‘Mom away from home:’ Sue Sherburne, director of Penn State Lionettes, teaches life lessons to dancers

December 1, 2013 

Gathered for a Thursday practice, the Penn State Lionettes dance squad isn’t doing any of the moves that earned them two straight national titles.

Nobody’s kicking, twirling, twisting or sliding in unison. In fact, the defending champs aren’t moving much at all. In the middle of a White Building studio, 23 women lounge or sit in a circle.

Even so, they’re displaying coordination.

Before practice starts, team members plan their upcoming performance and charity appearances, deciding on meeting times and outfits. A lot needs to be settled, for a busy weekend lies ahead.

Friday will bring the Lionettes’ customary pre-football game gig in front of the Student Book Store downtown. Then there’s the game show on Beaver Stadium field, this time with the bonus hoopla of Military Appreciation Day.

But Sunday will be no day of rest. The Lionettes are scheduled to dance at the Lady Lions’ basketball showdown with top-ranked Connecticut at the Bryce Jordan Center. Afterward, they’ll regroup for an afternoon rehearsal.

The line-up looks daunting, especially when capped with a practice. But team director Sue Sherburne, part of the circle, assures her dancers the extra work will be worth the effort.

“You’ll feel better at the end,” she says. “It’s like when you study on Sunday, you feel better in the end.”

Just eat well, get enough sleep and take care of yourself and each other, and everyone will make it to Thanksgiving dinners, she tells her dancers to cheers.

The Lionettes have learned to trust Sherburne, the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes assistant director.

It’s hard to argue with 16 years at the helm and consecutive Division 1-A titles.

The latest came in April at Daytona Beach, Fla., after the Lionettes topped eight schools at the National Dance Alliance Collegiate Championship. They bested Louisville, Iowa State, South Carolina and North Carolina State in the Top 5.

Sherburne led her 27 dancers to the pinnacle — but not by teaching routines and combinations.

Though she danced while growing up, and now teaches aerobics on the side, Sherburne doesn’t coach technique. That’s done by the dancers themselves and guest instructors.

Instead, Sherburne focuses on molding unity and character, running a program that gives the Lionettes the tools for moving through life as well as they do through space.

Without a formal coach, dancers take turns choreographing shows and instructing each other. They oversee various responsibilities such as alumni relations. They devote themselves to community outreach — pen pal programs, nursing home visits, an adopted family for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon — with the same zeal as their roughly 100 stadium and arena performances in the fall and spring.

“Each year, we set multiple goals, but we’ve always tried to say: ‘What’s the senior class’ legacy going to be of this particular team? What are you going to do to make this better for the girls that are coming in?’ ” Sherburne said.

“We really try to communicate that. It’s like: You didn’t get here by yourself. You have gotten here because of a lot of hard work from the girls that came before you. I always say: ‘You stand on your sisters’ shoulders.’ ”

For Sherburne, leadership means developing leaders as much as entertainers: strong women who dazzle with their steps but also spark respect with their conduct.

“You don’t win a national championship in a day,” Sherburne said. “It’s a whole process. It’s a cumulative effect of things you’ve done.”

That’s the Sherburne way, and squad captains say dancers buy into it.

“Since the first time we met Sue, she was such an inspiration to us because of how strong she is, and how she holds true to her values,” said Alexa Schear, a co-captain along with fellow seniors Danielle Galipo and Sara Leary.

“We call Sue our mom away from home.”

Nurturing future leaders

Here’s a sure-fire way to vex Sherburne: Ask her if the Lionettes have a height or weight requirement.

Over the years she has heard the question too many times.

“Usually, I’m a calm, rational person,” Sherburne said. “That will get me pretty angry.”

For the record, she has neither — the case from day one, and for as long as she calls the shots.

“We all don’t look the same,” she said. “What you can do and what you can give are much more important than what you look like. I think that’s such an important lesson for anyone, but especially for young women.”

Nor do the Lionettes require a professional head shot during auditions, unlike some other teams. Sherburne’s more interested in going deeper. Talent’s paramount, of course, but so are intelligence and drive, the signs a dancer will embrace the program and enhance it.

“You can be a fantastic dancer, but you’ve got to be somebody willing to take on this,” Sherburne said. “You don’t have a coach. You have to be somebody willing to take this on. Because it’s a lot of commitment, and there’s sacrifice in it. There’s a lot of reward for it, but you want girls who want to do this.”

Her involvement started while overseeing personal development and community outreach for the Penn State athletic department’s Life Skills program, a job she still holds.

At an educational pep rally, the Lionettes were one of the entertainment groups. They impressed Sherburne, a dancer and cheerleader at Bishop Guilfoyle High School in Altoona, so much she began working informally with the squad.

Months later, Penn State men’s rugby coach Don Ferrell, the football team academic advisor at the time, told her the Lionettes had approached him about being their faculty advisor and he had agreed to help.

That gave Sherburne food for thought.

She loves nurturing future leaders today in her Morgan Center position and as an adjunct faculty member in the biobehaviorial health department and an academic counselor for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. She loved the role back then.

The Lionettes seemed like a natural fit.

“I got to thinking about it and I said, ‘Don, you know, I’ve danced in my background and I’ve cheered. Do you think that would be interesting?’ He said to come out.”

When she started, the Lionettes were a shadow of their current selves.

Each semester, they played a couple of football halftimes or basketball timeouts. In Beaver Stadium, they performed not on the field, but on a platform in the student section.

“Dance teams weren’t a huge entity in the spirit world then,” Sherburne said “It looks different now. Now you see them on the sidelines all the time.”

Penn State administrators agreed to let her expand the program after she convinced them a dance squad would represent the university respectfully and complement cheerleaders, not compete for attention.

Sherburne credits Curtis White, the head cheer coach, for being “inviting and welcoming and supportive since day one when I came on board.”

“He was kind of like: The more, the better, let’s all go into it,” Sherburne said. “Truthfully, that’s how the squads interact.”

All the time, she said, people wonder if the dancers and cheerleaders get along. Of course, she replies.

The second-most common question acknowledges an obvious fact: For all of the program’s emphasis on character and personal growth, the Lionettes present a compelling bunch at shows.

“We get a lot of guys asking if we need a water boy,” Sherburne said. “It’s like, apparently, the (dancers) look thirsty.”

Academics take priority

Under Sherburne’s direction, the Lionettes grew.

Along the way to becoming champions, they added basketball shows, football bowl games and the national competition. They also increased their community outreach, such as a recent appearance at a fraternity for a benefit soccer tournament in honor of a student who died while collecting Thon donations.

As dancers have come and gone, Sherburne has stressed certain points.

Academics, for one, take top priority. Waltzing through classes isn’t part of the Lionettes’ repertoire. After the spring semester, Sherburne said, the squad turned in a collective 3.4 grade point average.

Sherburne wants it higher at the end of this month.

“Yes, you should be skilled and become a better dancer for being on this team, but, also, how are you developing your skill sets to take them into the next phase of your life, whatever that may be,” she said.

Team unity matters, from small stuff like the annual Secret Santa gifts to sharing the choreography and taking on leadership roles.

“I want them to want to do it,” Sherburne said. “I want them to want to make this team better.”

And conduct counts big time. Breaking an image rule, such as drinking when the team goes dry before and during the national championships, brings the most trouble.

“One of the things we’ve always said on this team is the title wasn’t the prize,” Sherburne said. “It’s the process you go through.

“I feel it’s really important that you stay true. We want to be a dance team that has a solid, classy image. You want the girls to carry themselves in that way and feel good about what they do.”

She thinks discipline outside studios contributes to sharp performances and even titles. From order stems precision.

“I think dance comes from inside,” she said. “I think it kind of reflects who you are at the core.”

Schear said Sherburne has taught the Lionettes to be “ambassadors of this university, not just the dance team,” and given them confidence and organizational skills they can use in careers.

“Absolutely everyone looks at Sue as a role model in their lives,” Schear said.

Leary agrees.

“She gives everything 110 percent. She has taught us as women: We can have everything,” Leary said, adding: “Sue herself just embodies the strength a woman should have, and she’s definitely instilled that in us.”

Both said they’ll treasure another of Sherburne’s legacies: memories of the squad’s camaraderie, the bonds shared by 27 close teammates.

Leary hopes for a third title in April, but she’ll settle for going through another Florida championship with her sisters.

“It’s not even winning for me,” she said. “I want that feeling again. I want my best friends on the stage with me, knowing we did everything we could.”

Sherburne looks forward to her dancers, as they often do, returning to visit long after graduation, families in tow, tales to share. She looks forward to weddings.

She can’t wait to see what they’ll become.

“All of that is really special to me and Mark, my husband,” she said. “We feel they’re part of our family.”

In the meantime, she’ll make sure her current Lionettes nail school and life just like their routines. Title or not, she wants championship people come May.

“I just feel like you want to look that good on the inside, too,” she said. “That’s what’s going to carry you through. That’s what you’re going to take with you. Hopefully, people are seeing them as talented young women.”

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