(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)
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)
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)
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)
UMDT by the Numbers
- 3.4 UMDT’s average GPA
- 5 National Championship pom trophies
- 9 National Championship jazz
- 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
The University of Minnesota Dance Team preparing to take the floor at Universal Dance Association Nationals (photo by Universal Dance Association/Varsity)
Think it's all about cheering from the sidelines? Think again! Here's why you should consider going out for your school's dance team.
#1 You and your teammates will bring out the best in each other. “Being on a dance team has taught me to push myself. My teammates and I motivate each other to grow at every practice, so when competition time comes, we can all be our very best.” —Faymie Westmoreland, University of Tennessee
#2 Teamwork will become your mantra. “It’s not about individual talent; it’s about what the team can do as a whole. An impressive solo turn combination is cool, but when an entire team does it in perfect unison, it’s amazing.” —Chelsea Woods, University of South Carolina
#3 The skills you develop will help you for the rest of your life. “Being part of a dance team taught me discipline, time management and how to take constructive criticism—skills that make me a better dancer and a better person.”—Maren Thueson, Bountiful High School
#4 You’ll get the chance to serve your community. “One of the best parts about being on a professional dance team is that we have so many opportunities to give back. Some of my favorite team memories are from spending time with the kids at the Primary Children’s Hospital.”—Nicole Gunnarson, Utah Jazz Dancers
#5 You’ll get to keep dancing—and growing—after high school. “Being on the team has let me continue to share my talents, improve my dancing and make lasting connections in the dance world.” —Michelle Lack, McLennan Community College
#6 You’ll have many “once in a lifetime” experiences. “As a Carolina Girl, I’ve had opportunities that will stay with me forever. I performed at Williams-Brice Stadium when Carolina beat Number 1–ranked University of Alabama, and I’ve danced on the beach at National Dance Alliance Nationals.” —CW
#7 You’ll learn how to be a role model. “Dancing in front of 100,000 people forces you to have confidence and poise. You never know who’s watching, so you have to think of yourself as a role model to any little girl in the crowd.” —FW
#8 You’ll see first hand that hard work pays off. “Rehearsing just three dances every day for nine months can seem tiresome and monotonous, but winning the state championship at the end of the year makes it all worth it.” —MT
#9 You’ll get serious adrenaline rushes. “The excitement of performing in front of massive crowds is incomparable. It makes all the hard work in rehearsals worth it. The atmosphere is electric, and I feel so much unity with my team.” —NG
#10 You’ll become part of a sisterhood. “Freshman year in college can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel lost. But being involved in dance team gave me a family away from home. My team is my best support group.” —ML
I recently came across this video of the University of Minnesota's Premier Dance Team performing a jazz number. But this isn't just any jazz routine. The dancers' precision is ridiculously spot-on and boy do they have some serious technical chops.
So, if you think there's nothing more to dance teams than poms and high-energy routines, watch this video. I have a feeling it may change your mind.
The University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team at a football game (John Prosek)
Picture this: You’re a rookie on your school’s dance team and about to perform at the season’s first football game. As you head for the sidelines, you’re met with a deafening roar from the thousands of fans who have filled the stadium. It’s your job to lead the boisterous crowd for the next four quarters—and it’s intimidating, to say the least.
As a member of the dance team, you’re most likely expected to perform at every home football and basketball game. But unlike being on a stage, dancing on the sidelines requires you to show your school spirit and rev up a huge crowd. From learning all the routines to figuring out how to hold your poms, the first few weeks can be overwhelming—especially if you’ve only ever performed in a theater. Read on to learn what it takes to have a successful season.
In the Stadium
Dancing in front of thousands of loud, excited fans in a stadium is a big change from performing for a quiet audience that’s often hidden by bright stage lights. “On a stage, the audience is eye level or below you, but in a stadium, you have to look up and make eye contact to draw in your crowd,” says Dawn Walters, head coach of the University of Kentucky Dance Team. It’s also important to keep in mind that you’re not the main attraction. Onstage it’s all about your performance, but on the sidelines you’re there to support the players and lead the crowd.
During football games, you’ll be expected to dance and cheer almost nonstop for two to three hours, so be prepared for training that will whip you into tip-top shape. “Our team runs for endurance and performs our material over and over again to prepare for the high demands of game days,” explains Rachel Caughey, junior co-captain of the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team.
Most teams only use recorded music during halftime shows. The rest of the dances are performed to the marching band’s fight songs and drum cadences. Caughey says the team practices with a recording of the band on a CD—but performing live with the musicians is a totally different animal. “The band plays at whatever pace they want, and we have to respond accordingly,” explains Caughey. “Sometimes they’re super-slow, so we hit and hold it; other times they’re super-fast.”
Adapting to Your Environment
Performing in an outdoor arena, on either grass or turf fields, can be tricky. Many teams dance in high-tops or cheer shoes to get better traction. If your school has turf, expect a spongier surface or a mat laid out for the dancers. “I don’t choreograph a lot of turning sequences because of the difficulty that comes with dancing on a soft surface, and I’m afraid of injuries, like twisted ankles,” says Laura Nares, head coach of the Carlsbad High School Lancer Dancers. Your coach will most likely save advanced technical requirements for basketball season and Nationals. “It’s better to be clean than to fall out of turns,” says Nares.
A member of the University of Kentucky Dance Team hypes up the crowd. (Michael Huang)
Poms Aren’t Just for Cheerleaders
To attract the crowd’s attention, most teams dance with poms, which may be challenging at first. “Pom-style dancing is about strength and body awareness,” Nares says. To make your pom routines as clean as possible, dance bigger than you usually do and pay attention to the specifics. “The most difficult part of dancing with poms is knowing your arm placement at all times,” Caughey says. “Even a slight turn of your wrist can make your pom face a completely different way.”
Dance By the Rules
To help guide the crowd, you need to be familiar with the rules of football and basketball. “It’s our job to get the crowd involved and know when to cheer, so understanding what’s going on in the game, and even remembering the final score, is paramount,” Caughey says.
Amber Jackson, who has been coaching the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Dance Team for 15 years, provides her team with a football quiz to help them learn the rules of the game. “The girls need to know that when it’s third down and our team is on defense, they should be extra-loud, but when it’s third down and our team is on offense, they should be quiet,” Jackson explains.
In basketball, where you’re close to the sidelines, it’s important that you stay off the court when the ball is in play. During time-outs, only run onto the court when your coach and captains tell you, and make sure you’re off the court by the second buzzer. You don’t want the players to be penalized for a mistake you could’ve easily avoided.
Keep Your Game Face On
Even when you’re not dancing or cheering, you can still be seen by thousands of fans, so it’s important to remain professional throughout the entire game. As a member of the dance team, you’re a representative of your school on and off the field. “There are times before and after games when the girls are asked to mix and mingle with alumni and coaches, so I encourage the team to continue to be outgoing and personable beyond the sideline,” Walters says.
Many college (and even some high school) sporting events are broadcast on TV. Often, producers will cut from the players to the dancers and cheerleaders during time-outs and other breaks. You need to be ready to dance or rally for the camera at all times. There’s nothing worse than being caught goofing off or picking a wedgie on ESPN!
While game days are opportunities to improve your performance skills and bond with your team, always remember that you’re ultimately there to support the players. Your number-one job is to entertain and raise the spirit of your crowd at all school events. Take pride in being a member of the team that represents school spirit!