Erin Harold Alvarado is in her ninth year as the Pom Squad coach at Texas Tech University. In 2017, she led the Texas Tech Pom Squad to the squad’s first national championship in school history in Division 1A Jazz at NDA. Her team has won National Titles in three consecutive year’s. Crowned 1A Jazz Champions in 2017 & 2018, and 1A Pom Champions in 2018 & 2019. While at Texas Tech, her teams have traveled to Shanghai, China to represent the USA in their annual Tourism Festival. They performed alongside the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders many times, and are consistently requested to do performances across the United States. Erin is a graduate of West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology, and a minor in dance. She was a member of the WVU Dance Team, and then coached for three years where the team won two consecutive NDA Collegiate National Championships in 2010 & 2011. She is an adjudicator for NDA, UDA, USA, USASF, PrimeTime Dance and Showbiz Talent. Erin has traveled to Tokyo, Japan to judge for JCDA, and most recently traveled to Australia to judge the AASCF Dance Nationals in 2018 and 2019. In addition to coaching the Pom Squad, Erin currently serves as an Adjunct Dance Faculty member at Texas Tech in jazz, hip hop, movement for the performer and tap. In her free time, Erin is in her second year as an instructor and choreographer at Revolution Elite Dance in Lubbock, Texas. Additionally, she has been a guest speaker at Varsity & USASF Conferences, is part of the credentialing committee for USASF, is a member of NDCA and spoke at their conference in 2018. She is also is the Category Director for the Contemporary/Lyrical division at The Dance Worlds and assists with NDA Judges Training. Recently, Erin choreographed curriculum for CLI Studios in Los Angeles, California. In 2019, Erin was voted the National Collegiate Dance Coach of the Year by the National Dance Coaches Association.
Hi Erin, please tell use your dance story and how you got into coaching.
I cheered first and I started taking dance because my mom didn’t want me to get hurt. And then when I quit cheering after my freshman year of high school, that’s when I became super competitive in dance and really focused on my training the last three years of high school. Then I went to West Virginia because I had a full-ride in-state and all my friends went there. I didn’t know anything about dance team but I was in the dance company at West Virginia as a dance minor for two years.
Sophomore year I got to really see the dance team. West Virginia’s basketball team was really good, and at the same time, so was Texas Tech. I’ll admit, I had never heard of Texas Tech. That year West Virginia played Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 to go to the Elite eight and West Virginia won. I decided in that moment that I was going to try out for the dance team. It was the Texas Tech loss that day that actually started my journey to finding my team!
After college I stayed in Morgantown because I was pretty much running a dance studio there. The dance team is usually run by a graduate assistant but they could not find anybody to do the dance team and it kind of fell into my lap. So I coached at West Virginia for three years. When I took them to nationals my first time, I remember walking in and being like, “what is going on here?!” I’m such a studio kid that I did not understand what was going on, but I watched and I studied. That year we got second place my very first year in the open category and we won the next two years.
After that year, I got a staph infection and was really sick. I didn’t have health insurance because I wasn’t in college and I was just running a dance studio and coaching. And I remember my boyfriend, who now is my husband said, “You cannot do this forever. You have to figure out what you’re going to do.” So I emailed NDA in July and asked for a job. Somehow, they had opening on college staff.
So as soon as I finished coaching at West Virginia, I started on college staff for NDA, and I was older than everyone at this point. But I took it very seriously, and I would come in with my notebooks and everything written out, and I knew all the routines. It really impressed the head staff there, which then opened the door for me to judge. I’m a big believer that if you work hard enough, people will notice, and you’ll get the rewards.
Then NDA sent an email that Nebraska was looking for a new dance coach. And I applied for that one first because I have family that lives in Nebraska. I felt like it would be an easy transition, but I also didn’t expect to get it. I felt like, “I’m 24 no one’s going to hire me”, and I didn’t even get a call from Nebraska. Then, probably five days later, the Texas Tech email sent out and I applied for that. This time I went through three rounds of interviews and ended up getting the job. Now I’ve been here for nine years! I’m so lucky the way that it is set up here. And I’m not just saying that. I have the most supportive administration, me and our cheer coach and our spirit director all full time with benefits here. I also get to teach in the dance department, I’m so lucky to be able to do that.
I’m so grateful to NDA and all the different brands. I’ve met so many of amazing people who have impacted me in so many different ways. And then having this new bigger community with the Tribe 99 combines and NDCA etc. it just keeps bringing in a different layer of people. What I love about in NDCA is that high school / all-star / college coaches are all in the same place. I don’t feel like there’s any other time where I would get to interact with other coaches. I’ve met so many high school coaches that I’ve been able to pick their brain and vice versa through being at these conferences where you have everyone together, which I love so much.
How is your team? Will you let us in on what 2020 has been like at Texas Tech and how you’re handling things?
Over the summer, we just zoomed the whole time. And then, like all teams, I’m sure, we had a set date where we were going to come back, but then football season got pushed back. So we pushed back our start date. We only started the week before school, which we’re really lucky that we were allowed to start then. We zoomed for practice for about 10 days leading up to our first football game. We’re just trying to do the best we can with the information that we have that day.
When we finally got to come back this summer we did a zoom practice with Ohio State. And I thought that was a really good turning point for us. It was the first time we were all back in the studio together. And the studio that I work at has three studios so we were able to separate them out where they could still stay apart. They were finally able to vibe off of each other’s energy and just dance full out. I mean, how many kids were having to mark everything that they were doing because they were in their bedroom? They were so grateful. It was interesting for them to see other college kids in the same situation too. Probably more so because Ohio State at that point hadn’t gotten back together yet, and yes we’re dancing and it feels like a mess, but we’re all together. It helped them see the sacrifices everyone’s having to make and we’re all doing our best.
Football Season at Texas Tech
We practiced outside the very first real practice that was on campus, and it started to rain. And I remember in the moment they were all giggling, and they just thought it was the best thing in the entire world. And normally, if it was raining while we’re outside they might complain but not this time. They were just so excited to dance together.
We were able to do the first game with 14 dancers. And, we had quite a few that were in quarantine for potentially being exposed because of the outbreak that was going on in the area. We split them into two groups based on their roommates and who they lived with to try to ensure we would always have some dancers available. So we did the football game from the stands. It didn’t honestly feel that different for me. I felt like they still got to do everything that we normally would besides the quarter performance on the field. I think the kids were just so hungry to do anything that they never stopped dancing. I mean, I was shocked. I thought, doing a football game in a mask, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to last. But they were so eager to be out there. I don’t think they even thought about the masks, they were just excited.
We have enough space in the stands to keep them 6 feet apart. We’re working very closely with the band so that we can give our students the best experience. We’re really excited that this week’s game should feel even closer to a normal game because we’ll have pretty much the full team.
Are they staying motivated with all the changes?
There was a lot of newness to it at first that I think kept them motived and they were grateful. But they couldn’t get into any type of comfortable pattern because we were changing stuff so much. We would practice outside. Then we would practice at the dance studio that I worked at where they’re split up in rooms. And then we got marley and we laid it out in a ballroom in our student union building because it’s bigger and we could have everyone in there. And then we would use our normal practice space but only half the team could be there. It was always changing.
And then we had to go online for another 10 days, and it got to the point where I wasn’t sure what to do to keep them motivated. They wanted to do stuff, but there were so many of them that had to be quarantined and they weren’t allowed to leave their house. We even had two freshmen that had live in a hotel for a while.
So early on this season when we were on Zoom, we did anxiety relief yoga every time for our warm-up. Normally we do positivity circles. That’s one of our traditions that we try to do for at least one practice. This year I just felt like everyone was in a bad space. So I told them to just talk about it. Instead of doing a positivity circle, we did “happies and crappies.” We talked about what was going well in quarantine, what was not working. We just kind of talked through our human emotions. We kept practice pretty short outside of that. We pretty much just did yoga then we would touch on game day because we were in a game week and we knew people were doing the game on Friday.
But we couldn’t practice face to face, which I know a lot of teams are dealing with that. We are all going straight from never seeing each other face to face to doing a game together. The Thursday before our first game, we finally got some people out of quarantine, and it was our first time to go into the stadium. We only had maybe 12 people cleared from quarantine to go to that field practicing. We have 27 people on our team, so I was zooming from my phone for them to be able to see what their new normal is. And our seniors lead our game day, and I was concerned because they have never done this. How am I going to make sure that they understand? So we actually met about 30 minutes before our normal call time for game day and took them all into the stadium and set it up and let them have 10 or 15 minutes just to kind of figure it out.
I think that they’re just so hesitant about it all right now because it felt like they are starting to get in that grove and then it was taken away through no fault of their own. But there are things that I learned through all of this so far that I feel like I will take into next season. Hopefully, we’re back to normal. I will still take some lessons with me, and it will be some positive from all the negative that has happened for sure.
How are you personally feeling and handling everything?
I am such an over thinker and a planner and this has really thrown me for a curve. I just felt like I’m trying to hold it together for them. There’s a lot of weight on me and people say that about teachers to, but there’s a lot of heaviness and weight on coaches, teachers, the people who are trying to plan to keep these kids safe. I’m really lucky because my kids know that I’m trying and when I am struggling, I think that even without me saying it, they understand, how hard I’m working behind the scenes.
They’re definitely not taking what we have here at Texas Tech for granted. Just today when we were breaking in practice, one of our seniors was like, I want us to remember how grateful we need to be that we all get to do the football game this Saturday. Two weeks ago, we don’t even know if we were going to do a football game. And now we’re getting to do it all together.
Even though I’ve I haven’t been into the office that much, I feel like I’ve worked harder since March until now than I’ve ever worked in my entire life. I was talking with my boss the other day about how I get gratification out of the hard work of being a coach. It was interesting to think about. This year has been a big struggle for me because I’m a very behind the scenes person. I don’t like it when people talk about me at all, but I love it when people talk about my kids. Part of that gratification is missing from me a little bit because we haven’t been able to do anything. You’re not able to take a video of this amazing combo that they’re doing and see how many people love it and see how much they’re giving back. I’m missing the feedback that the crowd gives back to your kids on game day. I live for going on Twitter and seeing “Tech Pom looks amazing today!” It’s not about me, but it’s about their hard work, being recognized by people who don’t know how hard they work behind the scenes.
So for the first game, we didn’t get to film our timeout dance because of Covid and the quarantining that we had to do. But this week we’re actually going to film both of our next two just in case anything happens. That way, even if we can’t do a quarter dance they are still in the stands and the crowd can see the film. I’m so excited for them to get to that game. The dancers actually get to see their performance because it’s pre-taped and they’ll get to feel that crowd reaction.
Can you share your thoughts on ending a season without nationals (NDA College) and how you’re approaching this season’s goal setting with an uncertain competition season?
Yes, I mourned National up until the date it would have happened. And then I know that one of my strengths (on Strengths Finder) is futuristic, which isn’t a very common one, but it is mine and I’m able to move forward a lot faster than a lot of people. So pretty much as soon as nationals was over, like that day passed, I myself was able to move on really, really quickly.
For our seniors who were graduating, they had to realize all that they had accomplished and all that they got to do. We’re so lucky that we even know what it feels like to win a national championship or to go to a Final Four or go to a bowl game. There was a lot they accomplished in their four years here. We tried to focus on that.
But moving forward, I knew immediately, that I was going to keep our Pom nationals routine. I actually have one Pom costume that I have stoned hanging in my office right now under the light just to look at it because it makes me happy. Jazz is different because of the emotional content, but we’re going to try to do something nice with that to give it closure. I feel in my gut that there will be some sort of nationals, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
Right now, we’re going to continue like there is a nationals this year. For now. There has to be a plan A B and C for your dances. I’m so intrigued, though, and wondering how score sheets might change with spacing, lifts, floorwork, that kind of thing. And then also, considering that you may have to be filming these routines, I think that changes things as well. I’m the type of person that when I’m thinking about costuming, I do my research and know what color the curtain was last year. What color the marley was last year, what color the lights were that they were using so that I know what to probably expect in the future. This year, considering that you may have to film this from straightforward is another issue, so that’s going to change how you stage. There’s a lot to consider as it all changes but we’re just proceeding forward with what we know now.
The lucky thing for us is that we are having those types of conversations about how things have to be performed differently in relation to game day. How do you make your timeout dance project through a mask and a screen and a video recording onto a massive Jumbotron? How does that work? If you are having those conversations right now, you can help your dancers to understand how you dance with your eyes and your chest and your feet and you know the things that people can see. It’s not just about your mouth, which I think we talked about that all the time, but now they’re really feeling how true it really is.
2020 is challenging us in such a different way. We can take all the negative and accept it and understand it and feel it. You have to feel the bad stuff. You can’t just say I need to fix it and move forward and put a Band Aid on it. You have to feel that heaviness sometimes. But I do think that we can say all the video has allowed us to say “wow, look how much better our dance looks!” Because we’re so used to watching things on film but it’s so different when you’re having to communicate through Zoom. You’re watching for different things. And the reality is that we’re all in the same boat, to some extent, when it comes to nationals, we all have to reinvent and rethink our team.
Will you talk about your leadership on your team and share how you normally structure that?
I always have senior meetings, and usually they don’t start until about October, this year we did them all summer. Usually in the summer, I work through a proactive coaching leadership pamphlet with the junior class and they work it through on their own without me. And then when they get to their senior year, we focus on the application of it but they’ve already talked it through as a group. I believe you have to start working on leadership and trust as a freshman. Then by the time you’re a senior, you’ve really developed this trust in your own class. We talk a lot about building relationships within your class, making sure that you’re really close with each other, because that’s who you’re going to have when you’re a senior.
When they’re sophomores, I always tell them to remember the freshman because they’re going to be the people that are backing you up when you are seniors. I don’t think that they think about it like that, but I do because I’ve seen it work positively, and I’ve seen it work negatively. I’ve seen sophomores come in and think, “Oh, I’m a vet now, so I have it all figured out” and they totally disregard the freshman. So I’m really big on trying to build the bridges between classes. I believe the sophomores should be the big sisters and the big brothers of our freshman class, not the seniors.
It’s the juniors who are responsible for more logistical stuff, playing music for example. One junior has a different playlist every day. I always tell her what we’re going to be doing at practice that day so the playlist matches the tone of practice. One junior runs our social media. One of them keeps our warm-up list and tracks who’s leading warm up.
We are a team that everyone leads, to some extent. Everyone, including our freshmen lead warm up once. And then when we get into nationals season, I ask our upperclassmen who gave the most effective warm up for jazz and who gave the most effective warm up for pom. And that one person leads from then on regardless of class. They lead our warm-up starting in March all the way through nationals so that we can get into some sort of rhythm. The girl that’s in charge of the playlist gets music from everyone so that everyone favorite song is on our warm-up playlist.
Then the other leader is Sunday combos. We have one of our juniors who’s in charge of getting people to volunteer, making sure that the genres don’t overlap. In general juniors are taking some of the logistical stuff off of me. And then in a normal year, our junior class would also be in charge of all of our social functions.
I’m not one to assign captains, and I think it works for some people and it doesn’t work for other people. I believe everyone brings something to the table and I really try to maximize those strengths. I also ask the seniors, what do you want people to say about you once you’re not here anymore? What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Once they become seniors, they really start to reflect on all that they’ve done and then also what they want people to say when they’re gone. I always try to explain to them that the stronger bond you have with your freshman the longer you’ll have a connection to the team. I think that’s the hardest bond to cultivate in college. They’re not thinking like that, but I try to get them to develop a true relationship with our freshmen. The longer you have a direct connection to our team, the better. But if you don’t develop those relationships, then you graduate and whenever the class that you actually worked on that relationship graduates, then your direct link is gone.
I think a lot of seniors have a hard time leaving, not just in our program, but everywhere. There’s a lot of seniors that really struggle letting go because you’re so invested, you’re so ingrained into that program that when you’re gone, it’s hard to see it succeed without you in it. I think the people that have those genuine relationships tend to be able to move on a little bit easier because they still feel that direct connection.
As for other responsibilities, I have Game Day leaders. But it goes off of height and where they are in their formation. Whoever is in the middle is our game day leader and this year just happens to be two seniors. We have one senior now who is over 6 ft, she’s super tall, so she’s always been in the middle. I think she started calling games when she was a sophomore. And I also have a philosophy of when we travel, I always have a freshman in our travel group. I think there’s a time and place for seniority, but I think when you’re talking about the foundation of your team, that is not the place to put seniority. Especially here in Texas, the drill team mentality here is very high. It’s a hierarchy, and you have more power when you’re a senior than you do when you’re a freshman.
But I try to break down that hierarchy. And I want to know who my leaders are going to be in that freshman group. I think each class has leadership and how do they develop that if you’re never giving them the opportunity to fail first and foremost, but also to succeed? You don’t want to wait until they’re juniors to see who can lead.
That sounds like an incredible team culture. Will you share your thoughts about tryouts and the interviews that you do to help you find the people who will be a good fit for your team?
Every single person in our freshman class I met prior to them coming onto our team. This year for interviews was awesome actually because we had to do zoom interviews. Normally we do speed dating where I have six different judges, and there are six different kids in the room at the same time. And my platform is different than the next judge, and we just rotate except for the fact that I either have to be running the logistical part of interview or I have to be judging, I can’t be doing both.
But this year, because it was on zoom, my boss and I were the only two people to conduct the interview, and they’re on zoom and we just talked. Then there was no buzzer. There was no time limit, and it really helped us. That’s something we’ll probably keep from coronavirus is that the interviews will probably happen prior to the audition, and they’ll probably happen on zoom so the both of us can be there to interview these kids.
I also like to watch body language and nonverbal cues during clinic. I’ll just sit there and watch them warm up. I can tell, even with a mask on, how their feeling. Body language is so important and I pay attention to them and remember them. When people are at my clinic, I remember what they were wearing. Every single girl that is in our freshman class, I can tell you what she wore because I watch those videos over and over and over, and I try to figure out who do I need to reach out to who do I think will be a good fit here?
I remember you, and if you weren’t coachable when you aren’t on the team, how coachable are you going to be if I take you? If I’m telling you not to mark your arms and you choose to mark your arms and you come to six clinics because you really want to be on the team, but in six clinics, you’re still not doing your arms full out… you’re not a good fit for us. That’s more of a deal breaker to me than anything else.
I also do a conditioning circuit at the end of our live tryouts, and that’s a big teller for me. How hard can you work when it’s really hard because I’m not really interested in how physically fit you are. I want to know how tough you are mentally. When you’ve gone through three days of tryouts and the stress that comes along with that, you’re tired and your brain is tired and your body is tired and you know you’re feeling all these crazy emotions because you’re at the end and you’re one of the top 30. You know there’s only going to be probably three or four more cut, but you’re exhausted. Will you fight?
Can you share any of the questions you ask during the interviews that proved so helpful to you?
I have some specific questions to each person, but one thing I asked was what’s your dance strength? If you had to classify yourself as one thing what would it be? And most of them say, I’m a trickster or I’m a leggy, or I’m flexible, I’m a turner. After asking what they are, I say, okay, so envision this. You come into our team and we always do technique training together. We’re doing all those things, whatever your strength is, we’re doing it at some point. Say I pull out all the best turners and you’re in that group. But you are not the best anymore. How are you going to handle that?
They are almost always taken aback a little bit because most of them are used to being the best where they come from. And maybe not the best all around. But if I’m a leggy person, typically, that’s my spotlight. I’m on center when the leg goes up and I’m used to that. And then you come into a team like this and it hurts their confidence. And I don’t want that. The answer I’m looking for is “it’s going to push me. I’m going to go ask that person for tips, and I’m not going to be afraid to stand beside them.”
We’ll also ask them if we ask your best friend on your team and your least favorite person on your high school drill team about you, what would they say? What would your coach say about you? And we think that’s really an interesting one, because we know what the coach said. And it gives us a sense of their self-awareness.
Before these interviews I ask the high school or studio coaches situational things, like if they were pulled from a game day or if they were pulled from nationals, which one would upset them? Why? Have you ever taken them out of the national dance? Have they ever been injured? Those types of questions. It’s an interesting thing when you ask them what their coach would say about them to see if they are in touch with how they’re coming across.
Since you have such extensive judging expertise compared to the average coach, will you share lessons you take from judging to coaching?
Absolutely. I’m such an analytical person that I will break the scoresheet down in great detail.
I take it so seriously but that is where it gets a little bit hard for me. I have to remember not to break it down to that extent where the judges don’t even know what I’m trying to say anymore. Because I manipulated everything to be perfect. And then it falls flat. You’re missing that human quality, that error. I mean, there is error. I think that makes dance more impactful. If you’re really dancing hard, you’re not always going to be on your legs, you’re going to make mistakes. And I think for me when I judge, I’m not looking for perfection.
When I coach, I look over the top of the routine, so I don’t actually look at their faces, which helps me a lot of ways. It helps with musicality, helps with staging. I don’t watch their faces and so that’s why I bring other people in who aren’t afraid to sit in it and feel it because I’m too close to it at that point and I know what the intent is, so it’s hard for me to separate that when it comes to the scoresheet. I know that score sheet inside and out so I need another opinion to see if the emotions are coming across.
I believe you have a score sheet for a reason and I know there’s a lot of people who think score sheets are dictating to you what you need to do. But I look at it as them encouraging us to be well rounded in our thought process that our routine is a complete finished thought.
What makes dance really special is how it’s always evolving because you always have people challenging you to be better in different ways. I love that part of it, but I think a lot of coaches don’t have anyone to tell them the truth in practice. But I want to know. How can I make them better? How can I challenge them to think about this in a different way?
I also know what it feels like when somebody takes my comment and applies it as a judge. And I know more often than not, judges remember what they wrote. Especially for the top four or five teams they remember what they wrote. And so, if they feel like they impacted you and they impacted your product there’s something as a judge that makes it feel like we’re working together.
Any general advice you want to give other coaches?
The number one piece of advice I would give is to reach out for help. I was a head coach for the very first time when I was 22 at West Virginia and I had only been on dance team two years prior to that and felt like I knew nothing. But don’t be afraid to ask for help, reach out to people that you don’t know if you feel like you need their information.
It’s been so important for me as a coach. There are friends that I only met because of dance team that have become super close friends that I can talk to about other things. And I think part of what coaches struggle with the most is finding a balance between being a coach and being a human being. You have to be able to turn it off sometimes. And I think that having people in your network who are going through the same things that you are help you stay grounded. They help you not beat yourself up, they help you make it a positive experience. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, there is no way that your kids can enjoy it. And then it becomes this mountain that you cannot climb.
You will become a better coach if you have more feedback. I think when I started coaching, I felt like “nobody can see anything. Nobody’s coming to my practices. I’m doing this all!” But you’re doing your kids a disservice and yourself a disservice if you try to do it all by yourself.
And I think 99% of people you ask for help will answer you. I know for me, Melissa (Ohio State) is one of my best friends. I’m so, so thankful for dance team world introducing us and helping our paths cross. She will always answer someone’s question. If somebody asked her for any advice, she would answer them. Consider somebody like that who is at the pinnacle of what we’re trying to accomplish, she is going to answer you. I would imagine that a lot of people would! So find people who are experts at what you’re trying to learn more about and then don’t be afraid to reach out to those people.
Along those lines, find people in your community to connect with. It’s so nice to have people that are going through the same thing. We can find that common ground to help both of our programs, even internally, administratively, all those things. I think sometimes when you compete against people, there’s this natural feeling that we can’t talk. But then you need each other, especially now. We have a group text of all the Big 12 dance coaches so we can ask, What are you doing? What are you allowed to do? And I know the Big 10 does it too, and I’m assuming that other conferences do as well. It’s really helpful, especially as a new coach to have that information. You need that support system around you.