The University of Louisville Ladybirds Dance Team hopes to make history this month by bringing home a fourth consecutive Division IA win at National Dance Alliance’s college Nationals. But these grand champs know it won’t be easy. “There is something beautiful about crowning a new champion,” says Spirit Coordinator and Assistant Coach Todd Sharp. “It’s natural to want to pull for someone who is right there at the threshold but hasn’t won, so I tell the girls every day: ‘When you are defending a title, you have to be so much better than the second place team that it would be impossible to place them higher.’”
The Ladybirds are known for bringing athletic, edgy routines to Nationals, but as the team continues to rack up titles, taking the gold is becoming increasingly difficult. “You have people who are tired of seeing Louisville win,” says junior Nicole Mires. “If I were a judge, I’d look for any reason to let somebody else have the glory for a year, so there has to be a clear line between first and second place.”
In their four seasons on the Ladybirds, the team’s three seniors have known nothing but victory. “They want this more than anything,” says Ladybirds Coach Sheryl Knight, who also danced on the team when she was in college. “They know the weight that is on their shoulders,” she says, explaining that if the team is able to defend its title, the seniors will be the only class in Ladybirds history to win all four years.
Senior Tiffany Smith says that winning is all she thinks about these days. “Every morning when I get ready for school, I put on [one of] my Nationals rings and I think, ‘God, what I would do for one more.’”
NDA requires college Nationals routines to include at least 30 seconds each of pom, hip hop and jazz, so every dance team must have diverse training, in addition to a style or attitude that will set them apart from the rest. Last year, the Ladybirds distinguished themselves by bringing in a male dancer, Wes Haley (who has since graduated). This year, however, Tiffany says the team’s edge will be showcasing an excellence in all three required genres, not just what they are known for—pom and hip hop.
Though Sheryl creates the bulk of routines in a given season, she and Todd occasionally bring in outside help to expose the team to different styles. For instance, this year, guest choreographer Karl Mundt, who has choreographed for such top teams as three-time Universal Dance Association champs University of Minnesota, taught the Ladybirds a three-day jazz workshop and set a routine.
A Ladybirds Nationals routine is created from dances that the team learns throughout the season and performs at football and basketball games. This year, Sheryl incorporated between 15 and 20 seconds of Karl’s jazz choreography, then she choreographed the pom and hip-hop sequences and began experimenting with patterns. “I piece together different sections to see how they flow, but it’s all trial and error,” she says. “If I don’t like the way the jazz flows into the pom, or if the music isn’t hitting me, I’ll change things around, pick new songs or change the choreography so it’s compatible with the team.” By mid-February, the Nationals routine was finished and the dancers began running it full out.
But Sheryl stays tight-lipped about the particulars of this year’s number, saying that she wants it to be a surprise. “It’s very different from what we’ve done in years past,” she concedes. “It spotlights more of our individual talents and has a stronger jazz base. We have the reputation for being the athletic pom and hip-hop squad, so we’re trying to show another facet of the team.”
Each year, NDA Collegiate Nationals are held in Daytona Beach—finals take place on a stage right on the sand, with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop. Teams that make it to finals perform in reverse order from how they placed at prelims. After competing, the team with the highest score stands in a “Winner’s Circle” on the side of the stage until ousted by another higher-scoring team. “Sometimes I don’t like watching the other team, because I’m like, okay, if they mess up and this is our score, then we’re all right. The feeling is nerve-wracking,” says Nicole of standing in the circle. “Your heart is rattling and you’re sweating.”
For Tiffany, on the other hand, getting to the circle is a relief. “You’ve done your best, and it’s out of your hands,” she explains. “We always turn to each other and say, ‘I’m so proud of you, because you stepped up and made it happen for you and for me.’ But of course, your heart is racing, your palms are sweating and you’re out of breath from dancing, and it’s just the most amazing [thing] I’ve ever felt.”
The Ladybirds get help staying strong at Nationals from UL’s two cheer squads—an all-girls and a coed team—which have Nationals in Daytona at the same time with NDA’s sister company, National Cheerleading Alliance. Both competitions take turns on the stage. “There is a lot of respect between the Ladybirds and the cheerleaders,” says Nicole. “We travel together, practice in the same gym, and at Nationals we support each other. When we’re out there on the beach, they are pounding the floor and screaming for us. When we’re at our low point and getting tired, they just start screaming louder.”
In general, the cheering crowd at Nationals tends to drown out the music, but after a season of performing with each other, the team can stay synchronized no matter what. “We spend so much time together that if the music stopped, I don’t think any dancer would skip a beat,” says Tiffany. “We could do the routine with our eyes closed and ears plugged.” In a genre based on the ability of many dancers to move as one entity, the team attitude of the Ladybirds is a given. “If Ladybirds is not your way, if you don’t conform and assimilate, then you won’t last,” says Tiffany. “I don’t think anybody on that Nationals mat has ever been dancing only for themselves. It’s always about the team.”
The community of Louisville is a hotbed for dance and cheer, home to numerous nationally ranked all-star and public high school dance teams that feed into the Ladybirds. Moreover, Todd and Sheryl both work at a private gym called Planet Dance, where Tiffany trained, and with Floyd Central High School, where Nicole danced. In addition to those institutions, Todd adds Assumption, Louisville Male and Louisville Eastern high schools to the list of perennial UDA and NDA finalists. (Both organizations have high school and college competitions.) According to Todd, roughly 60 percent of the Ladybirds come from either Planet Dance or one of the other feeder public high schools.
Ladybird dancers aren’t recruited in the traditional sense, though Todd and Sheryl often encourage their high school dancers to try out, which can sometimes change a dancer’s college plans at the last minute. When Tiffany was a high school senior, for example, she planned to attend Miami University of Ohio, until Sheryl convinced her to try out for the Ladybirds. (Auditions are held in the spring for everyone, including potential incoming freshmen.) After making the cut, Tiffany realized that she wanted to be a Ladybird bad enough to switch to UL.
Being a Ladybird takes a considerable commitment. Tryouts are held right after Nationals in April and though returning seniors are exempt, they still have to help out. In the subsequent months, team members are encouraged to hone their technique and take classes to stay strong. They meet several times in the summer, attend camp in August and when school begins, launch into football season. The team is expected to attend football and basketball games at home, and travel to away games that are within a six-hour drive. (They sometimes dance at other sporting games as well.) Practices are scheduled several times per week, along with two sessions with a personal trainer. According to Sheryl, the Ladybirds also amass upwards of 400 hours of community service a season, and must fundraise throughout the year to supplement the modest budget provided by UL for costumes, travel expenses and other team-related activities.
During Nationals season, however, workouts with the trainer are upped to three times per week to build stamina, and while other college kids are heading to Cancun for spring break, the Ladybirds are scheduling two practices a day. “We make it fun,” says Nicole. “We’ll have dress-up days and stuff.” Because UL’s Division I basketball team often has conference championships within a few weeks of Nationals, the Ladybirds have been known to hold their practices in hotel ballrooms after performing at the games.
“All year is a practice for April,” says Todd. “The goal is to win, and I have never understood when coaches feel ashamed about that. Ranking first is a fantastic payout for the kids and for all the effort you put in. In the years we haven’t been defending, we just want to do our best and move up the ranks. But when you’re a defending champion, nothing is going to feel good other than repeating that win.”
Tips for college-bound high school dancers.
There are many differences between participating on a dance team in high school versus college. First of all, practices tend to be shorter in college to accommodate academic and work schedules, so dancers must be able to pick up choreography faster. There are also more games to attend in college, which means more routines to learn so crowds don’t tire of seeing the same dances over and over. Other differences: High school teams usually have one routine that emphasizes a particular strength—such as hip hop, pom or jazz—learned in June, performed all year and then used at competition, whereas collegiate teams must be proficient in all three styles.
If you are thinking of dancing competitively in college, here are some tips to help you prepare:
- “If you’re not already in a ballet or jazz technique class, get in one right away.” —Sheryl Knight, Ladybirds Coach
- “There is no one who could be at this level without preparing in high school. Join an all-star team, if not both a high school and all-star team.” —Tiffany Smith, senior Ladybirds dancer
- “Be responsible for knowing material, keeping up technique and picking up steps quickly, because when I see college girls struggle initially, it’s usually because they’re not used to being held accountable.” —Todd Sharp, University of Louisville Spirit Coordinator
- “The more you work out the better. That means running and lifting weights to build up stamina and upper body strength.” —Sheryl
- “It’s extremely important to know all of the styles—even technique in hip hop.” —Tiffany
- “Try gymnastics classes to learn to leap and jump. Our team is very athletic, so we look for people who have the ability to get their jumps off the floor and who have the upper body strength to execute the tricks we do.” —Sheryl