Opportunity. Opportunity to form lasting friendships. Opportunity to network, to learn new skills, to continue a passion.
Opportunity is how Melany Cullen, the founding member of Ravens Rhythm, describes the team. Ravens Rhythm is now in their tenth season and many members, past and present, have been gifted such opportunities.
Cullen’s passion for the team is obvious. When talking about Ravens Rhythm, her eyes light up and a smile is near impossible to wipe from her face. It is no wonder why her student-athletes continue to engage with the team even after they’ve graduated.
The team began back in 2011 with only eight members. Carleton had a competitive cheer team at the time, but they weren’t a part of the Ravens game day experience. Men’s basketball games were the Ravens Rhythm pilot project.
“There’s a vulnerability in starting something new,” Cullen said reflecting on the team’s beginnings. “I didn’t know whether or not the fans and teams would accept us.”
At first, the fans weren’t overly receptive to the team. On occasion, a pin drop could be heard following the Ravens Rhythm routines.
That all changed the first time Ravens Rhythm performed at Capital Hoops, the annual basketball rivalry game between Carleton and the University of Ottawa.
“We got a standing ovation from the Red Zone, which is now Birdgang, following the performance. In that moment, I knew we were accepted,” said Cullen.
Flash forward to today and Ravens Rhythm is more than accepted. They are an essential component to the Ravens game day experience. In one weekend this fall semester, Ravens Rhythm were present at eight different home games. The team consists of 30 dedicated and talented members.
Sissi Malula, once a member of the team, now a coach, understands the Ravens Rhythm process well.
Malula first discovered Ravens Rhythm at the Carleton Expo in her first year of school. The Expo takes place every year and students can learn about different clubs at the university. She had been a competitive cheerleader for over 12 years and wanted to move into non-competitive cheer.
It wasn’t a perfect connection right away. For the first three or four months, Malula didn’t enjoy it. The team’s participation in Relay for Life changed her mind.
“I have to do this forever,” Malula remembers thinking when she attended her first Relay for Life as a member of Ravens Rhythm. From that moment on, she was hooked.
Relay for life is just one example of the many volunteer initiatives Ravens Rhythm partakes in. Community engagement, on and off campus, is something Cullen stressed the importance of when forming the team. The team has volunteered at the food bank, shinerama, and more. They also assist with on campus events, such as orientation and convocation.
Engaging with the community allows members to make connections beyond cheer which could lead to career opportunities. Cullen wants to set up the participants not just to be good cheerleaders and dancers but good people.
“Whenever I have a job interview, the first thing they ask about on my resume is Ravens Rhythm,” Malula said.
“The majority of the athletes use me as a reference for med school or law school because of the skills they learn from this team,” Cullen added.
The team’s mission is clear.
“To be committed to health and wellness and building skills for employability (leadership, time management, team work, decision making, conflict resolution, diversity and intercultural awareness and communication) in an inclusive space, virtually and in person.”
Now that the team has established itself, Cullen and her coaches are working on ensuring the team and its culture is as inclusive and welcoming as possible. As so many organizations are shifting their focus to equity, diversity and inclusion, Ravens Rhythm is also taking part in the conversation and cultural shift.
“Cheer has not always been an environment that is naturally inclusive, naturally equitable,” Cullen said. “We’re really trying to reimagine this team while trying to make sure we’re true to what the students want. It’s about unity.”
From a coaching perspective, Malula is working to foster an environment of equal respect and open communication.
“I want the team to know they can come to me with any and all of their thoughts and know this is a judgement free zone,” said Malula.
“This team is all about belonging and feeling good about being a part of it,” Cullen said.
Ten years of epic dance routines, awesome stunts, and important community engagement, Ravens Rhythm shows no sign of slowing down.
“Thank you to Athletics for giving me this opportunity and supporting me. Thank you to the coaches and the teams,” Cullen said. “I love Ravens Rhythm and I am so proud of what it has become.”