With 11 national championships, and the most players drafted to the NFL, USC football can boast one of the most esteemed college football programs in the country. All the same, one of the program's longest and most iconic traditions can be found on the team's sidelines: the USC Song Girls.
This year, the Song Girls are celebrating their 50th anniversary. The dance team was formed back in 1967, as an effort from the school to boost basketball attendance. The program had so much success that in 1968, it expanded to football, where the Song Girls established the recognition they have today.
For 50 years, the Song Girls have made it their mission to uphold USC's avowed high standards by igniting school spirit within stadium crowds, and inspiring generations of girls and young women to follow suit.
Sophie Rebeil, 21, of Orange County, is the Song Girls' 50th captain, a role she said was extremely intimidating to take on. Rebeil, too, was once a little girl who watched the dance team perform during USC football games, and dreamed of becoming one.
"We're the most iconic program in college football," Rebeil said. "This year for the 50th anniversary, I tried to remember through every dance and practice about what it means to be a Song Girl, and how many women came before me."
While this entire year has been focused on honoring the program's 50th, the biggest celebration came last month during Homecoming weekend, when more than 200 former Song Girls from every squad since the program's launch performed together at halftime.
The performance included individual dances with choreography from each decade, and finished with a final group dance to the USC band's classic rendition of Louis Prima's Sing, Sing, Sing from 1936.
The celebration took years of planning by a committee of former Song Girls. And while the committee worked on reaching out to former members, it was Rebeil, her coach Lori Nelson and the rest of the team's job to choreograph the halftime performance.
"Back in September, we choreographed the dances for every decade, and had to record them with counts to send out," Rebeil said. "It was scary. I was worried what if I counted too fast or what if the former Song Girls didn't like the choreography? I wanted nothing more than them to think that I embodied what a Song Girl meant."
But what exactly does being a Song Girl mean? Nelson, a Song Girl from 1977-78 and head of the program for 31 years, learned what it meant to be a Song Girl from her own coach.
My coach taught us two things that still resonate with me," Nelson said. "Have pride without arrogance and confidence without conceit. Also, morals, ethics, values, integrity and class never go out of style. They are timeless and eternal."
As Nelson so learned, the official Song Girl Pledge is: "Pride without arrogance; confidence without conceit." These principles made a lasting impression on one of Nelson's former students: Audrea Harris, the USC spirit advisor.
"Tradition! Teamwork! Always carry yourself with grace and class," Harris said. "I was the Clippers Spirit dance team coach for many years, and I adopted principles for my teams based on the USC Song Girls experience."
Rebeil looked to demonstrate these standards while choreographing the halftime performance, and also when working directly with the Song Girls who came back for the celebration. In her words, most of them have gone on to be extremely successful women and role models after being on the squad.
The anniversary celebration turned out to be extremely special for current and former Song Girls, who spent the weekend sharing stories of spending countless hours on bus rides to away games, waking up early on game days to go to band practice and even the challenge of balancing practice and academics.
"It was an incredible experience to join my fellow Song Girls to celebrate such a wonderful anniversary and shared history," Kris Peay, who graduated in 1989, said. "We enjoyed two days of beautiful reunions; entertaining practices and sharing of stories about our experiences on and off the field all those years ago. At times, it felt like we picked up where we left off 30 years ago."
The celebration even reminded Peay of why she joined Song in the first place.
"The reunion reaffirmed our bond of 'sisterhood' and reminded me that my fellow Song Girls will be friends for life," Peay said.
Rebeil made it her mission to meet and compare stories with Song Girls from all decades over the weekend. Her favorite was meeting the team that former Song Girl Anasheh Abramiyan was on. Abramiyan coached Rebeil in her first boot camp back in 2016, but passed away a year after from cancer.
"Her team are all best friends, and came back wearing shirts and pins with her name on it," Rebeil said. "She left a big impression on me, and it was really special to see her team come back, and celebrate her."
For Nelson and her daughter, Whitney Gilmour, whom she coached from 2000-2003, the highlight of the celebration was performing together.
Part of what bonds the Song Girls together is the competition all of them experienced to just make the squad. On average, more than 100 girls go through an audition process in the fall, and nine to 13 make the team.
The team holds three-hour practices five days a week. And during a football game day, they dance over eight hours, performing over 100 routines between the pre- and post-game rallies, and while on the sidelines of the actual game.
"We have this sisterhood, because we know how hard it is to make and be on the Song Girl team," Rebeil said. We all bond off the fact that we gave an immeasurable amount of hours to the program. We are true athletes, and no one understands how hard the program is until they are in it."
"The lasting impression that Song has left on my life is that no matter how different a team can be individually, greatness can be achieved when there is respect, love and a joint commitment to working hard," Gilmour said.
It's truly special to be a Song Girl. The squad even makes about two dozen or so appearances every year outside of athletic events.
"Song Girls are incredible ambassadors for the school," Rebeil said. "We are on hundreds of Christmas cards every year without fail. We're at weddings. We do so much to support the school, and that's something you can never take away."
The program also prides itself on representing a very diverse group of women from USC each year.
"My squad was ethnically and culturally very diverse, not to mention incredibly different personality wise," Gilmour said. "I loved that we were a group of women that probably would not have had the opportunity to be friends if it weren't for Song….We learned how to work together, respect each other's opinions, and listen. When we walked through that practice door every day we worked hard to be the best representation of the University that we could be."
Their reach even goes global, as past Song Girl teams have performed at events like the World Expo in 1988 in Brisbane, Australia, and the Japan Bowl East-West Game, which ran from the 1970s through the 1990s in either Tokyo or Yokahama, Japan.
"One of my most vivid memories is arriving in Tokyo, Japan, and being bombarded by local fans – at that moment, it was quite surreal to realize the impact USC Song Girls have worldwide," Peay said. "It made us realize that our position was just temporary, and that the squads before us helped create a unique reputation for future generations."
In all of her years with the program, Nelson said the impact the Song Girls have on a worldwide level hasn't changed.
"You don't realize how special it is until you travel to other universities or on international trips where people recognize you," she said, "and tell you how much they admire the class and discipline of the program."
In the past 50 years, the Song Girls have also developed traditions of their own. Both Harris and Rebeil agreed that their favorite is the iconic white USC Song Girl sweater.
Harris called it "unmistakable."
"The sweater is my favorite tradition," Rebeil said. "I'm grateful I get to keep it once I graduate. It's special, because in the past 50 years, they have only slightly changed it."
Rebeil graduates in the spring, and her one hope for the future of the Song Girls program is that their legacy will continue on.
"I hope the school continues to honor the timeless tradition of the Song Girls," Rebeil said. "And that they understand the importance of the program's role in the school's history."