Rhys Balow has big things ahead.
For the Sacramento State dancer, it’s been a long time coming. When he was in high school, watching an all-girls dance team entertain the crowds at football and basketball games, he still wondered what it would be like to join the dance squad for his school.
For years he’d been a soccer player, embroiled in the masculine culture that so often arises around boys sports.
“I kind of enjoyed it, but I wasn’t looking forward to going to practices,” Balow told Outsports. “I tried it in high school, but that environment was tough. I was definitely suppressing who I was.”
When he chose to ditch the cleats for said pom-poms, he knew he was home.
Balow said soccer in his youth helped him grow, but the culture around the boys sport simply didn’t reflect who he was.
In the middle of his high school career, he chose to make the switch to dancing on the sidelines, instead of playing on the pitch, even if it meant being the only boy on what was seen by so many as a “girls team.”
Still, Balow felt liberated.
“Being on a team with women, it felt so different, very supportive. The way that they took me in without hesitation, it was very helpful. They were trying to make me feel I fit in.
“When I joined the dance team, I felt my confidence really grow. I could showcase my femininity on the dance floor. It gave me more confidence to share that in my everyday life.”
Soon after joining the dance team at Del Campo High School near Sacramento, Calif., Balow’s personality blossomed. A big part of that was being coached by Jonathan Romero, who coached the dance team at his school and would eventually become the first and only cheerleader for the San Francisco 49ers.
“Having him, someone I could look up to, it really made a difference,” Balow said of his former coach, Romero. “He really supported me through my senior year. It was different to see how he was moving, from how the girls were moving. It made the biggest difference.
“If I didn’t have him there, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to join the college team.”
Now a part of the Sacramento State dance team, Balow — still the rare man on a college dance team — feels fully expressed. A big part of that is his current teammates.
“Being around a bunch of really confident women, I tried to emulate what they were putting forward. I’m definitely a way more confident person just being around them.”
While more confident, he was still nervous the first time he stepped foot in a massive football stadium to cheer on the Hornets.
“The scale of people who watch you, that first game day, I was really nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know how people would take it.”
By “it” he means being the first male dancer for Sacramento State. Through it all, Balow said he has felt “fully accepted” and has “had no negative experiences, which is really great.”
This season, he now has another male dancer on the Hornets team. That has been a revelation.
“It’s the first time I’ve danced with another guy, and having him there has been another big confidence booster. We can relate on different things, like our outfits. The girls are wearing different uniforms and talking about their makeup, and I’m not really a part of that.”
Looking ahead, Balow said he wants to follow in the footsteps of his former coach, Romero, and dance professionally in sports.
“Rhys absolutely has a shot at the pros,” Romero told Outsports.
Balow is doing the work now, connecting with other male cheerleaders and dancers across professional spots. One of those opportunities is an annual convention in Las Vegas, where Balow makes sure to meet other male cheerleaders and dancers in the pros.
“Transitioning from soccer to dance has definitely changed how I present myself in my life,” Balow said. “Dance has saved my identity. If I didn’t have it, I would be a totally different person. And I’m lucky to be around a team of confident women.
“I wouldn’t take anything else for it.”
You can follow Rhys Balow on Instagram.