UCLA's dancing, prancing song girls are college basketball's best halftime show
March 16, 1981

O.K. you guys. In case you haven't noticed, the UCLA song girls are over by the men's gym working on their halftime routine for Saturday's game. That's Renèe Gibson in the electric-yellow designer sweats. Hi, Renèe! Love your sweats! And there's Jayne Papac—she's the captain of the squad, O.K.?—discussing the music for the group's next performance with Hazel Bracey and Diane Bessèe.

"O.K., you guys, Mongo and Rock Lobster are out," says Jayne, pronounced Jayne.

"I'm sure!"

"But we can still do Enough Is Enough."

"How fun!"

Today is very important, because the song girls' new basketball sweaters have arrived. That's Julie Hayek over there trying one on now. The sweaters are cobalt blue and have UCLA stitched across the chest. Julie's best letters happen to be U and A. Has anyone since Lana Turner looked better in a sweater than Julie Hayek? No.

Many of these particular sweaters don't fit, however. They look all droopy and hideous, and they are causing paroxysms of grief where hope once lived. What a disappointment! "Look at this, you guys," shrieks Renèe, her face accent grave. "No way! This is gross! Oh, Julie. Look, you guys. Oh, Julie! You'll have to pin that. Maybe we can get them taken in. You guys?"

It's important that the sweaters fit, of course. Just as it's important that the pompons shake, the eyes flash, the smiles brighten entire arenas and the legs kick impossibly high. Everything the UCLA song girls do, in fact, has taken on an added degree of importance since the NCAA finals in Indianapolis last March, when they accompanied the Bruin basketball team to the final four and got themselves discovered.

Despite an unimpressive regular season, the Bruins qualified for the NCAA's 857-team tournament field, and played exceedingly well before finally being beaten by Louisville 59-54 in the championship game. But if Indianapolis' Market Square Arena was the UCLA basketball team's Waterloo, it was the song girls' very own Schwab's Drugstore. Every time they walked onto the floor, some of the less well-hinged members of the Louisville band held up numbers rating their performance, as if they were scoring a diving meet. Jaded old sportswriters actually left their free cold cuts in the press room and caught the song girls' halftime show. Is it any wonder that a lot of people are rooting for the UCLA song girls to make it to this year's NCAA final four in Philadelphia? No.

"All the publicity we got last year was weird," says Azeldria (A.Z.) McCarns. "We had never been exposed to anything like that. It seemed kind of out of place, because it was as if we were the stars and the basketball team was backing us up."

O.K., A.Z.! Love your concept! But if the song girls are toe-tappingly, team-toppingly, heart-stoppingly wonderful as a group, can they be equally wonderful individually? Yes they can. The song girls are, in capsule:

Bessèe, 24-year-old senior Spanish and Spanish Lit. major. Grew up (to be six feet tall) in San Francisco in French-Hungarian-Italian-Spanish family. Became disoriented by excessive hyphenation and left home at 17, never to return. Attended Chico State until she awoke one morning to discover she wasn't breathing. More disorientation. Learned she was allergic to Chico, for which no known cure. Enrolled at California at San Diego as dance major; subsequently was told school wasn't offering dance classes. "How does anybody ever graduate from that place?" she wondered. Dropped out of school for two years and became instructor in health spa in Tecate, Mexico. "Adopted" by Los Angeles family visiting spa for week. Waitressing at Venice Beach seafood restaurant, she was recruited by UCLA crew coach, who admired her grace, her physique, her lobster thermidor. Quit team when she realized "No one comes to watch you row crew unless they are very lonely." Last year was named Miss Santa Monica and Miss Congeniality in same beauty pageant.

Hayek, 20-year-old junior psychobiology major. Name is Czechoslovak. Julie has thing about teeth. "When I was little," she says, already stretching credibility, "I wanted braces so badly I took a paper clip and bent it so it fit across my teeth." Prayers finally answered in junior high school. "I liked it when I had braces. It makes such a difference in a person." Insists that when sophomore in high school she was so incredibly emaciated friends called her Stick. "I was so flat," she says, "people thought I would become a high-fashion model. I couldn't do that now because I'm too curvy. I was blessed with my mom's body." Began modeling bathing suits when only 15. Every time she got good job, mother made her mop floors to keep her from "getting star crazy or something." Recently did pinup poster for 20th Century-Fox and 12,000 square feet of linoleum for Mom. Plans to spend six years in dental school, then dedicate life to malocclusions and underbites. "If I have to, I'll be a movie star for a few years, then go back and work on people's teeth," she vows. Once lost top of halftime uniform while dancing in front of band at women's basketball game, causing every spit valve in horn section to weld shut and two freshman percussionists to attain puberty at precisely same moment. Dates Tim Wrightman, tight end on Bruin football team.

McCarns, 22-year-old senior psychology major. Father, L.A. postman at time, found name Azeldria on letter he delivered shortly before first daughter born. Could have been worse. Father later became bus driver; name might have become Please Have Exact Change McCarns. Family moved into nearly all-white neighborhood in central Los Angeles 18 years ago. Now only white family left in A.Z.'s neighborhood is named Frisbee. Slinky family moved out years ago. A.Z. started dancing at age five, but performed publicly only once. Big, fat, bored-looking woman in sunglasses sat in front row cracking knuckles all through performance. "Finally I freaked and ran offstage," A.Z. says. Fortunately, Westwood zoning ordinance prohibits big, fat, bored-looking ladies from even entering Pauley Pavilion, where UCLA plays home games. In addition to song-girling, A.Z. is also ad manager for Nommo, campus black special-interest newspaper, and does work with underprivileged and handicapped through Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority. A former boyfriend "didn't like me being in the limelight," and suggested she not try out for the squad this year. Why former boyfriend?

Gibson, 21-year-old junior English major. Has best teeth, best eyes and strangest vocabulary on squad. Says preppy clothes are "gagful." Has been known to say "I'm sure!" "guy!" "no way!" "gross!" "blow it off!" "whoa, baby!" and "how fun!" in space of single sentence. Daughter of Hoot Gibson, former quarterback at University of Nebraska. Grew up in politically conservative Orange County, and used to dance in Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade. Was Cinderella Dancer. "You do the parade," she explains, "then the hoedown, then they tram you over to Bear Country, then you get ready for the next parade." Supported Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980. What about 1976? "In '76 Winnie-the-Pooh ran for President at Disneyland, and we did this show!" she says. Thinks the U.S. should "say later days" to Social Security system. Also welfare: "Blow 'em off." Would like career as TV newscaster, although confesses she doesn't always stay on top of the news. "I didn't find out about the hostages in Iran until I got home from school last summer," she says.

Papac, 21-year-old senior sociology major. Name is Yugoslav. Father is Nick Papac, former quarterback for Oakland Raiders. "My dad always said, if you were a boy, I'd make a quarterback out of you.' I was the first kid, but I didn't turn out to be the quarterback." Calls being song girl "something athletic I could do that would still be feminine." Noted overachiever. Started dancing when she was "this really happy little kid," and was teaching tap by high school. Has been instructor at summer cheerleading camps for past four years. Last winter carried 17 academic units, worked in children's clinic at UCLA medical center, cheered at two to four games a week and finished quarter with a 3.5 GPA. Broke right arm in November shortly before leaving with football team for trip to Japan for Mirage Bowl.

Krisann Pulos, 19-year-old sophomore theater arts major. Grandparents emigrated from Greece, eventually winding up in Portland. Ore., where family opened restaurant called The Old Spaghetti Factory, serving canneloni, tortellini, lasagna and other traditional Greek dishes. Won TV-commercial competition in international model-of-the-year contest at age 16. Recently authored first play, complicated story of love, envy and three people in tights yelling at each other a lot. Turn-ons: "People and just everyday things—working to be the best person you can be—are the most important things to me." Show business her life. Not so sure about being song girl again, however. "I always think how many girls would love to do it, and I think, guy, Krisann! You'd be crazy not to try out again. But then I think, guy, I'm sure. I've had my year, maybe I should give some other girl a chance."

Bracey, 20-year-old junior psychology major. Born in Glasgow to English father and Scottish mother. Wee bit of lass at 5'9" with gams that make boys' minds gang aft agley. Earned academic scholarship to UCLA and maintains 3.4 GPA. Likes being song girl because, "It gives me an identity, makes me not just another number at school. It's my contribution, and at the same time it's been a positive thing for me. Since I've been a song girl my grades have gone up." So has social life. "You get more dates when you're a song girl," she says, "but why? I didn't become cuter with a more dynamic personality when I made the squad." Admits she is "kind of wrapped up in myself," which doesn't sound like such a bad place to be wrapped up. Drives orange MG. "I don't like to be average," she says. Isn't.

Melanie Sue, 21-year-old senior sociology major. Half Chinese, but says Sue isn't real name. Won't say what is. Claims when ancestors settled in this country, they sent identity papers to other members of family still in China, who used them to enter U.S. Says this worked because "we all look alike to you anyway." Ah, Sue. Comes from Air Force family and has lived in eight different places. Dayton only place she lived in twice, which is a shame. Salad-bar queen. Says she always wanted to be UCLA song girl. Can still barely contain her excitement. "If you can get by all the crap and roll with the punches, it's all right," says Melanie.

Although the UCLA song girls are often called cheerleaders, the two terms aren't interchangeable. The two teams aren't interchangeable either. The song girls are halftime performers who get up and yell during the game when the spirit moves them. The cheerleaders actually have more male members—five—than female—two—and are more apt to jump up and down. The first song girls are believed to have appeared at UCLA games in 1929, the year the school moved from East Hollywood to a brand-new campus in Westwood. "The only time they performed was at football games," says Dr. Norman Miller, former vice-chancellor of student affairs. "The yell leaders then were always fellas, and it was traditional to sing a song with the band, so the girls would lead the singing and wave the pompons. They weren't dance girls. They didn't get that dance thing started until we moved into Pauley Pavilion in 1965. Bill Ackerman [to whom the early song girls reported] said he always tried to get them to dance, but he could never get them trained and coordinated enough."

The song girls don't sing anymore, except occasionally in the shower, on their own time. An attempt was made a few years ago to change the name to the "dance team," but it just didn't sing, and it was ignored. People didn't want an all-girl glee club, after all; they wanted dancing. And so they got rhythm, they got music, they got their girls. And who could ask for anything more?

And yet there was one thing more, one very important thing that probably had more to do with making UCLA's song girls the sideline sirens they have become than all the pompons in Christendom. From 1948 through 1975 the Bruin basketball teams of John Wooden won 667 games, lost only 161 and won 10 national championships. When Jody Hammond was a song girl (1970-72), UCLA didn't lose a single home game. Hammond, now a reporter for KNX all-news radio in Los Angeles, says that those days were also a special time for the song girls. "Whenever we went to away games," says Hammond, "we always got a terrific response from the home crowd, probably because we were a little more Hollywood than most cheerleaders. People would come up and ask for our autographs, and we just weren't used to that at home. Maybe it was the California Girl mystique, the allure of the girl who is athletic, energetic and always has a big smile on her face."

In 1971, while Hammond was still on the squad, Lyle Timmerman, now special assistant to the vice-chancellor, became the group's new adviser. Tim-merman's first few years in charge of the song girls were stormy ones. "Rah-rah wasn't one of the high campus priorities at the time," he says. "In 1972 I was running the tryouts for the dance team in one room of the student union building and between girls I had to run into another room to deal with the leaders of the strike committee that had the whole damn campus shut down." The early '70s were years of increasing militance on college campuses, and as Timmerman learned only too soon, even the glamorous UCLA song girls weren't immune to that.

In the 1971-72 and '72-73 school years the song girl squad consisted of six white girls and one Oriental, some say the Oriental girl being a concession to pressure from Oriental students. "We went through a period when all the girls were about five feet tall because they wanted a squad that was balanced in size," recalls Miller ruefully. "Once you mixed the Oriental girls in there—they were so short—it brought the size of the whole group down."

Attempts at tokenism did nothing to appease the increasing anger of black students, who knew that there had not been a black song girl for years. At the 1972 tryouts five black girls who had auditioned unsuccessfully for the squad formed their own group, demanded and got their own uniforms and performed at games the following year. The regular song girl team was integrated a year later when Charlina Chandler tried out and was selected, but the events of the previous year had created such hard feelings on both sides that for three years thereafter the number of girls trying out dropped sharply.

Meanwhile, there were troubles on another front: competition for America's affections from the USC song girls across town. "The rivalry with UCLA was always very much in the air," says Dolly Zachary, a USC song girl in 1975-76 and now a Los Angeles Laker cheerleader. "They had better dancers, but we always had the best-looking girls."

Timmerman has suggested that USC plagiarized some of UCLA's dance numbers, but Zachary denies it. "They stole routines from us," she says indignantly. "We didn't even like their routines. Hey, their first white sweater was in 1975, and USC had been wearing white sweaters for ages. There was a little friction when they copied that from us."

It isn't surprising that so many former song girls have gone on to successful professional careers. In addition to Hammond, who just won a Golden Mike for her work at KNX radio, Joanne Ishimine ('70-72) is making airwaves in L.A. as a news reporter for KABC-TV. Esther Friedman-Sinclair earned a Ph.D. in psychology and is teaching at UCLA medical school. Amy Grossman (1973-75) is a theatrical agent in Hollywood. Jane Dale, who was discovered by her agent when she was a song girl, has a part in an upcoming Muppet movie and was a dancer on NBC's The Big Show before it was canceled. And who will ever forget the euphoniously monikered Delight Slotemaker de Bruine, who recently appeared in an L.A. production of Annie Get Your Gun? Some of their careers undoubtedly were launched by their having been song girls, others helped by it not at all, but it's something that they are all remembered for. "It's really hard getting away from the song girl image," says Hammond. "Somehow being a UCLA song girl and a news reporter don't really go together. It's something I'm very proud of, but there is a certain stigma attached to it. People who know about it expect you to be real rah-rah and very ail-American, whatever that means."

Hammond and Ishimine were on the same squad in 1971, the year the song girls rocked the NCAA final four by being ejected from the Brigham Young University student store for wearing hotpants that were deemed too risquè for Mormon eyes. But hotpants were just the beginning. Soon they were wearing leotards and long skirts during their half-time dance routines, and finally—perhaps inevitably—came last year's spectacularly dècolletè uniforms. "You really can't dance with a heavy sweater on," says Hayek. "Leotards reveal anybody's body, and one thing we're known for is our bodies."

The song girls' return to prominence might never have happened had it not been for a Dec. 24, 1979 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED article entitled "The Bruins Are In Ruins," in which the author wrote, "Now UCLA is just a team, Pauley Pavilion is just a building and the song girls are just cheerleaders." Well, when that came out several of the girls actually said, "We'll show him." referring to the smart aleck who had written the article, and that week they went out and bought the low-cut yellow tops and blue satin shorts that brought them fame and a fortune in men's eyes.

The debut of the new halftime outfit wasn't entirely smooth. No one had bothered to actually try dancing in the tops, which were made of a slick, shiny material, so when the group first wore them at a women's basketball game, there were some problems with slippage. "We did a move in which our hands brushed across our fronts," recalls McCarns. "When I looked down, my top had come down so that part of my bra was showing. Julie's had come down even farther, and she didn't know it. The crowd in front of her was going crazy. When I looked over at her my eyes bugged out. The-next time we wore them we pinned Julie's top up so high she didn't want to wear it."

Eventually Hayek overcame her reservations, and the song girls went on to have a good year, especially when they were away from home. "Usually we get a better reaction when we go away," says Hazel Bracey, "because at Pauley they're so used to us. At Indianapolis last year we got a standing ovation at both halftimes. When we came out. people really clapped! At first it was a little intimidating; the magnitude of the reaction kind of made you go. 'Omigosh!' You got the feeling maybe they had seen something like us on TV, but not right there. And they were amazed."

Amazed, aroused, you name it. Indianapolis had never seen anything quite so unusual, and no one wanted to miss even an instant of it. "It's like really embarrassing to go out there and dance and see people looking down at you with binoculars," says Hayek. "I mean, I'm sure! You do not need binoculars to watch a basketball game."

Even after her great success at the NCAA finals, Hayek wasn't certain of retaining a spot on this year's squad. There is a two-year limit on participation in the program, and with six of last year's song girls trying out again last spring, nerves were strained. "We all felt they were waiting for one of us to fall on her face," says Bracey. "The rumors were going around that Julie or I wouldn't make it because we're both tall and have brown hair, and that Melanie wouldn't make it because another Oriental girl was trying out. I found myself worried."

Each spring a selection committee of about 20 students, faculty and staff members and alumni choose from more than 300 applicants after watching the girls do mandatory pompon and jazz routines, and then creations of their own. The judges grade each applicant and submit a list of their scores to an advisory board for a final screening. In past years the top seven girls then received letters from the selection committee informing them they had made the team. But last year something very strange happened. When the seven letters went out, they didn't go to the applicants with the seven highest scores. When Renèe Gibson learned that her scores had been higher than at least one of the girls who had been selected, she protested to the assistant vice-chancellor, and eventually proved her case, resulting in a squad of eight song girls this year.

"There's corruption at every level," says Bessee, who tried out for the squad for two years before finally making it. "My dancing hasn't gotten any better in the last few years. It all depends on how many blondes they're looking for that year, and whether they've got their minorities filled. The second time I tried out, I'd just been Miss Santa Monica, so I knew how to do things like makeup. I came in looking very discreet, with my hair pulled back, and I didn't make it. Last year I wore a leotard hiked up high at the thighs, piled on the makeup, wore a pushup bra and a gardenia in my hair. They ate it up."

And who wouldn't? Yet for all their smoldering coed sexuality, the UCLA song girls exude an almost radiant whole-someness, a lit-from-within kind of warmth and humor that no Dallas Cowboy or Los Angeles Laker cheerleader can compete with. "We really enjoy being out there for UCLA," says Hayek, who turned down a chance at a screen test with Paramount to be a song girl this year. "I told them that that and my education came first. Besides, who would want to leave UCLA. This place is, like, heaven."

And they are heaven's choir of glittering angels: just don't ask them to sing.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERClockwise from bottom left, the UCLA eight: Pulos, Gibson, Bessee, Bracey, Hayek, McCarns, Sue, Papac. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPractice makes perfect for the song girls, whose routines aren't a bit routine. It takes 10 hours of rehearsal to prepare a three-minute halftime dance. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAspiring dentist Hayek shows her choppers to friend Tim Wrightman. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERMcCarns is advertising manager for Nommo, a black student paper. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe Bruin song girls are frequently cheery, even if they aren't actually cheerleaders. TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERPapac (left), a psychology major, has a 3.5 grade-point average. Pledge Chairman Gibson talks to members of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

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