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.

Directing Drills

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.

Dodging Drama

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.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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.”

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