As Tiffany Chen stood at center court her senior year at UC Irvine, being honored for her four years as a part of the Spirit Squad, she had to hold back her emotions. The Taiwanese-born captain of the squad was not ready to leave. At that moment, she knew that her entertainment dancing days were just beginning.
Chen moved to the United States at the age of seven, and was first introduced to dance when her mom put her in a Chinese after-school program. It wasn’t as serious for Chen until middle school — and even then, she was never technically trained. Instead, Chen credits her coaches through middle school and high school for inspiring her love of performing, dancing, and eventually, coaching.
Upon arriving at UC Irvine as an undergraduate in 2001, the first thing Chen did was look up the cheer Web site. At the time, UCI had disbanded their dance team in order to build up a stronger cheer team. So, Chen, wanting to stay in the spirit of dance, became a cheerleader. As a senior, Chen decided to pursue her true passion as a dancer, and started the dance team back up.
“I grew up at UCI and this program was my heart and soul,” Chen said. “I wasn’t quite ready to leave but I knew I wasn’t done dancing. I knew that I loved Irvine and wanted to be an Anteater forever.”
Upon graduating with a degree in sociology and a minor in education (Chen never considered majoring in dance as she had never been trained in other forms of dance such as tap or ballet), Chen stayed on at UCI and became an assistant coach. During this time, Chen was pursuing her dream of dancing professionally. After numerous tryouts, she finally made the dance team of the Los Angeles Clippers of the National Basketball Association for the 2006-07 season.
“Tryouts were really intimidating,” Chen said. “I started auditioning when I had just turned 19 years old, going into my second year. I didn’t know what to expect, how to prepare, just knew you were supposed to go in a two-piece uniform and dance. But I learned a lot from that first year and it’s all about just improving each time you go to an audition. You pick up the style, you gain more confidence. I knew it was something I wanted to do, so I just kept going for it. I tried out three times for the Clippers and made it when I had just graduated from Irvine.”
A self-described workaholic, Chen also managed to land a job teaching algebra and dance at JSerra Catholic High School right after graduation. Today, she is in her fourth year at the school, and has moved on from the Clippers to another team, this time in the National Football League — the San Diego Chargers.
“I’m really blessed to be a part of this team,” Chen said. “Before, I didn’t think it was possible, but now that I’m a part of it I’m just really blessed and happy that I did it. Not a lot of people can say they did both the NBA and the NFL, and it’s quite an experience. I’m always stepping up my game and seeing what else I can accomplish.”
Last school year, Chen returned to UCI as head coach and advisor of the spirit squad. Balancing all three jobs creates quite the workload for Chen, who is forced to spend some serious gas money driving to and from San Diego, Irvine, and San Juan Capistrano, where her high school is located.
On Sundays during this past NFL season, Chen had to report to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego by 8 a.m. on game days, and stay at the stadium until roughly 6 p.m. Other weeks, UCI spirit squad has practices Sunday night. Monday through Friday, Chen teaches six classes during the day. Monday night was usually taken up by Charger girl promotions where they attended Monday Night Football events, selling the Charger girl calendar with proceeds going towards the Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
Tuesday nights are another UCI practice, while Wednesdays are Chargers practice. Thursdays and Saturdays are free unless there is a UCI basketball game, and many Fridays consist of other Charger girl events. Other free afternoons, Chen stays after school and tutors.
“The schedule is pretty rigorous, especially with the drive, but it’s all about time management, and making it work,” Chen said.
Though her blossoming dancing career is coming to fruition, Chen stays humble to her roots and does not make a big deal of her side job with her students or squad members. Chen recognizes her mother the most for her undying support.
“My mom is my biggest supporter,” Chen said. “Recently she just went to one of my Chargers games, and I remember looking into the stands and thinking my mom has been with me every step of the way, from my middle school dance recitals to my college games and to Clipper games, and she just couldn’t be more proud of me.”
This past Jan. 17, Chen got to take part in her first playoffs experience. The Chargers were upset by the New York Jets, but Chen still raves about the experience.
“The adrenaline was insane, and it was just so much fun to be a part of it,” Chen said. “During the national anthem, I just soaked it all in, and I couldn’t believe I was actually standing there on the field for a playoff game … definitely an experience that I won’t forget.”
Chen is a clear example against the misconception that NFL Cheerleading is all that the cheerleaders do. In addition, Chen clarified that cheerleaders actually have conflicting schedules with the players themselves, and thus rarely interact with them.
In terms of the UCI Spirit Squad, which is at every single men’s and women’s basketball home game, Chen relies on her captains: dance captain Melanie Morita and cheer captains Caitlin Matsumoto and Alysia Cornwell.
“A main reason I love coming back is for the girls … the captains are like my right hand men,” Chen said. “For a lot of [the team], as it was for me, dancing is their life and cheering is their passion. I’ve done a lot in my life and had a lot of experiences that I can bring back and influence these girls in a positive way. It’s about giving back.”
Chen sees herself staying at UCI for the foreseeable future. In her second year as head coach of a young squad with mostly first and second-year members, Chen sees a promising future ahead.
“I love coming back to my alma mater and staying connected. I love working with the people here. Sometimes I feel like I’m back at college again — this is my home,” Chen said. “I didn’t want to just come here for a year or two just to stay busy, but I wanted to come here and build a program that would leave a mark in Irvine history. Our team is so young and I know with time we can do so much more.”