A Winning Streak

The 30 young women on the Towson University Dance Team are good at a lot of things, like nailing lightning-fast fouetté turn combinations in unison, executing sky-high split leaps—and winning national trophies. In fact, for the past 11 years, the team hasn’t done anything but win. In the Division I dance category at the National Dance Alliance (NDA) collegiate Nationals, Towson is the team to beat. Last year, to broaden their competitive reach, Towson entered in the open division (where a routine can be performed in any style), rather than the dance division, and still came out victorious.

But with 11 consecutive wins—some of which were by less than a tenth of a point—comes a whole lot of pressure. “We always have to be better than the year before,” says Jennifer Maletto, a senior and four-year member.

Towson is known for utilizing tight formations and hard-hitting athletic moves to achieve a polished, precise style. Despite how easy the dancers make their routines look, the team works hard. This month, the Towson dancers will put their perseverance to the test as they return to the dance category in hopes of taking a 12th straight national title.

Making the Team

At Towson, dance team hopefuls can actually make the team before they’ve even enrolled at the university. Co-coaches Tom Cascella and Laura King created a unique audition process for aspiring team members so they can begin grooming potential dancers before the season officially begins. Dancers can observe a rehearsal during the school year and, if they like what they see, can contact Cascella for a private audition at the school’s Towson, MD, campus. After the dancers perform a solo, Cascella notifies each girl, letting her know whether or not she’s been accepted for the group callback later in the semester. Each year, approximately 75 dancers audition, and 20 are invited to the callback. Only 6 to 10 make the final cut. And all of this happens before incoming freshmen have even been accepted by the university. (Of course, if you don’t end up getting accepted to be one of the university’s 21,000 students, you’ll forgo your place on the team.)

Once you’ve made the team, you don’t have to re-audition each year—but that doesn’t mean you’re safe. “You’re always being evaluated,” says Jennifer, the team’s only dance major. “At any point, if you’re not pulling your weight, you can be cut. The number of girls who make the team each year is never the same as the number who are left four years later, at graduation. It’s cutthroat.”

“Getting Towsonized”

Think your ballet, tap and jazz classes are enough to get you ready for Towson’s high-energy choreography? Think again. According to senior Erin Ragan, nothing can totally prepare you. “Dancing at Towson is a whole new realm for the incoming freshmen,” she says. “When you come from a studio, you’re not used to doing the toe touches and sharp pom choreography we do. You have to be molded; we call it ‘getting Towsonized.’ ”

To achieve their renowned athletic stamina, Towson dancers train “as hard as the football team,” Erin says. Summer rehearsals—which take place outside in the Maryland heat—include runs that conclude with “the hill”: After running three miles, the dancers sprint up and down one of the campus’ steep inclines at least three times. Then, they jog to a parking garage where they run up and down the stairs. “Many freshmen consider leaving the team after their first day of rehearsal,” Cascella says. “One of our current freshmen told me that she had never worked as hard in her entire dance career as she worked that first day.”

Because each NDA dance routine must include 30 seconds of jazz choreography, 30 seconds of hip hop and 30 seconds of pom, the dancers must master all three styles. “We push the freshmen like crazy until they catch up to the level of the rest of the team,” says Laura, a Towson Dance Team alum who also serves as the team’s choreographer. Then, once the semester starts, the dancers settle into a regular rehearsal schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30–6:30 pm and weekends as needed. During Nationals season, weekend practices can last up to nine hours each day.

According to junior Christina Barton, one of the secrets of Towson’s success is the discipline required of its dancers. “Rehearsals are very focused,” she says. “When we’re stretching, the room is quiet. Everyone is thinking about the routine.” The practices, which are run by the team’s six officers (positions appointed by the coaches that come with greater responsibilities, such as assisting with choreography), include extensive stretching, across-the-floor technique, high kick drills and learning or cleaning Nationals choreography. “I might make the girls stay in a pose for five minutes just to make sure every single part of their bodies is perfect, from their fingertips to their feet,” Laura says. Each run-through of the routine is videotaped and the dancers, along with Cascella and Laura, critique the routine afterward. “We’re constantly beating up our bodies,” Jennifer says. “You thought you knew what hard work was before, but you don’t until you’re on a team like this. It’s so strict and demanding that you have to be completely dedicated to it.”

Life on the Towson Team

When they’re not in academic classes or at practice, the Towson Dance Team members also perform at up to 20 home basketball, lacrosse and football games each season. The dancers choreograph 3–4 routines utilizing Towson’s signature dance style with high kicks and seemingly effortless leaps. They also devote all but one weekend every month to team activities such as rehearsals and fundraising events.

The culmination of the dancers’ hard work is their annual trip to Daytona, FL, for Nationals in April. Although there are typically upwards of 30 dancers on the team, only 16 perform in Florida. Everyone on the team learns the routine, but it isn’t until a few weeks before Nationals that Laura and Tom decide who will dance.

Despite countless hours of preparation, the performance at Nationals doesn’t always go smoothly. At preliminaries in 2008, just two 8-counts into the routine, the music started to skip. Seemingly unfazed, the dancers continued counting in their heads for the remainder of the routine. “We trained them to keep going no matter what happens,” Laura says. The team received a standing ovation and, after performing the routine a second time—with music—won a tenth consecutive title. “People still talk about it,” Laura says.

Making Their Mark on Campus

For many of the dancers, the dance team is the heart of Towson. “When I was 12 years old, I watched NDA Nationals on ESPN and Towson won,” Erin recalls. “When it came time to apply to college, Towson was the only school I wanted to go to. I wanted that dance team.” But despite the team’s success and reputation in the dance world, the university has yet to embrace the team. Just a few years ago, the team was relegated to holding practices in building lobbies on campus or driving 12 miles off campus to practice at a local high school.

Still, the team remains successful in spite of the lack of support. Because the dance team is considered a student organization, not a part of athletics, it has typically received a small budget from the student government. This year, the student government wasn’t sure if it could give the team any funding—news that made Cascella worry the girls wouldn’t get to go to Nationals at all. With the daunting task of raising the $30,000 needed for the trip, the team sprang into action. “We couldn’t talk about it anymore,” Erin says. “We had to go out and do something about it.” They planned fundraisers and simply asked for donations. “After we’d perform at football games, we would all go out into the parking lot where people were tailgating,” Erin continues. “We’d tell people that we wanted to go to Nationals and ask them to donate whatever they could. It really adds up!”

Pressure!

With Nationals on the horizon this month, the Towson dancers are ready to rock out with what Laura deems “the best technical routine they’ve ever done.” Though the young women on the team agree that doing their best is what’s important, the high bar they’ve set for themselves remains. “The pressure is massive,” Laura says. “There are teams that almost can’t wait for the year Towson doesn’t win.” And when Towson arrives at Nationals, everyone takes notice. “When we walk in, you can tell people are looking at us like, ‘Oh, there’s Towson,’ ” Jennifer says. “We have a big name to represent.”

You would think that, with a lengthy list of accomplishments and hefty reputation, the girls on the team would start to get cocky. But according to T.J. Maple, the pom squad coach at Stephen F. Austin State University (a frequent Towson competitor), that’s hardly the case. “They never let winning go to their heads,” he says, “and they’ve helped increase the difficulty levels and expectations at Nationals. Towson is one of the nice teams.”

 

Tom's Tryout Tips

Think joining a college dance team is for you? Take some tryout advice from Towson coach Tom Cascella so you can ace your audition.

  1. Contact the coach. Show your maturity by making a list of questions to ask before you get in touch with him or her.
  2. Do your research. Know the history of the team, what majors the school offers and what style the team specializes in.
  3. Come prepared. The coach can only determine if you are ready for the team if you’re ready for the audition.
  4. Ask questions at the audition. When you ask about the choreography, you show that you’re engaged.
  5. Work on your technique. Coaches want dancers with a strong foundation. Work on your turns, leaps and jumps.
  6. Dance from your heart. Coaches are looking for someone who loves to dance and is willing to show emotion.
  7. Smile, have fun and be approachable. An audition can be stressful. Make it a positive experience by being yourself and enjoying the process.
  8. You are evaluating the team just as much as the team is evaluating you! Make sure you like the coach and current members. Make sure this is the place for you!

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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