Soul of RVA: Legacy of Virginia State University’s Woo Woo cheerleaders

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ETTRICK, Va. (WRIC) — If you’ve ever been to a Virginia State University game, you’ve no doubt set your eyes on the famous Woo Woo cheerleaders, but many say cheering is just a small part of what it takes to be a ‘Woo.’

Founder of the Woo program and former head coach, Dr. Paulette Walker Johnson, knew when she arrived at VSU in the 70s as the new coach, she wanted to make her team great, she just didn’t know where to start.

“In 1974, came here to teach physical education full time,” Johnson, a Petersburg native, explained. “I was asked, or really told, that I was going to be the cheerleader coach. I entered the gym at probably 22 years old … scared to death but knowing how to pray. So, I said, God, lead me – I don’t know what to do. I’ve been a cheerleader, but I’ve never coached anybody.”

Leaning on her faith and bringing old cheers from her alma mater, Morgan State University, Johnson built the program from the ground up.

About a year into the program, Johnson said she landed her squad new uniforms and started testing new styles of cheer. It was then she knew her program was starting to take off.

“They just kept listening to me,” Johnson said. “I think it was because I was praying so much. I was only a few years old than they were. But they listened to me, and I listened to God. We did step by step and oh my goodness, it started to happen.”

PHOTOS: THE WOOS THROUGH THE YEARS

As many former Woos, like Glennis Crosby, will recall — eventually bringing fans to their feet.

“Sometimes this gym would be so loud you can hear it moving,” Crosby explained. “Every student knew the words, and they were with us. It was just a time in history and it was because of this lady. She didn’t take no for an answer. She just empowered us to go out and just run this floor. We practiced hard.”

Johnson says the Woos redefined what it meant to be a HBCU cheerleader.

“They were attractive in whatever hue they came in,” Johnson said. “They were respectful. They carried themselves. It’s a conglomerate of stuff that comes together to make up a Woo Woo.”

Many say while the cheers and crowds were memorable, it’s what Johnson taught them outside of practice that stuck with them.

“She presented herself as someone who was experienced, confident, and knowing herself,” Paulette Robinson, class of 1976 told 8News. “She taught us, she mentored us, she whipped us into shape. It was all the love she had in her that taught us more than just cheering. She taught us how to be independent, self-sufficient, confident in your ability to achieve whatever it is in life that you want.”

Former Woo Keisha Shelton adds her experience on the squad is something that can never be duplicated.

“It’s ten percent cheering,” Shelton said. “90 percent is much, much more. It’s the sisterhood. It’s obedience. We learned everything from her. My era called her ‘Doc.’ We learned how to walk, how to talk, how to know when someone was looking at us and how to stand. It was much more than just cheering. I think a lot of squads out there think it’s just cheering. With Woo, it’s much more than just cheering. It’s a family.”

WATCH: THE WOO WOO CHEERLEADERS THINK BACK ON UNFORGETTABLE MOMENTS

The Woo Woos impact, though, goes far beyond the campus of VSU.

For many former Woos like Dr. Shandra Clairbone, passing along the legacy meant bringing Woo cheering with them across Central Virginia.

After landing her first job as the new cheering coach for Henrico High School, Claiborne decided to revamp the program with what she knew best.

“We changed the style for cheering at Henrico High School at that point,” Claiborne said. “Keisha was at Armstrong at the time. Can you imagine when we had games and competed against each other? It was like a mini Woo Woo team competing against each other!”

WEB EXTRA: 8NEWS REPORTER DELANEY HALL BECOMES HONORARY WOO

TOP FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Glennis Crosby, Dr. Shandra Claiborne, Mikesha Robinson, Keisha Shelton, Paulette Robinson
BOTTOM FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Kaliyah Hayes, Dr. Paulette Walker Johnson, Ashlee Gray

Johnson’s program not only taught cheering, but life lessons.

Former Woos described Johnson’s three core values or the three A’s — academics, athletics, and attitude — as the foundation of her coaching. Those same core values are still practiced in every routine.

“Even if a cheer is different, it still has that same concept and we’re like — ‘I’m able to cheer with someone that was on the team decades ago,” current VSU junior Ashlee Gray said. “That’s such an amazing feeling.”

Crosby adds the legacy is something she will forever be proud of.

“I’m 60 years old and today – people still say, ‘You’re a Woo Woo.’ I’m 60 years old. That’s what happens. When you said, what happened when you came in this gym? It’s unreal to see what happened on this floor. It’s just unreal.”

Tune in for part two on 8News at 11 p.m.

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