Let’s face it. The University of Kentucky is no stranger to its students moving on to bigger and better things. Some go to the NBA, some become teachers or doctors or engineers, some move on play professional softball, the list goes on. For former UK dance team member Lily Johnson, her fate was being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.
The Dandridge, Tennessee native knew at just 8 years old that one day she wanted to cheer for the Cowboys. Johnson said the mother of one of the girls at her childhood dance studio was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, and she brought a squad photo to dance class one day.
“I just remember looking at it like, oh my gosh I want to be one of these women,” Johnson said.
Dancing and cheering were always a huge part of Johnson’s life—she was put in dance class as young as 2 years old. She was studio trained in ballet, jazz and lyrical with some experience in hip-hop until age 18 when she graduated high school. At that point, it was time for her to choose what college she wanted to go to, and several options weighed on her mind.
“I lived about 20 minutes from the University of Tennessee and my older sister was currently dancing at Auburn University,” Johnson said. “So I kind of thought I would go that route and join her at Auburn, where my mom went to school. But I just kind of wanted to do something a little different.”
Her sister is only 2 years older than her, and Johnson had followed in her footsteps for most of her life, so she decided to take a different step. She started thinking about UK as an option as she’s a fourth generation Kentucky student. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and dad all went to UK.
“I grew up going to games and it’s only three hours away so it’s a good distance,” Johnson said. “I felt like I could get away and be independent but could also drive home on the weekends and for holidays and all of that.”
Johnson started researching more about UK’s dance team, looking at their social media accounts and finding out about its dance style. Her senior year of high school, she went to a UK dance clinic and received a “video bypass,” and eventually made team. She said it was a learning curve adjusting to UK’s dance style because it was different than what she had been used to, but it prepared her for what was to come in the future.
“I just always loved football games, no matter if we were winning or losing,” Johnson said. “There was just something about the ambiance of football games and just such a big stadium, I just preferred, same thing in high school, I just loved being at football games.”
That love for being in the football stadium inspired Johnson to take a leap and go to Dallas to take her first prep class with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. She said she fell in love with the city at that point and made a lot of connections, and in March of her junior year, she became “super serious and committed” to training and officially trying out. After her college graduation on May 4, 2018, she flew to Dallas for auditions at 6 a.m. the next day. But her hard work and determination didn’t pay off the way she’d hoped.
After her first go around at the three-month training camp, Johnson was cut from the roster before the team was announced.
As anyone could imagine, she called getting cut “heartbreaking” and said it was a really hard thing to have to go through, but that it gave her the drive and motivation to come back, work harder and try again. Kentucky’s dance team coach, Dawn Walters, who coached Johnson all four years at UK, was invited to watch her as she went through the first audition process. Walters says it didn’t come as any shock that she didn’t let herself feel defeated after not making the team.
“She did such a great job and she was so close,” Walters said. “And just knowing her personality, that she is not a kid that gives up, that she does work hard, it didn’t surprise me at all that she came back again.”
Johnson would go on to make the team mid-August of this year, and throughout the long process it took for her to get there, she said she learned a lot of life lessons. Obviously, it took a toll on her physically, but said it was even more mentally draining as she couldn’t help but compare herself to the other rookie candidates.
Finding a balance between wanting to be the best and not letting her mental state spiral was the key for Johnson as she moved on from her first audition process.
“I think coming back this year I just came in with thicker skin, and a better mental preparation of how tough the summer was going to be,” Johnson said. “I think that really helped.”
Johnson says that in hindsight, her time at Kentucky really helped her with time management and prioritizing. As a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, she’s at AT&T Stadium Monday through Friday practicing for home games and going over all of their game elements and choreographies. In between practices and games the women have appearances and community service to go to as well.
Now that everything has come full circle and Johnson is finally manifesting her dreams as a little girl, she reflects on her favorite parts of being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and how important her time at UK was in preparing her for this journey.
She said she was nervous about leaving Lexington, where she felt so happy and comfortable, and moving to a new place where she wasn’t sure if she would be accepted and supported right away. However, once she became a part of the Cowboys organization, she realized how glad she was that she took a step out of her comfort zone.
“Something that I was pleasantly surprised with was how kind and compassionate and caring all of the women were as soon as I walked through the door at auditions,” Johnson said. “And at finals when you’re with the veterans and during training camp, just how close-knit everyone was and everyone wanted to help you in any way possible and support you and help you be your best self.”
A correction was made to this article on Oct. 18, 2019. The article originally stated Johnson was from Knoxville.