us mentally, socially and physically for many other things in life.”
Cabrera, who now serves as the senior territory manager for American Medical Systems, lives with her husband in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Owens-Rastegari, who graduated from George Mason University after attending WCU, is an account executive at radio stations WGRZ and WGRX in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She and her husband have three sons. Douglas, who recently earned her master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, teaches French at Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte. Ryan, who is married with two young sons, also lives in Charlotte. Edick lives in Stafford, Virginia, with her husband Marine Capt. Denver Edick ’05, a former WCU baseball player, and young daughter.
Buckner has retired from coaching the WCU Dance Team, but she stays in touch with former members and keeps a notebook of team clippings and photos. “I couldn’t be prouder of my girls, both from those days when I was their coach and now seeing what they are accomplishing as young adults,” she said.