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She was a gymnast who stumbled into cheerleading. He was a Las Vegas dancer.

Jenny Carr and Daryn McCord come from two totally different backgrounds, but the new coaches of the University of Montana's Spirit Squad bring a depth of experience to the cheer and dance teams.

And that's good news for Griz Nation.

While Montana Grizzlies football coach Robin Pflugrad may call the shots on the field of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, McCord and Carr call the shots on the sideline.

"It's crazy. It's fantastic," said McCord, recalling how it felt to stand on the field for the first time three weeks ago during the Grizzlies' home-opener. "It was completely new."

***

McCord, 42, is the first male coach of the UM dance team.

Standing on the sidelines of a football game, giving pointers to an all-women's dance squad is not something he ever pictured himself doing several years ago, when he was working as a professional dancer.

McCord is a well-rounded Las Vegas entertainer, who's rubbed shoulders with celebrities, acted in commercials and movies, and danced in major Las Vegas productions. He's danced with Prince, ‘N Sync and at the Billboard Music Awards. He was the lead dancer and choreographer at Studio 54, a nightclub in the MGM Grand, and has starred in Budweiser commercials, soap operas and had a small part in the movie "Oceans 13."

In fact, for most of McCord's adult life, he has made a living from dancing, especially hip hop. Yet, McCord was never trained in dance until after he was already working professionally as a dancer. Rather, he developed his skills watching hours of Michael Jackson and MC Hammer music videos and Gene Kelly movies.

"I would practice relentlessly," he said. "I would go over every step and angle."

Eventually, though, the exhausting and somewhat unpredictable entertainment industry caught up with McCord, who stepped out of the limelight to pursue more behind-the-scenes jobs.

Last year, McCord visited Missoula and On Center Performing Arts owner Lisa Deer, a longtime friend. It wasn't long before he was packing up his belongings in Las Vegas and moving to the Garden City to work as marketing director at the music and dance studio and teach hip hop.

"I always like new opportunities," he said.

That's part of why McCord agreed to coach the UM dance team, he said.

Turnover among UM dance coaches has been high over the past several years. McCord hopes to bring stability and professionalism to a program that already has a mass amount of talent, he said.

"I will definitely bring the choreography," he said, "but I also have 18 really good choreographers. If you have talented people, sometimes you have to know when to get out of the way."

***

Carr, 25, wandered into high school cheerleading and collegiate cheerleading, but ran into coaching.

Having moved from New Mexico to Helena as a teenager, Carr made friends with another transfer student who hailed from Kentucky, a state where cheerleading is big. She nudged Carr, a longtime gymnast, to try out for the high school cheerleading team.

"I ended up falling in love with it," she said. "Being on a squad is like having a family. All my best friends are people I cheered with."

Carr joined local high school squads that traveled to out-of-state cheer competitions at a time when cheerleading wasn't considered a competitive sport in Montana.

Then, as high school graduation neared, one of her teammates urged Carr to accompany her to the UM cheer team tryouts. Why not? she said. Carr had no plans for college yet. Though her friend inevitably joined the Montana State University cheer squad, Carr became a Griz.

"I made the cheer squad and that made the decision about where I was going to college," she said.

Carr cheered four years for the UM cheer team and served two years as cheer director at Mismo Gymnastics.

"I like cheering enough I can't get it out of my system," Carr said. "It's hard to let something go cold turkey."

Back when Carr tried out for the squad, the requirements included a standing back handspring. Now, cheerleaders must also be able to perform a round-off into two back handsprings. The skill level has increased partly because of the growing popularity of competitive cheerleading, thanks to its exposure on sports networks like ESPN.

"I'd like to see us compete more; I think it'd be great exposure," Carr said. "But I want our main concern to remain the teams."

Revving up the fans and supporting the athletic teams is the cheerleaders' main focus.

"Most people come to watch the game," Carr said. "But during timeouts, you look to the cheerleaders or to Monte or the dance team. It all makes up one really amazing program."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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