Walking into a reputation

Members of the dance team respond to the labels and generalizations that come with being on the team.

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Walking into a reputation

Members of the Iowa City West High dance team stand together. Design Maddy Ephraim.

Members of the Iowa City West High dance team stand together. Design Maddy Ephraim.

Kara Wagenknecht

Members of the Iowa City West High dance team stand together. Design Maddy Ephraim.

Kara Wagenknecht

Kara Wagenknecht

Members of the Iowa City West High dance team stand together. Design Maddy Ephraim.

By Fatima Kammona, West High School

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She was an athlete. She would push her body past its breaking point in hopes of seeking perfection. The stage was her canvas and with her body, she became an artist, painting a picture for all to see. As she grew, the love for what she did grew with her. One day, she found a group who had a passion for dance just like her. However, being part of the group came with a price. No longer would she be her own person but rather just a part of the group. She built armor for the hallways. She became accustomed to the stares and the whispers. Instead of a human, she was now an object. She was now labeled a “slut,” a “whore” and a “bitch” because now, she was on poms.

‘The poms’

When new head coach Kathleen Fallon and new assistant coach Jenny Gomez began the 2018-19 season, they started by sitting down and talking to the members of the dance team about any concerns that they had.

“Something that they brought up and they really stressed to us [was] that this isn’t a reputation that they themselves created. This is something that they have just been assigned to because of things past girls did or did not do. [It’s] not really for us to say or judge,” Gomez said.

This reputation has been heard by many through rumors that all the girls on the team do is party, drink and sleep around. Others have heard that they are stuck-up, privileged and think they are perfect and better than everyone else. That they are all the same: “The poms.”

“We’re not the stereotype, and we never will be. I feel like people only choose to see the parts of us that kind of fit, and then they make it fit. Like they push us into them,” said Chloe Gretter ’20. “But in reality, no one knows I volunteer as a tutor two hours every week. No one pays attention to the fact that me and Anna [Haney ’19] are on Best Buddies, and Sydney [Sherwood ’20] dances every night at Nolte, and Jordan [Forbes ’20] volunteers at the gymnastics center. … If you step back and saw the whole picture, you’d be like, ‘They’re just normal girls.’”

While being interviewed for a separate article, a fellow student had come up and assumed that dance team member Piper Brady ’22 was being interviewed about poms. When asked why the student had assumed that, the student had simply responded saying because [poms] is the only thing [Brady] does.

“We are very different in so many ways, each and every single one of us, like completely different people. But then people are like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the poms,’” Haney said. “We have to be close, but that doesn’t mean people can label us as one. That’s one thing that I hate, whenever I hear, ‘The poms.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m my own person.’”

I feel like when it comes to poms, people have no empathy because of what they think [of] us.”

— Liz Nodia '19

Last year when a list of 94 names came out at West ranking female students, many were appalled; however, for Chloe, being objectified in that manner did not come as a shock to her because it was not something new.

“The list on a smaller scale [is] kind of like … what a lot of people do a ton to us,” Chloe said. “Honestly, I’ve gotten used to it since freshman year, which is weird. But now it doesn’t really phase [me] anymore, because it’s just like I have accepted it as a part of [being on poms] … So, you know, it sucks, but that’s just kind of the way it is.”

She has accepted that somehow being part of the dance team means getting objectified to a point where it doesn’t seem shocking. The ones doing the objectification come in all genders.

“I feel like when it comes to poms, people have no empathy because of what they think [of] us,” said Liz Nodia ‘19. “There’s no stepping into a poms girl’s shoes ever.”

‘Oh dance’

From the curve of the finger to the angle of the head, every detail is accounted for. Every detail is perfected.

“Dancers strive for perfection [as] the main goal, because it’s a visual art and the whole purpose of dance team … is to be very uniform, very together,” Nodia said. “Dance is one unit and one person. … That’s the impressive part about it: you’re able to have all these different people with all these different skill levels and talents, but you’re able to make them look like one unit.”

With a schedule that requires the team to be at West most mornings and ready to practice by 6:30 a.m. and to stay late Friday afternoons, the team is always working towards being one unit and perfection. However, their hard work does not go unnoticed, as they won two state titles and placed 24th in small varsity at nationals in Orlando, Florida this past January. But when it comes to the student body at West High, not many think of a team that placed in the top 25 percent in the nation when they hear poms.

“I think just stepping back and realizing that [being one of the best teams in the nation] doesn’t just come because of the way they look or the things that they do. They’re athletes and they’re artists and they devote a lot of time into mastering that,” Gomez said.

Both coaches were a part of their high school dance team and have been surrounded by dance throughout their lives.

Their job is a lot like the cheerleaders: build up and raise spirit. It’s really hard to do that when their spirits [are] always being broken down by their peers who they’re supposed to be building up.”

— Jenny Gomez, Assistant Coach

“We definitely understand the stereotype of what poms brings to any school and to any collegiate level honestly. But I think the biggest thing that it’s not necessarily like poms, it’s more of dance in general,” Fallon said, going on to say that when someone mentions that they dance it’s usually not a positive response.

“I think the biggest thing that as coaches Jenny and I strive to do is understand, … because [being stereotyped is] going to happen, and our job as dancers or people in this society is to try to change the minds of other people just through our actions. … We can relate to it, because, I mean, we still get it.” During the football and basketball seasons, the dance team performs at halftime as a way to entertain the audience and prepare for upcoming competitions. However, performing in front of the school is something that many members on the team do not look forward to.

“They choose not to face the student section. And when they do, they immediately regret facing the student section,” Fallon said. “I was so disappointed in the culture of the student section at one of the basketball [games]. They were blatantly laughing and pointing and yelling inappropriate things.”

“I know that really affects the girls. They don’t enjoy performing at games,” Gomez said. “They watched the students and their peers mock them from the sidelines, and they hear a lot of stuff being said about them at school and being talked about, and I think it’s a really negative atmosphere. I think that really affects the culture of the team and their sense of pride. Their job is a lot like the cheerleaders: build up and raise spirit. It’s really hard to do that when their spirits [are] always being broken down by their peers who they’re supposed to be building up. But how can you when that’s how you feel?”

Through everything the girls on the team deal with, they find that it is worth it because they get to do what they love: dance.

“We’re on [the team] to dance. I feel like people forget that it’s about dancing to us. Not the extra things that people like to put it; it’s not like we think we’re above anybody else. It doesn’t matter … Everyone is equal. I feel like some people forget that you have to dig deeper to find that out,” Haney said.


This year, tryouts for the 2019-20 season will be on April 11-13 and are open to all 8th-11th graders. Sarah Gretter, parent to Chloe, recalls sitting down and talking to Chloe when it was time for her to make the decision to tryout.

“So I guess we had just a lot of conversations about the reputation, and while I completely disagree with the reputation, I also always remind my girls that sometimes you’re judged by the company you keep. And sometimes you’re put in situations that normally you wouldn’t be because of who you happen to be with at that time,” Sarah said. “Some of those can be really, really good situations and some of those can be really hard decisions to make.”

Sarah responded with this when asked what she would tell other parents who are going through the same thing that she had gone through with Chloe, “I would tell them that just like any other experience in high school, your daughters and sons are going to have to make choices. I don’t think that’s specific to being on the poms team, and I think that as parents, our job is to teach our kids how to become adults. Part of that is learning to make decisions. I think there’s many opportunities on poms to make your own decisions … We would love to have any people try out that love to dance because that’s what Chloe loves and that’s what the other girls love.”

Both coaches understand why some parents may be reluctant to have their children tryout.

“As a parent, I totally understand, … [but] half of our team is new this year. If I were a parent telling me, ‘Oh, well, this is the reputation of poms.’ I [would] go, ‘Well, half of our team is new. How do you have a reputation when half of these girls have [never] even been on the team?’” Fallon said.

This year, four more girls will be graduating, leaving only three girls with multiple years of experience on the team.

“Come out and give us a chance and make that judgment for yourself,” Gomez says to those who are hesitant to let their children join the team.

“Rather than listening to these people who aren’t on the team and don’t really know anything think about it, they’re just repeating [what] they heard [or what] they thought they saw or whatever. That’s someone else’s opinion, and I would say try to rise above. Do dance because you love it, and come let us prove you wrong,” Gomez said.

Though the coaches had different experiences when it came to their high school dance teams and their student body, they both understand and relate to being stereotyped for enjoying dance.

“I’ve always been a person to say to rise above any rumor. If you love something and you want to do it, I think you should. That rumor is just a rumor,” Fallon said. “I’m coaching and I’m fighting those stereotypes with them as well.”

This story was originally published on West Side Story on March 4, 2019.