No Coach? No Problem!
Being on a college dance team is both fun and rewarding. You get to perform in front of thousands of screaming fans at sporting events, plus you find a group of women with whom you share an instant bond. But if your team has no coach or advisor—which is the case for many collegiate groups—things can also get stressful.
Student-run college dance teams face a unique set of challenges. From creating their own choreography to managing a budget to mixing their own music, everything is in the dancers’ hands. At practices, working hard is a given—the real challenge lies in creating the right environment for a successful and efficient rehearsal. Dance Spirit spoke with four coachless college captains and a team president, plus two coaches, to nail down exactly what you need to do to make the most of your rehearsal time.
Elect a Leader
When a team doesn’t have a coach, someone needs to be placed in charge. While some teams choose a single captain, others appoint several officers who share responsibilities. Regardless of your team’s structure, “Make sure to elect leaders who can balance being a friend and disciplining the team,” says Robin Adams, senior captain of the Susquehanna University Dance Team.
Once leaders have been named, they need to set clear guidelines (such as a team constitution that everyone must sign) to help eliminate issues that may arise throughout the year. “Refer to these rules instead of making them up as you go,” Adams says. Also remind dancers to separate their personal lives from the team. A dance practice is not the time or place to worry about everyone liking you. “The important thing is making sure the team is prepped for performances,” says Sarah Campion, senior captain of the Aussies Dance Team at Austin College. “When the performances go well, the dancers will respect the hard work they had to do to get there."
Prior to Practice
The secret to a successful practice is being prepared. Most college dance teams rehearse for 2 to 3 hours a day a few times per week, so maximizing the time you have together is crucial. At the beginning of the season, establish individual responsibilities. Do you need keys to the gym? Make sure one person is responsible for having them and arriving early enough to let everyone into the rehearsal space. Put another person in charge of bringing music. Someone else can run the sound equipment.
Once everyone knows his or her role, make it clear that the team is expected to arrive—dressed and ready to go—at the rehearsal area before practice starts. Then, once practice begins, you can jump right into housekeeping issues. “We begin by talking about upcoming performances,” says Shawnia White, president of the Goucher College Dance Team. “We also address anything that went wrong during our last performance and ideas for future routines or events.” You can also use this time to review your goals for the day. “We create an agenda of things we want to accomplish at each practice,” says Rachael Hughes, captain of the Ohio State University Dance Team. This includes polishing skills and teaching or cleaning parts of the routine, as well as reworking formations. “Knowing your team’s goals beforehand, then striving to achieve them, will help the team bond,” adds Campion.
Working the Warm-up
A team warm-up is a must and can be approached in several ways. “Generally the president or captain leads our team warm-ups,” White says. But Nicole Daliessio-Zehnder, head dance team coach at the University of Delaware, has a different style. “I create a rotating schedule of who leads,” she says. “That way, each dancer can bring her own style to the team.” At Ohio State, the team warms up together—no leader necessary. “The warm-up is the same at every practice,” Hughes says. “But each week we change the music to stay excited.”
Once the music is going, make sure you start with some cardio. Run laps, do jumping jacks or jog in place. Then remember to stretch all of your muscle groups, including your quads, hamstrings, calves and hips. Loosen up your neck, shoulders and arms, and do some core building with a few abdominal exercises. Warming up should consume about a quarter of your practice time, or approximately 30 minutes.
After everyone is warmed up, move on to technique drills. “We do various jumps and turns and have different ways to approach and land them,” White says. “Practice each until the dancers are clear on your team’s specific technique.” Another option is to practice combinations from your routine.
Leading combinations is a good responsibility to give a captain because the dancers will respect corrections coming from their leader. “I lead as well as participate in across-the-floor drills,” says Heather Dougherty, captain of the Brockport Emeralds Dance Team at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. “I give instructions and watch, then I go across the floor last. I make corrections and then we continue on the left side.”
Creating and Cleaning Choreography
Now you’re into the meat of the practice: choreography! “In the beginning of the season, we open the floor to anyone who wants to choreograph,” Adams says. “Then, the person who created the routine we select teaches the choreography to the rest of the team.”
When it comes to cleaning the choreography, Mallori Walker, the dance team coach at Purdue University, suggests taking sections one eight-count at a time. In order to be sure everyone is executing the movement properly, a team member should step out to watch each run-through. “Make sure everyone is hitting every movement the same way. Many girls add their own style, which can look messy,” Dougherty says. If possible, rehearse in front of mirrors. This way the group leaders can dance and watch at the same time. For the last 15 minutes, practice in small groups and offer each other constructive criticism.
Finally, try having team bonding events to bring your group together outside of practice. This can range from going bowling to eating brunch at the dining hall. “We’re all good friends now,” Dougherty says, “and you can see it when we perform.”
Your Perfect Practice
From arranging carpools to mastering your fouetté combinations, there’s a whole lotta stuff to accomplish at every practice! Nicole Daliessio-Zehnder, head dance team coach at the University of Delaware, gives you the ideal breakdown for a three-hour rehearsal.
- First 5 minutes: Handle housekeeping issues and discuss the team’s goals for the day.
- 30 minutes: Warm-up and stretch. Include partner stretching, barre exercises, calisthenics and core work.
- 30–45 minutes: Do technique drills and across-the-floor work.
- One hour or more: Work on choreography and prepare for upcoming events.
- Final 10 minutes: Cool down.
So you’re the captain of your dance team? Congrats! But respect is earned, not given, so here are a few tips to help you get it:
- Dress appropriately, show up on time and keep your attitude positive.
- Make no exceptions. Do what is best for the team, not the individual. If a dancer misses too many practices before competition, it’s probably best that she not perform, even if she’s a strong dancer.
- When critiquing, do so politely.
- “Realize that you can’t always be friends with your teammates during practice,” says Mallori Walker, Purdue University’s dance team coach. “Lead by example and stay true to the example you set.”
- “Be sensitive, but at the same time be thick-skinned,” says Rachael Hughes, captain of the Ohio State University Dance Team. “Be confident and trust the decisions you make.”
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
For more on choosing whether to compete or not, click here.
I started dance classes at a young age. By the time I was 3, I was training at The Dance Club, and I grew up there. I started with the basics—ballet and jazz—and eventually added tap, tumbling, contemporary, and hip hop.
Early on, I did compete. I remember my first time: I did a trio at a small local competition, and it got first place. The trophy was as tall as I was, and I loved it. I attended conventions as a mini, and had the opportunity to take classes from Travis Wall, Sonya Tayeh, Andy Pellick, and Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh. There was so much variety—I was in awe.
For more on choosing whether to compete or not, click here.
My mom was a dancer growing up, and she went on to become a dance teacher, so I've really grown up in the studio. I started classes when I was 2, and by the time I was 9, I was training at The Dance Club and knew I wanted to dedicate all my time to dance.
Daphne Lee is a queen, and not just in the "OMG Girl Boss Alert" sense of the word. She's an actual queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Black USA in August, she's been doing double duty as she continues to dance with the Memphis based dance company, Collage Dance Collective. Lee's new title has given her the means to encourage other black girls and boys to pursue their dreams, while also pursuing dreams of her own. The scholarship money awarded with the pageant title will assist her as she earns a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University.
When a choreographer finds a composer whose music truly inspires her, it can feel like a match made in dance heaven. Some choreographers work with the same composers so frequently that they become known for their partnerships. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, for example, has tapped composer Sufjan Stevens numerous times (last spring, the two premiered The Decalogue at NYCB, to rave reviews); L.A. Dance Project's Benjamin Millepied's working relationship with composer Nico Muhly has spanned a decade and two continents; and when tap dancer Michelle Dorrance premiered the first-ever Works & Process Rotunda Project, a site-specific work for New York City's Guggenheim Museum, last year, percussionist Nicholas Van Young was by her side as an equal partner. Successful collaborations require compatibility between artists, direct and honest communication, and flexible, open minds. But when the stars align, working with a composer can be extremely rewarding.
For ballerinas, it's the dream role to end all dream roles: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the type of part dancers spend years preparing for and whole careers perfecting. And it's a role that New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck never thought she'd dance. Though Peck is one of the world's preeminent ballerinas, her short stature made Odette/Odile, typically performed by longer, leggier dancers, seem (almost literally) out of reach.
Then—surprise!—her name popped up on the cast list for NYCB's fall season run of Swan Lake.