Dance Teams Take on Lyrical

Dance teams incorporating lyrical and contemporary movement into their jazz routines are getting a lot of attention these days. They’re winning competitions—and stirring up controversy. “Some people in the industry think that dance teams should only compete using up-tempo routines that will go over well at basketball halftime,” says choreographer and consultant Karl Mundt. So are they right? Or is it a healthy form of self-expression? Dance Spirit gets to the bottom of this contemporary conundrum.

Making It Happen

In years past, dance teams were often made up of girls with little or no technical dance background, but times have changed. Today, many of the teams taking top honors in competitions are comprised of studio dancers. Still, even the most technically proficient teams need extra classes to master contemporary and lyrical styles. Anna Itman, coach of the Eden Prairie High School Pom Squad in Eden Prairie, MN (last year’s jazz winners at Universal Dance Association) incorporates comprehensive technique courses into her program. Most of her dancers take two extra ballet classes and a fitness course each week at the Dance Warehouse in Chanassen, MN, and attend a summer intensive at Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, MN. Itman also brings her juniors and seniors to NYC in August to take classes at Broadway Dance Center. “You can’t get away from technique,” she says. “It informs everything you do, no matter what style: pom, jazz or lyrical.”

For teams that don’t have access to studio-type training, Mundt recommends improving technique by fundraising and hiring teachers for workshops or weekly classes. He encourages teams to scout local competitions and dance performances for choreography ideas. “Be careful not to make excuses and settle,” he says. “Believe in yourselves and train smart, because that’s what champions do.”

Dealing with the Critics

Upping the ante with technique can help dance teams perfect their lyrical style. But what if dance team competition judges decide to reject the trend? Already, there’s unrest in the industry about the number of contemporary routines seen at competitions. “There’s a disconnect between what’s performed at a basketball game and what you do at a competition,” says Mundt. “My thought is, this is their Nationals—their time to shine.”

Mundt’s comments get to the very root of the debate: If you’re not performing contemporary and lyrical at basketball games, why do them at a dance team competition? Why not dance at a studio instead, where these styles are performed regularly? “A huge selling point for our program is the involvement in the school community and the fact that they get to perform for their peers,” Itman explains. And even though some might be wary of the new style, the fact remains—it’s winning competitions. “I find that the controversy comes from people resistant to change,” says Mundt. “However, there are also those who don’t like lyrical, but can appreciate it and recognize strong technique and execution.”

Some dance teams actually do showcase contemporary and lyrical routines at games. “What gets a reaction are the big extensions and jumps or when the dancers all turn at the same time,” says Alysia Anderson, coach at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. Her team performs Nationals routines at school events to prepare for competition. “People that don’t know dance still say, ‘Wow, that was really good.’” Eden Prairie also performs contemporary at the games, to a highly responsive audience. “I don’t think it’s necessary to dumb down our performance for that crowd,” Itman says. “Your goal as a performer is to move the audience. Sports fans are just as capable of being affected by what they see as dance fans.”

Seeing the Difference

How do dance teamers benefit from embracing this new discipline? For one thing, performing a lyrical number can be cathartic, letting dancers experience different emotions from high octane, perma-smile jazz or tough-as-nails hip hop. “I think it’s healthy, especially for teenage girls,” says Ashley Williams Flaker, coach of the dance team at Assumption High School in Louisville, KY. “They get to express things they can’t even convey to their friends or family.” Some dancers see emoting through movement as a new form of team bonding. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of connecting with your emotions while connecting with 21 other girls,” says Eden Prairie’s Erin Soe. “I think it really shows in our dancing.”

Dance team members who are able to have a wide array of experiences—be it cheering with pom pons on the sidelines, busting out a hip-hop routine at games or highlighting technique and emotion in a contemporary performance at Nationals—have options when it comes to deciding on a future. “Part of what I love about doing lyrical is giving them exposure to different things,” says Itman. “This way, they can go on to a modern-based collegiate program if they want to. They’re prepared for whatever avenue they choose.” 

Wendy Garofoli is a freelance writer based in Monterey, CA. She is a former Columbia University Dance Team coach and continues to consult and choreograph for college and all-star teams.
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