Nervously standing on the hands of three Northwestern students she had never met, Ari Cohen shot up into the air of Welsh-Ryan Arena as the girls beneath her extended their arms. Cohen had never done a stunt until this moment: Northwestern’s cheerleading team tryouts. She has not been a flyer since. Rather, she served as a base on the cheerleading team during her three years at Northwestern.
“I could really just face plant,” Cohen says while recounting the tryouts. “I didn’t even know them [the girls holding her up]. They were girls that were on the team a year before, so I was like, ‘They probably know what they're doing.’”
Cohen, a recent graduate who studied Spanish and Communications Sciences and Disorders, grew up dancing and participating in her high school’s poms team, a spirit squad that competed in dance competitions and occasionally cheered for school sports games.
She attended the University of Michigan for her first year in the fall of 2014 and transferred to Northwestern in 2015. After joining a dance team at Michigan, she wanted to continue dancing at Northwestern but did not feel drawn to any particular dance team. Instead, she tried out for cheerleading.
Dressed in full hair and makeup, a plain purple T-shirt and black shorts, Cohen walked into the Welsh-Ryan Arena for cheerleading tryouts as a newly accepted Wildcat. During tryouts, everyone workshopped stunts, dances and cheers as a group—a collaboration indicative of the cheer team’s family-like atmosphere.
Last year, Cohen was one of 12 cheerleaders to root for the men's basketball team at both the Big Ten Conference Tournament in Washington, D.C. and the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City. Since both tournaments fell over winter quarter finals period, when the basketball team was not playing, the cheer team could be found in full nerd mode, studying in the hotel lobby. While Cohen describes this time as stressful, due to both finals and the intense basketball games, she explains that overall it was a thrill to spend two weeks straight with her favorite people, exploring two new cities for free. Most importantly, she loved being part of Northwestern athletic history by attending both tournaments in the same year.
Although she celebrated major Northwestern athletic accomplishments, Cohen still experienced many defeats. Cheering for an underdog made Cohen more aware of the importance of her role.
“You wouldn't do cheerleading if you didn't love the team you’re rooting for,” Cohen says. “Even if the team isn't doing the job we want them to do, we still have a job to do. That’s the number one thing our coach always said: ‘cheer the way that you want them to play.’”
The team goofs around on the sidelines to maintain their upbeat mood, and in the end, Cohen and her teammates focus on what they love to do—cheering, dancing and stunting. Perseverance is essential.
Cohen’s favorite moments cheering were always running on the field with the football players and marching band. She describes the run as exhilarating and even risky at times because of the sparklers and smoke fired when everyone enters the field.
“Unfortunately, not all of our fans get there before the game so it’s pretty barren in the stands,” Cohen says. “But it’s still a really cool thing and that was the one thing [my teammates] hyped when I first got on the team.”
Some people have asked Cohen if she’s upset that she cannot tailgate before the games like other college students. She responds that she had the opportunity at Michigan and being part of the team outweighs missing out on the tailgate.
“Because I had such a negative experience at Michigan—and that’s not the case for everyone so I don't want to bash—I wanted to go to a school that I really really loved,” Cohen says. “I found a school that I love, and there’s nothing more that I can do than do something I love while giving back to a place that gives me so much too. It’s kind of symbiotic.”
Through cheer, Cohen found a place at Northwestern where she could share her intense love for her school, using it to fuel purple pride and be her happiest self. In retrospect, her first year at Michigan made her realize the importance of loving and being passionate about where you are. At Northwestern, Cohen accomplished just that: embracing purple pride as her true essential.