Cheer and dance communities remember the late Rickey Hill


Gabrielle Korein

Rickey Hill with members of the 2019-2020 cheer and dance teams. Hill passed away in September of this year after suffering a heart attack.

When Lisa Cantu-Parks and Julie Mann heard that their friend and former coach Rickey Hill was visiting northern Virginia in early August, they knew they had to make time to see him.

Cantu-Parks and Mann were overjoyed because they hadn’t been in the same room as Hill since before the start of the pandemic. They had no idea that this would be their final chance to see him in person.

“I called Julie and I said, ‘girl, he’s coming Aug. 9 to 12. Do not schedule anything because nothing is more important than seeing him,’” Cantu-Parks said. “You don’t realize that would have been your last moment to hug somebody, to hold somebody, to tell them you love them.”

Hill, 54, died Sept. 20, 2021 after suffering a heart attack on Loyola’s campus. Hill made a colossal impact on the sports of competitive cheer and dance as a national champion head coach, choreographer, and competition judge. For many of his former athletes and colleagues, however, Hill’s kindness, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor were more impactful than any routine he put together.

“He was so compassionate. He was the most amazing friend to everyone. Once you entered his life, you were forever his friend,” Mann said. “Everything he touched in his life he made fun.”

Cantu-Parks and Mann both competed for Hill in the 1990s at James Madison University. Cantu-Parks served as the Dukes’ dance captain under Hill, and Mann was a member of Hill’s 1996 national champion cheerleading squad. After over two and a half decades, they both still consider Hill one of their closest friends.

“For so many of us who stayed close with him since we graduated, he has been a permanent fixture in our lives,” Cantu-Parks said. “Dancing with us at our weddings, taking time to meet our children when they were born, celebrating every milestone with us, and always offering unparalleled support in times of loss and sadness.”

After James Madison, Hill made coaching stops at Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Methodist University, and Winthrop University before agreeing to lead Loyola University New Orleans’ brand new cheer and dance program in 2016. Loyola Athletic Director Brett Simpson said Hill’s decades of experience and reputation made him a clear choice for the position.

“His passion for his craft was infectious,” Simpson said. “He had the ability to bring people of different backgrounds together. I think he was a connector of people, which made him endearing to our staff.”

Mynthia Gonkpala, vocal performance junior, joined the Wolf Pack cheer team in 2019 as a freshman with no previous cheerleading experience. Gonkpala credits Hill’s coaching for getting him prepared for varsity competition during his first season.

“I had never tumbled in my life, but during my first month doing cheer, he was just so encouraging that I was able to catch up with the rest of the team,” Gonkpala said. “He sees potential in us that we can’t even see.”

Gonkpala said that Hill’s confidence and sense of humor made him an easy leader to follow, particularly for him and his other queer teammates. Hill, who was Black and queer, served as Loyola’s representative on the Southern States Athletic Conference’s Striving for Equality Place Committee, which seeks to combat racism and other social injustices within the conference.

“He’s a diva, but not like a storming out diva, but like Beyoncé, like he’s so sassy and quick-witted, but that’s what makes it fun,” Gonkpala said. “We’re a team that takes pride in our diversity in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation. He’s a beacon of hope and faith and strength for those members of the team who might have trouble adjusting to college, knowing they’re part of communities that might be disenfranchised. And so I think that the fact that we had someone to look up to who was as bold and confident as he was in his own skin made it easy.”

Lauren King danced for Loyola from 2017 to 2021. Hill’s attentiveness during her recruiting process made it clear that Loyola was the right school for her, King said.

“He wanted to know me as a person. He wanted to know more than my skills. He wanted to know what made me happy, what made me sad, what I wanted to see out of the program. He was very, very willing to listen,” King said. “When you know Rickey, you feel like you’ve known him forever. I just feel like that speaks volumes on who he is as a person.”

Hill was a demanding but fair coach, King said. King remembered Hill’s reaction when she tried to get out of a 6 a.m. dance practice with a phony excuse about her roommate’s car blocking her in.

“So I’m thinking that he’s going to be all like, ‘All right, well, I’ll just see you on Thursday.’ He was like ‘All right, well, text me your address,’” King said. “So I just told him, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s moving her car. I’m on my way to practice.’ Like, he was really about to get into his car and everybody knows that Coach Rickey can’t drive. So not only was I like, oh my gosh, this man’s about to know where I live, but also, he can’t drive to save his life. It’s just so funny. We love him so much.”

King said that the memory of Hill that stands out to her the most came at the end of her junior season. Loyola’s cheer and dance teams had both made it to the NAIA national championship for the first time in program history, but when the team bus arrived in Davenport, Iowa, King and her teammates’ inboxes were filled with emails from the university saying that in-person classes had been suspended for the rest of the year following the first COVID-19 outbreak in New Orleans.

“The competition had not been canceled yet, but there were members of my team crying,” King said. “Like, I’m scared. I don’t want to compete. I don’t know what this virus is about.”

As the team ate dinner that night, Hill allowed his athletes to decide whether or not they would compete the following day. King said it was clear that Hill wanted to see his teams compete for a national title, but when they told him they didn’t feel safe, he supported them 100%.

“And till this day, that’s the most expensive dinner I’ve ever had in my life because we drove all the way to Iowa only to turn back around to go home,” King said. “Just think about if a coach didn’t genuinely care about his team and how they felt and who they were. Like, we would still be in Iowa, forced to compete.”

In addition to college coaching, Hill traveled the country as a choreographer and competition judge, touching many lives along the way. Leigh Carr is the head cheerleading coach at Bethel University, and she’s been close with Hill ever since they shared a judges panel at a cheerleading competition in 1998.

“I think across the nation, there’s a lot of people who are gonna miss that Rickey Hill spirit,” Carr said. “He left a huge hole in the cheer community.”

Whenever Loyola and Bethel would compete in the same tournaments, Hill and Carr would find time for their teams to eat meals together and build camaraderie while competing far away from home. Even though they were technically competitors, Carr said Hill would always look like her team’s biggest fan while they performed.

“I remember his cheer team had gone right before us, and he took them up to the ring to tell them what they had done great and what they had done wrong, but the minute he heard that Bethel University was on, he’s like ‘Go, go, go,’ and you just see him running down the stairs,” Carr said. “He was one of the loudest cheerleaders for us, and likewise, we’d be down in front cheering for them. It didn’t matter that we were competing against each other.”

This year, Bethel’s cheer team will wear black ribbons embroidered with Loyola’s block L and the initials “R.H.” in their hair to honor Hill.

Loyola will hold a memorial service for Hill Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 1 p.m. in the Ignatius Chapel, the event is open to the general public.

A Facebook group called “Remembering Rah Rah Rickey” was created by two of Hill’s former James Madison cheerleaders as the news of his passing spread across social media. The group now has 325 members who’ve all shared photos and stories of the man who changed their lives.

Cantu-Parks said she’d been boycotting Facebook for over 15 years before she made an account to join the celebration. She said that what she’ll remember most about her friend was the unconditional love he gave to everyone around him.

“He didn’t have an easy childhood. Everything he had, he fought for. But you know how people say you make decisions based on two things, either fear or love: every decision Rickey made was based on love,” Cantu-Parks said. “He really was so brave and courageous, but all of that was coming from a place of love.”