They Are the Champions

(Courtesy Amanda Gains)

(Courtesy Amanda Gains)

Imagine an artist with the technique of a classical ballerina, the jaw-dropping athleticism of a b-girl, the charisma of a musical theater performer and the emotion and fluidity of a contemporary dancer. Now, picture 18 of them performing a routine packed with tough technical skills in perfect synchronization. Seem too good to be true? Not for the 14-time Universal Dance Association National Championship–winning University of Minnesota Dance Team.

Now more than ever, talented studio dancers are choosing to put professional dance careers on hold to spend four years working toward a college degree—which means big things are happening in the college dance team world. This is certainly the case at the University of Minnesota, where the team just took home its fifth straight UDA Division 1A Jazz National title—arguably the most competitive dance team title in the nation. What makes the team so good? We traveled to the University of Minnesota to uncover the secrets of its much-deserved winning streak.

How much practice makes perfect?

“We practice three days a week—Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday—for about three and a half hours each rehearsal, with the occasional Friday night practice before a football game,” says captain Kim Saunders. “We also have morning workouts and conditioning two days a week.”

(Photo by Universal Dance Association/Varsity)

(Photo by Universal Dance Association/Varsity)

What does a typical UMDT rehearsal look like?

• Warm-up and partner stretches to increase flexibility.
• Ballet barre. “We do a series of plié, tendu, dégagé, rond de jambe à terre and rond de jambe en l’air exercises,” says captain Rachel Saunders.
• Work on skills like pirouettes and toe-touch sequences. “After warming up with basic skills, we focus on the more advanced skills in our routines,” says Rachel Saunders. Adds captain Rachel Fellows: “Our Nationals turn sections are the first things we learn, and we practice them at every rehearsal. If someone is struggling, a captain or teammate will come to practice early to help.”
• Practice fight songs and game dances for football and basketball games. “We use this time to focus on our pom technique and performance skills,” says Kim Saunders.
• Clean routines. “We spend a great amount of time cleaning the dances, making sure everyone looks uniform, and running the dances to work on our endurance,” says Kim Saunders.

“Nationals rehearsals are more intense—we have two-a-days and captains’ practices to work on both our jazz and pom routines over winter break,” says Kim Saunders. “It’s helpful to have the heart of our season during this time because we aren’t busy with school and we can just focus.”

(Courtesy Amanda Gaines)

(Courtesy Amanda Gaines)

5 Qualities You Need to Make the Cut
Coach Amanda Gaines shares the top five traits she looks for in potential UMDT team members.

1. Coachability. “We have a lot of auditionees who are incredibly talented, but they don’t show a desire to get better. I’m not looking for perfection—I want to see potential.”

2. A positive attitude. “We can be under a lot of pressure throughout the season, and it’s important to stay positive during tough practices. Negative attitudes spread quickly.”

3. Ambassador potential. “We make appearances at university functions and sporting events, acting as ambassadors for our school. A lot of people don’t realize that you need more than talent to be a representative—you need maturity and professionalism. You need to be able to talk with people about the football team, and interact with kids at the children’s hospital.”

4. Solid technique. “There’s a baseline of skills you need to have, including strong jumps and a good turning ability (think double and triple pirouettes and complicated
turn combinations with changing spots and speeds).”

5. The X factor. “I need to see that indefinable quality that shows you really want to be here. It’s easy to say you want to dance in college, but we want people who are passionate about the University of Minnesota. You’re a student first, so the school itself needs to be a good fit.”

(Photo by Universal Dance Association/Varsity)

(Photo by Universal Dance Association/Varsity)

Making the Moves
Each season, professionals like jazz choreographer Karl Mundt and pom choreographer Dan Sapp are brought in to set the team’s Nationals routines. But during the year, all team members are given opportunities to choreograph. “When choreographing our camp routine and sideline dances, we split into groups and assign each a section,” says captain Rachel Fellows. “We look to everyone on the team for inspiration—especially the rookies. They all come from different backgrounds and have fresh ideas.”

(Courtesy Amanda Gaines)

(Courtesy Amanda Gaines)

UMDT by the Numbers

  • 3.4 UMDT’s average GPA
  • 5 National Championship pom trophies
  • 9 National Championship jazz
    trophies
  • 12 Hours spent in rehearsal each week
  • 14 Jumps (including three toe-touches in a row straight into a herkie!) in the team’s 2014 National Championship–winning pom routine
  • 16 Girls who competed in the 2014 UMDT jazz and pom routines
  • 18 Girls on the 2013–14 team (5 seniors, 2 juniors, 6 sophomores and 5 freshmen)
  • 34 Jazz and pom teams UMDT defeated at UDA Nationals 2014
  • 45 Girls who audition for the team each year
  • 61 Turn rotations (pirouettes, fouettés, etc.) in UMDT’s National Championship–winning jazz routine
  • 70 Hours spent in Nationals rehearsals
  • 14,625 Fans the team performs for at each home basketball game
  • 50,805 Fans the team performs for at each home football game

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