When the Twisters get into formation, they are ready to show off the cheerleading, dance, and tumbling moves that have landed them into an elite group.
They are members of a South Jersey special needs cheerleading team where abilities count more than disabilities. And last week, they won a bid to the U.S. All-Star Federation 2018 Cheerleading and Dance World Championship in Orlando next month.
The team, based in Sewell, Gloucester County, is one of only five teams from around the country selected from more than two dozen entries to participate in an exhibition in the Cheer Abilities Division. The others are from Lafayette, Colo.; Hanover, Md.; Addison, Ill.; and Mechanicsburg, Pa.
“It’s so worth it. This is all I’ve been working for,” said their coach, Shelly Nolan. “There’s nothing bigger than this.”
The team is part of the South Jersey Storm, an all-star cheerleading and dance group that trains about 250 athletes. The special needs group was started in 2007 to provide a social and physical activity for athletes with health challenges.
The nine-member Twisters squad ranges in age from 12 to 25, with various levels of ability. Each has her own challenges, such as autism, Asperger’s, and other conditions, but share a common bond that emerges when they hit the dance floor for a carefully choreographed routine.
“We take everybody, regardless of their disability,” said Jenna Varano, South Jersey Storm’s cheer and dance program director. “Everybody makes the team.”
Dressed in black leotards and pink shirts with matching shimmery pink bows in their hair, the team members performed a 2½-minute routine at a practice session Wednesday night at the Rastelli Kids Complex in Sewell. The routine includes jumps, stunts, tumbling, and dance moves.
“I just like to be with my friends and to be on the team,” said Elyse DelGrande, 23, of Collingswood. “It makes it special. It makes me happy.”
DelGrande, who has Down syndrome, has been on the team since it began 11 years ago and serves as the unofficial captain. She occasionally offers suggestions to Nolan on how to improve the team’s routine, and Nolan takes them in stride with a smile.
“I think they’re really good,” said volunteer Mackenzie Borner, 12, of Woodbury Heights, also a cheerleader, whose sister Morgan is on the Twisters team. “They’re amazing.”
During a break from practice, the team sat on a mat at Nolan’s feet, basking in their world championship bid and upcoming competition on April 28. Aniyah Miller, 14, of Mantua, wept and erupted with screams of joy when Nolan told her that she may get to see the Little Mermaid, her favorite character, at Disney World during the trip.
Parents say the team has given their daughters, who have become local media celebrities since their championship bid, more confidence and improved their motor and social skills. The program costs $800 annually for each girl and runs from September through May. The team competes against other special needs teams in the region about one or two times a month.
“It’s not an easy thing to memorize a routine and work as a team,” said Shawn Sullivan of Collingswood, whose daughter Zoe, 12, is on the team. “It’s amazing the amount of information they have to keep track of.”
For years, the team practiced at a leisurely pace, once a week, and each cheerleader was assigned a buddy who assisted her on the floor. But that changed three years ago when Nolan took over. The team switched to a competitive division and began practicing four hours a week. In order to compete, the team must perform unassisted.
“I like to dance,” said Zoe Sullivan.
The team, undefeated this season, submitted a video of a routine from a competition for the world championship, Nolan said. A panel of judges selected the top five performances. It is the first time that special needs teams have been invited to the annual competition. There are more than 600 special needs teams in the United States.
“They deserve this. They have worked so hard,” said Stephanie Marchuk of Mantua, whose daughter Devon, 18, has been on the team for nine years.
Next year, Nolan hopes to add two more special needs teams: Rainbows — an exhibition team for athletes who may need assistance — and Sunshines, a competitive dance team. In previous years, the team has had athletes with cerebral palsy and in wheelchairs, and members as old as 53.
“We highlight their abilities, instead of what they’re unable to do,” said Nolan.
Our TWISTERS are going to Worlds! Please help support them! https://t.co/5iLcNZ8lUH
— South Jersey Storm (@S_JerseyAllDay) March 9, 2018
To help with travel and hotel costs, the team has raised nearly $4,700 in a GoFundMe campaign that seeks to raise about $12,000. Nolan also hopes to buy new dance uniforms for the team. Two other South Jersey Storm teams are also going to the world championships — the Lady Reign and the Hurricanes, a coed dance team.
“We’re all going to Disney World,” said Marchuk.