We’ve all gaped at those YouTube clips of dancers executing fiendish fouetté sequences, complete with doubles, triples and spot-changes, in astonishing unison. When it comes to wowing a crowd, there’s nothing quite like unison movement—and when it comes to dancing in unison, “perfect synchronization is what carries the vision of the choreography,” says University of Cincinnati Dance Team coach Jennifer Bernier.
For dance-teamers, the importance of moving in sync is reflected in competition score sheets. “The unison score can be what sets two teams with amazing choreography apart,” says University of Tennessee Dance Team coach Kelley Tafazzoli. But synchronization isn’t just valuable to dance teams. Whether you’re performing on football fields or on competition stages, in concert halls or on concert tours, all dancers can (and should!) learn to harness the power of perfect unison.
Count It Out
A strong sense of musicality is crucial for coordinating unison movement. Before the Rebel Girls of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, learn a new routine, they sit in a circle and simply listen to their music, counting as they go. “Counting aloud helps us begin to interpret the piece in the same way,” says senior Rebel Girl Kasey Phillips. Rehearsals begin similarly at Impulse Dance Project in Wilmington, NC: “We listen not just for the music’s downbeat, but for all of its different dynamics,” says 13-year-old student Madi Toney.
DanceMakers of Atlanta compete their routine in perfect synchronization. (Photo by Propix, courtesy DanceMakers of Atlanta)
When it comes to actually setting counts for the choreography, most coaches and teachers come prepared with a flexible idea. “We’ll have all the counts mapped out, but it sometimes makes sense to adjust the original pattern to fit the dancers,” Tafazzoli says. Kasey adds that her coach will sometimes pick out a dancer who is executing a section especially effectively. “We’ll break down and practice her counts until everyone is nailing them,” she says.
The key to synchronization is to be extremely precise about what those counts are. This often means dividing the downbeat into sections (“1e and a, 2e and a”), so that every single moment gets its own count—even the smallest of transitional steps. “Everyone knows how to hit a high V on 8,” Bernier says. “It’s the transitions that really benefit from clarified counts.”
While you’re learning those super-specific counts, it’s important to keep an eye out for the tiny choreographic details that will make your synchronization even sharper. “By the time you get to the stage, you should be certain of every arm, every head, every angle,” Tafazzoli says. “Don’t leave any stone unturned.” Denise Heard-Latimer, co-owner of DanceMakers of Atlanta, recommends spending extra time working on unison partnering sections, since angles and transitions tend to get sloppiest when tricky lifts and partnered turns are involved.
Train your brain to remember the details by thinking about them in class as well as in rehearsals. At Impulse Dance Project, for example, dancers are prompted to pay special attention to the often-forgotten upper body: “Every class, we do an across-the-floor combo of just synchronized arms,” Madi says. “Focusing on simple movements helps us clarify the bigger picture of our more complex unison routines.”
Polish Your Placement
The Rebel Girls strike a pose. (Photo by Anthony Mair, courtesy Rebel Girls)
Perfectly synchronized unison will still look chaotic if a routine’s formations aren’t spot-on. The Rebel Girls use the “tick method” for spacing out their routines: “We measure out tape for each performance venue and mark our spacing ‘ticks,’ ” Kasey says. “Then we bring the tape to every rehearsal, so we can block out our football ticks or our basketball ticks, no matter where we are.”
When you can’t rely on blocked marley or courts, you’ll have to get creative. That’s especially true for studio competition dancers, who may be performing in a different venue every weekend. “When we get to competition, we block ourselves onstage and agree on spacing markers like a letter on a sign or even a fold in the marley tape,” Madi says. Her studio also practices while facing the back wall, which helps them learn to use their peripheral vision, rather than the mirror, to determine if their spacing is correct.
Synchronizing style can be the trickiest part of mastering unison choreography. “The first time we run through a routine, we’re all over the place, because each dancer interprets the movement in his or her own way,” Kasey says. Cleaning often involves a sort of stripping away of style, which can leave a routine feeling cold. “We pick it apart until everyone is exactly the same, but we don’t want it to seem robotic,” Tafazzoli says. What’s the cure for “robot syndrome”? Energy. “Once a routine is completely clean, we crank the energy level way up, bringing it back to life,” Tafazzoli says.
You’ll find that as you work with your team or studio members more and more frequently, unison sections will become easier and easier to synchronize—because you’ll start moving as a unit. “We’re together so much, we do start to all dance the same, even the freshmen,” Kasey says. That kind of deep-seated harmony is what makes for truly explosive unison dancing.
(Don’t Get) Dazed and Confused
Synchronizing sequences that disorient you—such as those epic fouetté combos, or a series of flips and tricks—can be particularly challenging. The University of Tennessee Dance Team attacks these sections 8-count by 8-count. “For turn sequences, we clarify and drill arm and leg placement with counts, so all the dancers need to concentrate on is their spot,” coach Kelley Tafazzoli says. They also pay special attention to the timing of the heel hitting the ground in à la seconde turns. “We’ll film just the supporting feet of a turn section, so dancers can see if and when they fall out of rhythm.” Jennifer Bernier, coach of the University of Cincinnati Dance Team, has her dancers mark these tricky sections in a circle, so that they can see one another’s timing. “We want to make sure everyone is hearing the same down–up rhythm,” she says.
And you don’t have to be upside-down or pirouetting to be disoriented. “We do a lot of unison floor work, which is just as difficult to synchronize,” says Denise Heard-Latimer, co-owner of DanceMakers of Atlanta. To get the piece back on track after everyone’s been rolling on the floor, Heard-Latimer recommends incorporating a “quick-stop” moment—a very brief freeze—at the end of each floor section. “That allows the dancers to get oriented, link up their focus and move forward with the choreography,” she says.
What if I Can’t Hear The Beat?
Musical counts aren’t always obvious, particularly in the lyrical tracks often chosen for contemporary routines. That’s where having a broad sense of musicality comes in handy. “With difficult music, we listen for cues like lyrics, drum beats or a certain instrument,” says Denise Heard-Latimer, co-owner of DanceMakers of Atlanta. “It also helps to develop a sense of group chemistry, so you can feel each other’s timing as well as hear it in the music.”
Are those tattoo sleeves? Yes—yes they are. UNLV sure showed us that dance team girls can get funky!
Last weekend, college dance teams across the country headed to Orlando, FL to compete at the Universal Dance Association College Dance Team National Championship. And boy, was the competition tough! In the end, quite a few new names earned those coveted top spots in Division 1A, including Arizona State University and University of Nevada-Las Vegas. (But the reigning jazz and pom champs from University of Minnesota Dance Team held onto their titles—and just wait until you see their routines!)
Here's a quick look at the Division 1A results:
1. University of Minnesota
2. Arizona State University
3. University of Tennessee
4. Florida State University
5. The Ohio State University
1. University of Nevada-Las Vegas
2. University of Cincinnati
3. Louisiana State University
4. University of Memphis
5. Arizona State University
1. University of Minnesota
2. University of Cincinnati
3. University of Nevada-Las Vegas
4. University of Memphis
5. The Ohio State University
A huge congrats to all the teams that competed! I know how much time and effort it takes to get ready to compete—and you all deserve a much-needed break. Click here for a full list of results and to see video of all the teams.
Think your dance team is among the best of the best? Yes, you say? Then, your team needs to apply to represent Team USA at the 2013 International Cheer Union World Championship!
Last year, teams from around the world (Japan, Italy, Ukraine, Norway, Chile, Nigeria!) met in fierce competition at the world championships in Orlando, FL. The University of Memphis Dance Team represented the USA, bringing home the gold in Team Jazz and the silver in Team Hip Hop.
Check out this video of the 2012 Team USA's hip-hop routine.
Pretty much any guy who dances is used to being outnumbered by women. But for Chris Klein, a student at St. John's University who was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal, that differential is particularly intense: He's the only man on the school's dance team. And the dance team world as a whole is almost universally female.
The WSJ quotes UDA program director Catherine Morris saying that the number of guys on dance teams hovers around 5%; I'd wager it's even smaller. For people like Chris, that means good things and bad things. Good, in that they're pretty much guaranteed to get extra attention wherever the team goes. Bad, in that they might not ever quite fit in.
But about not fitting in: I've frequently wondered why there weren't more guys on dance teams. The WSJ story talks about issues involving pom work and costumes—but are those really so insurmountable? And while dance teamers should never be confused with cheerleaders, it's true that dudes have been on cheerleading teams for years. What if the guy-girl ratio were more even? Would it ruin the whole dance team aesthetic? Or would adding a bunch of men—assuming, of course, that they were as technically strong as the ladies—take things to a new level?
Guys on dance teams. What are your thoughts?
When it comes to dance team, you know you’ve got the “dance” part of the equation down cold. But the pom work? Not so much. Maybe you’re afraid it’ll be too much like cheerleading, or that you won’t understand the terminology. To help, we spoke with three college dance-team coaches to find out what you can expect in practices, and how dancers can easily transition to working with poms. You’ll be surprised at the strength, sharpness and body awareness that can be learned from this flashy style!
The University of Missouri's Golden Girls (photo by Mark Falvey, courtesy Amanda Gaines)
Pom routines require a lot of endurance—keeping your shoulders down and arms strong for two to three minutes is harder than you’d think. “In the studio, you have exits and entrances or brief moments to breathe, but in pom, you’re engaged the whole time,” says Amanda Gaines, coach of the University of Minnesota Dance Team. “Cardiovascular workouts aren’t enough; you also need to have good arm strength to maintain your energy.” Sharp arm movements require strong shoulders and a solid core, so work on holding center and side plank positions for one minute, maintaining good form with your shoulders down and in line with your hips. Your shoulders, arms and upper back can also be strengthened with push-ups, tricep dips and basic exercises with weights, such as bicep curls. “Many of our team members also use yoga to get into shape for the season,” Gaines says.
Team Practice Tips
Poms may not be used during the first few practice sessions—you’ll have to practice with closed fists—but that doesn’t mean those practices won’t be strenuous. Marca DeCastroverde, coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Rebel Girls, starts the season with motion drills to work on placement and timing. Pom requires extreme sharpness in its movements. “To sharply stop in a position, dancers must tighten their arms, not their wrists. A tight wrist will cause a broken line,” says Shannon Fry, director of the University of Missouri Golden Girls. Specific drills will teach you the proper arm pathways to transition from one position to the next, as the movements must be completely in sync. For example, a coach might count “High V on 1, hold 2, hold 3, half-T on 4, hold 5, down 6, daggers 7, T on 8.” The exercises will start slow, then build in speed as the team masters the moves. Be aware, though, that holding your poms too tightly can lead to carpal tunnel or tendonitis. “I remember going to my college trainer for wrist pain and being told I had tendonitis. I was doing wrist exercises with one-pound weights next to all of the 300-pound football players!” Gaines says. To prevent injury, “think of the energy extending all of the way out through your fingertips rather than stopping at your wrists.”
Rocking the Stadium
Pom performances feel and look very different from dance-team jazz or hip-hop pieces. Choreographers can create visually appealing routines without as many tricks because the poms themselves add so much flash. “Pom is all about the visuals, not necessarily the skills,” Gaines says. Dancers may also be accustomed to incorporating their own style into their dancing, or emoting to match the words of a song, but pom routines are all about unity, sharpness and clarity. “We think about the big picture,” Fry says. “Our movements are large and sharp to make sure everything is crisp and visually appealing.” Thinking about body placement as well as pom choreography simultaneously is a skill that takes a lot of practice to master, but with the help of coaches and teammates the poms will eventually start to feel like a natural extension of your movements. All you’ll have to worry about is having fun performing!