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How 3 young men overcame stereotypes, made history as Panthers’ first male cheerleaders

The team went from having zero male cheerleaders between the Panthers’ inception in 1995 and 2020, to adding three in one fell swoop
How 3 young men overcame stereotypes, made history as Panthers’ first male cheerleaders
How 3 young men overcame stereotypes, made history as Panthers’ first male cheerleaders(The Charlotte Observer)
Published: Oct. 16, 2021 at 3:24 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - After hearing his ankle snap while landing wrong on a trampoline last spring, the day before final auditions for the Carolina Panthers’ TopCats cheerleading team this past spring, Melvin Sutton really did think it was over.

“Listen, yes,” he says, his eyes widening.

“The dance world is really, like —” “Cutthroat,” Chris Crawford interjects.

“It’s cutthroat,” Sutton continues. “It’s either you’re in or you’re out, and if you’re out, well, thank you for your time.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tre’ Booker chimes in. “Literally. ‘Thank you for your time,’ love those words.”

All three — and Sutton especially, given his unfortunately timed injury — expected to hear them at some point over the course of the audition process, which spanned several weeks from early May deep into June.

But over and over again, Booker, Crawford and Sutton managed to avoid getting the axe from first-year TopCats coach Chandalae Lanouette.

In the end, the trio also managed to make history by becoming the first men, ever, to earn spots on the Panthers’ cheer squad.

Interestingly, Lanouette is nonchalant about the fact that the team went from having zero male cheerleaders between the Panthers’ inception in 1995 and 2020, to adding three in one fell swoop.

“I like to take a step back and look at it as the 30 individuals on the squad, and my goal’s always to have the best that comes out,” says Lanouette, herself a former Topcat, when asked about the significance of adding men to her roster. “And those three guys that were selected were some of the best that auditioned. ... There’s over 400 people that auditioned, and there were more men that auditioned other than those three, but they secured their spot. Like, they crushed it. ... So it’s just comprising the team of the people that fit.”

But as you’ll see from our recent interview with these guys, they tend to be a little less calm, cool and collected on the subject of their becoming TopCats.

Before we start, some quick introductions:

Chris Crawford, 22, is a recent graduate of UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (he majored in contemporary dance). Originally from Macon, Ga., he began formal dance training in middle school, but had never cheered before.

Tre’ Booker, 24, is a first-year nursing school student at Winston-Salem State University. He grew up in Charlotte, where he started dancing in fifth grade, went on to attend Northwest School of the Arts, then earned a bachelor of fine arts from UNC School of the Arts, also in dance. He had never cheered before either.

Melvin Sutton, 27, is a dance educator from Raleigh. He also began dancing in middle school, cheered at Winston-Salem State University on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation science, and recently received a Master of Fine Arts in dance from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Oh, and yes: They all were acquainted with one another prior to trying out for the TopCats.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Chris, I heard you say in an interview that dancing was not really accepted where you were from. Can you elaborate on that?

Crawford: Being from Macon, just a small country town, there are a lot of things that a lot of guys aren’t open about, or they don’t feel confident enough to do them — and dancing was one of them.

So growing up, me wanting to dance, it was kind of like, “Well, boys don’t dance.” When I got to middle school it just kind of fell into my lap. A dance class was the only elective class left for me to take. From there, it took off. But it was definitely a sticky situation of having to deal with bullying.

Q. You both were nodding your heads as he was saying that. Were your experiences similar?

Booker: As a male dancer, you always run into road blocks of what society perceives dance to be. Luckily, I always had my support team — my mom, my parents, my godparents, my brothers, my sister. Everyone was always in my ear, like, “Keep going.” When you have your support system behind you, you can do anything. I guess I did run into the problems, but it was like, “I’m gonna keep going.”

Sutton: Whenever situations like that happen, it’s all about how you move forward, and not actually dealing with those people who have negative things to say. As long as you keep your eyes focused on the prize, on whatever you want to do, it’s all about what your story is, and not what other people have to say.

Q. Melvin, you were the only one who had prior cheer experience. How did you get involved on that team at Winston-Salem State?

Sutton: I was actually trying to go to Howard University and dance in their dance program. But the universe has another way of making things work, so I ended up going to Winston. I originally said I’m just gonna stay for a year.

Then I saw the cheerleaders. They do this style called stomp and shake cheerleading, and I had never seen anything like that before. Seeing them using their voices from their diaphragm, claps you can hear from across the field, stomps, up-stomps, shakes — I was like, Oh, wow. And they were performing. I had never seen cheerleaders dance and cheer like them.

I was like, “Well, you know what? I’m gonna do this as a performance opportunity, as something new for me to learn and add to my (repertoire) of different things that I’ve learned over the years. I just took it and ran with it for four years. I was a captain my senior year. It was a beautiful opportunity to just learn something new and stay on my toes.

Q. Before you got the idea to try out for the TopCats, what was your awareness about men cheering and dancing in the NFL?

Booker: When Quinton (Peron) and Napoleon (Jinnies) made the Los Angeles Rams team (in 2018), I was living in New York at the time. I saw the news and I was like, That’s monumental. Then Jesse (Hernandez) from the Saintsations (the New Orleans Saints’ dance team) made the team, and I was like, Oh, OK, this is a thing. But I just never thought more about it.

Then this year, COVID happened, and I decided to come back home to Charlotte. And I wanted to continue my passion in other ways. So this was the first thing that came to my mind. I didn’t know if guys had auditioned, if they hadn’t auditioned. I had a couple of colleagues that were already on the team. I knew people that had cheered before. So I just threw my hat in the ring.

Q. Having never cheered before, Tre’, what was the first day of auditions like for you?

Booker: I feel like cheer has several different avenues, and what we do as TopCats, it’s super-dance-y. So a lot of the language and terminology that our coach uses, I already know from my dance background. There were other elements, such as the poms or a rally towel or just other terminologies that I’m not familiar with. It was definitely a shift.

But it wasn’t so drastic that it made me uncomfortable. And I knew a couple of people coming into the tryouts. I knew Melvin, and I knew Chris. Chris and I went to college together — my last year in school was his freshman year. So it was kind of like, Oh, let’s just relax a little bit.

Q. Chris and Melvin, how did you two end up at tryouts?

Crawford: Kind of the same as Tre’, just watching the other guys make history inspired me. I knew some people on the team, and I saw Tre’ posted that he was gonna audition. So I was just thinking, like, We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, you’re about to graduate, give it all a shot. Audition for everything. And that’s exactly what I did. I walked into it with an open mind thinking, Hey, this is a new experience for you, new experience for them — give it your best.

Sutton: I auditioned on a whim, like, Hey, if it happens, it happens, and as the rounds started to progress, I was like, Oh. I’m still here. Oh, wow. Oh, they’re still here, too. Oh, snap. Uhhh, we’re gonna be the first guys.

Q. And then you hurt yourself?

Sutton: Yeah, I was on the trampoline and I landed wrong, and my ankle went the other way. I heard it snap, and I was like, I hope it’s not broken. That kind of shifted my gears, and I was like, It’s done. I’m done. There’s no more hope.

But Chandalae gave me a call that evening — and then the very next morning — giving me words of encouragement. “You got this. Just do you, be you and just give it your all.” Turned out it was just a really bad sprain. So on crutches, on that final day, I was dancing. Like, crutches on the side, let’s go. I tried my best. I did a couple of jumps on a sprained ankle.

I thought she was lying when she called me. I was like, “You lyin’.” She was like, “No, uh, you made the team.” I was like, “No, stop lyin’ to me. You’re lyin’ to me.” “No, I’m not lying. Why does everybody keep saying that?” I was like, “Oh wow, so I’m not the only guy? OK!”

Booker: Yeah, hearing Chandalae, I was freaking out. I was like, Oh, she’s about to be like, “Look, it was great ... but not great enough.”

Q. So you get the call, you’re on the team, and it’s time to go out there on a game day. What’s going through your minds?

Booker: It’s almost like you’re dreaming. Especially when we’re in the player tunnel, and I see all the players — some of my favorite players — it’s just like a surreal moment. It’s just like, Take it in. This is it. You’re here. ... I just feel like this is my passion, and this is what I love to do, and my goal is to inspire people, so if I can inspire the next boy, the next girl, that’s all I care about.

Sutton: Yeah, the fact that we get to inspire the next generation and the generation after that is all that matters, honestly, every time we get here, I always have to pinch myself and remind myself, You’re a pro cheerleader, don’t forget that. Crawford: I think they said it. Just the simple fact that we get to pave the way and set the bar for others to come after us is just surreal.

Q. Do you three get along as well as it appears you might?

Booker: Oh, a hundred percent. Before, I only knew Melvin via social media because we had mutual friends — and when you were getting your masters I had friends that went there. Chris and I only had a semester together. Now I honestly call Chris every day. I just see my phone, like, Yeah, I’m gonna call Chris. And Melvin’s always posting on social media, so I’m always commenting.

The chemistry, even the girls, they’ve just completely taken us in as brothers. The energy and our coach and the organization, it’s just been magnificent.

Sutton: Love.

Booker: Just love. And a lot of the fans of the Carolina Panthers have been extremely welcoming. You know, there’s pushback, but there’s always gonna be pushback when you’re trailblazing.

Q. So you’ve gotten some negative reactions from fans?

Booker: Sure, here and there. But I’m living in this surreal moment. When you’re living in your surreal moment, it doesn’t affect you.

And being male dancers, you always get pushback, but the goal is to inspire the next generation, so that they can see that — regardless of the pushback — they can make it to pro. They can make it to that dance company. They can go to college for dance. They can go and do ballet or do contemporary, do hip-hop, or tour.

Sutton: I haven’t heard any comments at all, ‘cause I just have tunnel vision: I’m here for one reason, and that’s to be on this field, to be with my boys and my teammates. If something does come back to me — it hasn’t, thank God — but if it does, I’ll take it with a grain of salt and just keep moving, man. There’s nothing you can do about somebody else’s opinion, you know?

Crawford: Yeah, if you keep your eye on the prize and your main goal ahead of you, everything else, it just passes by. You’ll hear it. Sometimes it’ll bother you. But at the end of the day, you’re like, There’s a bigger goal here, and this one comment, this one person, all of this is so much more than that when there are so many people over here that will be touched and helped by this.

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