As graduation nears, musical theater major Dominic Franco leaves a legacy of transformation and excellence as the first male member of the Texas Tech University Pom Squad.
Texas Tech University wasn't part of the plan when Dominic Franco graduated from the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a performing arts high school in Connecticut. Originally from El Paso, the singer, dancer, actor and musician had intended stay up north and enroll in a university there.
Attending his brother Derrick's Texas Tech graduation ceremony in May 2015 changed all of that.
“It was my first time on the Texas Tech campus, and he was driving me around showing me different buildings and places,” Franco recalled. “I don't know why but there was something in me saying, ‘You need to be here right now.' I flew home from his graduation and applied that night.”
Three weeks later, he received his acceptance letter, and that fall, he began classes as a musical theater major in the School of Theatre & Dance in the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts.
Now, as he prepares to graduate, he said he never could have imagined that one decision would lead to all of the experiences he has had as a Red Raider, including being the first and only male member ever on the university's national champion Pom Squad.
“It was so unlike me at the time,” Franco said. “I had planned out my whole life. It was just one of those things that I just didn't really expect to happen, but I'm forever grateful for that.”
Growing up dancing
Though a collegiate career in West Texas was unexpected, Franco's mom, Diane, said she always knew he would be a dancer.
“By the time he could stand up, he was already bopping,” she remembers. “He was not really walking, he was always dancing from room to room.”
His childhood spanned several states as the family moved with his father's career. From Texas to Connecticut, with stops in Florida, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania, Franco spent his time in various performance programs and studios. His mother said living in so many different places gave Franco a better perspective on life.
“As we moved to different places and experienced different things, I think one thing Dominic gained is that you learn from other people. You see diversity, you embrace it and use that in life,” Diane Franco said. “It really taught both our kids how to react in different situations, how to deal with people and fit in socially. It was probably the best gift we could have given them.”
At age 8, Franco was helping his fellow students with choreography. By 11, he had performed in the national tour of the musical “Evita” in Detroit, began appearing in commercials and started dancing competitively. As a performer at his high school, he was the first freshman to star in a production.
“He always has been a really hard worker and really dedicated,” his mother said. “He just pushes himself and dances and dances.”
Franco was just as committed in other parts of his life, excelling academically and helping fellow students with their own schoolwork and performances. He was selected numerous times to attend leadership conferences, and in his senior year of high school, Franco was named the school's outstanding student.
“First and foremost, he really cares about others,” Diane Franco said. “That's my proudest thing as his mom. He's a great person first, and everything else comes second. We thank God every day for the person he is.”
Becoming a Red Raider
After spending most of his life in other parts of the country, arriving in Lubbock was like coming home, Franco said.
“It's definitely a different living style, but everything I had to get accustomed to was absolutely great,” he said. “The people are so friendly here; it's that southern hospitality you always hear about.”
Like his decision to come to Texas Tech, many of the choices he made after arriving on the campus weren't planned. Looking for a way to make his mark, he became involved in productions within the School of Theatre & Dance. Soon he joined the Gymnastics Club, gaining tumbling skills that would later be important as a member of the Pom Squad.
During a workout session at the Robert H. Ewalt Student Recreation Center, he happened upon tryouts for Vitality Dance Company. Even without preparing a performance, his impromptu tryout landed him a spot with the team.
At his first football game that fall, he got his first glimpse of the Pom Squad performing and wondered how a student would try out for the team. He got his answer the following semester.
“I took a jazz class, and my instructor just happened to be Erin Alvarado, the coach of the Pom Squad,” Franco said. “It had to be fate. I asked her that very first class if guys could try out for pom.”
Absolutely, Alvarado told him, but making the team would be tough.
“You have to be in the top three dancers I choose because you'll already stand out as a guy,” Franco says she told him.
True to his nature, Franco aced the tryout, becoming the first male squad member in the history of the team.
“He is the hardest worker I have ever coached,” Alvarado said. “He is never satisfied, and is always striving to be better than he was the day before.”
His teammates were supportive from the very beginning, and Franco said being the only guy on the squad was never an issue.
“I've always been very comfortable with dancing, and I never tried to hide it,” Franco said. “With the team, I never felt for one moment that I was distanced from them or that I wasn't part of the team, just because I was a guy.”
Seeing the way the team transformed to include a male dancer was something he said he enjoyed immensely. Now, Franco said, he receives messages from other male dancers who have realized there are opportunities for them on the squad. He also sees more male dancers at clinics and tryouts.
Alvarado said his leadership and work with the team also helped his fellow squad members improve.
“I have said it many times,” Alvarado said. “Dominic was the perfect person to be the first male student on pom. His ability to become friends with many different types of people has made his transition onto our team seamless. He had an open mind and was willing to work with us to make his experience as positive and effective as possible.”
Leaving his mark
Joining Pom Squad didn't mean Franco left his other obligations behind. His first year with the squad, during the 2016-17 season, he served as vice president of the Gymnastics Club while also leading dance classes for children at a local studio, Revolution Elite Dance. Some semesters he took up to 20 hours of classes, making the president's and dean's lists each time.
“Dominic was a great student,” said Jesse Jou, an assistant professor of directing. “His enthusiasm and generosity in the room are absolutely infectious. I've seen him turn a room around with a positive spirit and energy that never wavered, despite his balancing so many different interests and responsibilities as a student.”
At the end of his first year with the squad, during which they brought home a win at nationals, Franco tried out and made the team for the 2017-18 season. It would prove to be just as busy as the year before.
“There was a point where I was taking 19 hours, I worked at the dance studio, I had practices and workouts, and I was in the musical ‘Heathers,' while also being in pom during football season,” Franco said. “That was the most challenging semester, but both pom and the theater department were willing to help me accomplish everything. It was an absolutely incredible experience. My teammates came out to support the show, and my theater friends came out to support us at games.
“If I could relive it, I would. All of it was worth it, even the lack of sleep, because I was doing what I love in every single aspect. I was performing, dancing, studying my craft and also working as a dance teacher. Even though it was very tough, physically and mentally, I wouldn't have traded it for anything.”
Dean Nolen, an assistant professor and the head of acting and directing said he has enjoyed watching Franco grow artistically and technically since he arrived at Texas Tech.
“What stands out most is Dominic's can-do, positive approach to not only his work as an actor, but in his daily life,” Nolen said. “This character trait has served him incredibly well. I couldn't be prouder of this young man as he has not only navigated and completed a very demanding course of study but also became the first male to join Texas Tech's Pom Squad.”
Franco's second and final year with the Pom Squad closed with two more national titles. For him and the other seniors on the team, Franco said knowing the significance of the legacy they were leaving by capturing three consecutive national titles, especially after all the work they had put in, was priceless.
“There are a lot of things we do that people don't realize, like our 6 a.m. workouts, preparing for appearances and games, media interviews,” Franco said. “When we won, it felt like time stopped for a second. I don't think I've ever felt more euphoric. Knowing that you are leaving a mark on the university forever and being an ambassador that way, it's absolutely incredible.”
Being part of the Pom Squad and the Spirit Program has given her son just as much in return, Franco's mother said.
“I don't think anybody could have had a better experience than what he has had at Texas Tech,” Diane Franco said. “Fortunately, he came in with a lot of the tools that were needed to succeed in life. He put them to good use, and the support he has been given at Texas Tech has just put him over the top. There's so much talent on the Pom Squad and he's constantly just trying be better and work harder and stronger. It really helped him elevate his natural work ethic and abilities.”
Franco said part of what makes the Spirit Program so great is the camaraderie that exists, not just between the students, but also the faculty and staff.
“My coaches are absolutely incredible,” Franco said. “I would not be the person I am today, and we wouldn't have three national titles, if it weren't for them. They are truly the reason we are able to do what we do. Erin has given me more than I could have ever imagined and has helped me in so many ways. Stephanie Rhode, the director of the Spirit Program, has given all of us a home and every single bit of her life to help us achieve our dreams. They're just amazing.”
Dancing into the future
After graduation, Franco is headed to Los Angeles where he hopes to work in the musical theater side of the film industry or with a professional or collegiate dance team. His professors and coaches said they look forward to what he will accomplish next.
“I've no doubt that Dominic will work non-stop as an actor/dancer/singer once in the industry,” Nolen said. “No doubt whatsoever. He is an inspiration to peers and a source of joy to his professors.”
Being a student at Texas Tech and a part of the Spirit Program family has reinforced his confidence in himself, no matter what his future holds, Franco said.
“I may not always be the best, and I may not always be in a position that is easiest to get where I want to go, but I have the confidence in myself to know I can get there, and I'm going to finish that fight,” Franco said. “I'm going to do it no matter what and not be afraid of failing.”
For now, his only plans are to work hard and take life as it comes to him.
“If I've learned anything over the past three years, it's that when I plan something out, it doesn't always go that way,” Franco said. “I'm just going to live, and whatever happens, it will play out exactly like it's supposed to.”