Testimonial of Kayleigh Thadani
Describe the type of person you were before you joined AEC.
I’ve never had a problem with expressing myself; I liked (and still do like) being the life and soul of the ‘party’. Interacting with people and having a good time is something I’ve always found easy. Given my dance and performance background, this is probably not too surprising.
Although I don’t come from a privileged background, my Father’s business meant that I at times experienced ‘how the other half lives.’ I learned very quickly that there is more to the world than wealth and luxury-I found this other half to be quite plastic and blasé. So, by the time AEC became part of my life, I was a young girl desperately seeking for something to be a part of.
What attracted you to cheerleading?
Before joining AEC, I was experiencing my own kind of personal heartbreak. Up until that time my dream had been to become a ballerina. I was 14/15 and training 5 times a week. I’d enjoyed some successes too. I was part of the London’s Children Ballet and had performed at the Royal Opera House- achievements I still treasure now. However, there came a time when I was faced with the harsh reality of ballet- that I was never going to be a professional ballet dancer. My body shape wasn’t right- I was too athletic and didn’t have the slender shape synonymous with famous ballerinas. It was a crushing blow.
But I picked myself up, determined to find something new, something I could really invest myself into and excel. Cheerleading had always been a dream to me (I had a trans-Atlantic upbringing); I didn’t even think it existed in the UK! I was searching on the internet one day (it was when there was still a dial up tone) and I came across the Ascension Eagles, a cheerleading team based in East London. I remember the first time I asked my Mum if I could go. She was worried that it was too far. Of course I persisted, and as is generally the way with teenagers like me who could be quite persuasive, I eventually wore her down and she accompanied me.
So one Friday, my Mum and I arrived at the Ascension Church, and what I saw there was the humble beginnings of UK cheer. A time before there were those huge mats and sprung floors, or decline wedges and airs tracks. Instead, there were a few of those old school P.E mats, a stereo player (that’s right!) and a group of young people coming together and having a great time. I took it all in, and felt like I had arrived. It was then that I met Shara Brice for the first time. She embraced me and invited me to, “Come and be a part of this family.” That was it! The opportunity to be part of an extended family and to understand what community really meant was something that really excited me. I had finally found a place where I felt I belonged.
How did Cheerleading and AEC impact on/ shape you as a person?
There are a number of things that I could talk about here, but there is one in particular that rings true with this question. Shara always wanted us to represent the team, and ourselves, to the best possible standard. She taught us the value of the three P’s: professional, polite and punctual. Follow these values, and it would be hard for people to say anything negative about you. This really resonated with me and I jumped on it- it became a part of my own personal ethos and outlook, so much so, that I even tell people about it now! Aside from this, Cheerleading taught me that working hard and dedication really does pay off! Without this mentality being embedded in me, I may not have had the resolve to push on through the hard times, so as to enjoy the success I’m having now.
AEC has given me the skill set to be a successful person. With my team, Senior Co-Ed, we achieved things that at the time had never before been achieved by a British team. I will always be a part of that team. Forever.
Since cheerleading for AEC, what have you been able to go on and do?
I was a part of AEC Senior CO-ED for a number of years; a brilliant team that in many ways was a trailblazer for the British Cheerleading community. It was a team of firsts- a team of professional cheerleading athletes. It was after being part of the first British team to compete at the USASF World Championships in Florida that I decided it was time to graduate from AEC. I felt like I was at my highest point as a cheerleader- I’d achieved all I wanted to, and more.
I wanted the next step in my life to be a challenge. So rather than going to university in Britain, I opted to attend IUP- Indiana University Pennsylvania. I loved my time there, but it wasn’t always plain-sailing. I remember in my first week I managed to join the IUP cheerleading team. It was hugely different to what I was used to. The foremost being that for AEC, we cheered competitively; at IUP, cheerleading was more in the mould of the stereotypical American movie- pompoms and rah-rah skirts. It wasn’t really for me, and it wasn’t long before I realised that I was hanging on to my AEC dream. In truth, it didn’t measure up.
So instead I looked to something new- I joined a sorority, a sisterhood of strong young women. We were Delta Zeta. I later found out that AEC’s founding member, Shara Brice, was also a Delta Zeta. This meant so much to me. It was incredibly humbling to think that someone who had given so much of their time to the shaping of so many, myself included, was in that same sorority of sisters. It may sound strange, but I felt like I was following in her footsteps.
University itself, the studying and the social opportunities that come with it, was great. I worked really hard and graduated with a 3.8 GPA in Drama and Fashion- which is essentially the highest honour you can achieve. From there I decided to pursue the life of an actor. I joined a regional theatre company in Ohio and did 5 productions in two months. It was incredibly hard work, but I learned so much from the experience.
Around about the time our fifth production was coming to a close I made the decision to come home. It was a brave step for me because it meant starting again. But I went for it anyway. Initially, it was really hard to open doors, I was out of the London loop, my qualifications from abroad weren’t held to the same esteem as British qualifications and I saw many given opportunities over me. It hurt, but if anything, it made me more resilient. I managed to land a job on a cruise ship, where I spent six months really developing my craft before returning to England to complete a Masters in Musical Theatre at The Guilford School of Acting. Once I graduated, I got myself an agent and went to work. Like before, I faced rejections, but I enjoyed some successes too. I was part of the Blues Brothers story in Monte Carlo, and Putting on the Ritz featuring Pixie Lott and Ray Quinn.
When I heard about the Aladdin auditions, I just felt like something was going to happen. The process was gruelling, lots of waiting around (sometimes in the rain), performing before a panel, only to repeat the process again three hours later. But I made it to the final and performed like I knew the role was already mine. Ten days later my agent rang me and said, “Congratulations, you got the job. You’re going to be in the West End cast of Disney’s Aladdin.” My life changed.
Tell me more about your work on stage and particularly Aladdin.
After digesting the news that I was going to be part of an original London cast my agent told me that my role was going to be a ‘Swing.’ I remember my jaw dropping. A swing is one of the hardest parts to play in theatre because it means you could be anywhere on the stage, left or right, fulfilling a number of different roles. However, cheerleading prepared me for this in a way, because there was always a different role that had to be carried out, which in turn meant you could be moved to any number of places within a given routine. I take pride in my role as a company member. It all works because we work so well as a team.
I’ve been doing in Aladdin for a year now and I’ve already achieved so much more than I ever dreamt possible. I performed at the Royal Albert Hall for BBC’s Children in Need- it simply doesn’t get any better than that! I’ve taken part in over 200 performances and have enjoyed it so much that I’ve signed up for another year. Being a West End performer does have its challenges. There are tough times: when your body’s hurting, having to learn new tracks and routines, as well as the mental and physical exhaustion you can feel. But ultimately, I am living the West-End dream, and right now, I wouldn’t change it for the world!
What is your favourite AEC memory?
My favourite memory links to what I said before, just being part of that first World’s team and doing something for the first time as a British organisation. But if I had to choose another it would be the ‘Lift-ups’ we did at the end of our cheerleading sessions. That’s what made us a special team. We congratulated each other, made each other feel good, and in doing so I believe it made us a more determined force.
What would you say to young people like you who have big dreams and aspirations for themselves?
“Never give up. Always believe. What’s meant for you cannot pass you by.”