Tears of joy streamed down the dancers on the Rochester Varsity Dance Team’s faces as loud screams of excitement came out of their mouths when they found out that the blood, sweat, and tears (not the good kind) of this year truly paid off. On Mar. 21, these girls, along with their families, got together in the RHS media center to watch the Dance Team Union (DTU) award ceremony. They had submitted recordings of their two dances, pom and jazz, and placed first and second, respectively. It was a bittersweet moment, and one they had not known they would get just a few shorts months ago.
Because of the pandemic, the fate of school sports was up in the air for a long time. Practices, games, and competitions were getting cancelled left and right, and seasons were ending before they even began. However, this changed as Michigan high schools became able to resume athletic life with an abundance of caution.
“Back in September, we did not even know we were going to have a season,” senior and captain Eliza Farrell said. “This was a little bit frustrating because it was my senior year. But then we got cleared which was very exciting. We hurried up and made game dances to perform at football games and then started our competition dances. Then in November, we got shut down because of the outbreak. I was kind of kind of nervous that the rest of the season wouldn’t happen, but then back in January, a couple months later, we were able to start again. We’ve been practicing over Zoom for the past couple months, so we were still in shape and then we just worked our butts off and it paid off.”
Farrell has been dancing for the vast majority of her life, but she is not planning on continuing her dance career in college. As her dance career comes to an end, she reminisces on the last fourteen years of her life.
“I started dancing when I was three and a half and I just took some rec classes,” Farrell said. “I began competing when I was 11, and that was really exciting. I competed for Studio. I did all sorts of dance- hip hop, ballet, lyrical, jazz, and then my freshman year, I joined the dance team, and for the past three years, I’ve been competing with them.”
Every year, the girls compete at the DTU Nationals competition. They typically fly out to Orlando, Fla. since that is where it is held, but this year has different plans.
“Because of COVID, we are doing [Nationals] virtually by sending in video submissions,” junior Kari Sikkelee explained. “The reality of it being Nationals hasn’t quite set in yet because it’s not the same experience as competing head to head in person, but I am still hoping for the best.”
The Rochester Varsity Dance Team (RVDT) competed against other schools that have also opted to submit videos of their dances as opposed to participating in the in-person competition that was also hosted.
“We will be competing directly against other teams entering the virtual competition, which may very well be a bigger pool than those teams that are able to make it in person,” Coach Lisa Niscar said. “We hope to improve on our 5th place Pom and 7th place Jazz finishes from last year at nationals. The tough part is that we have already had to film for nationals, although it is weeks away, because many of the dancers have conflicting studio competition schedules that we are working against.”
Dance is about the emotion and expression as much as it is about the movements themselves, and conveying this in a recorded video is already a challenge. Another challenge was facing the exhaustion of recording the routine until it was perfect.
“I feel pretty confident about the videos we are submitting,” Farrell said. “Recording it was definitely a lot of work. It’s frustrating because you do the dance more than once which is exhausting, but means that you get the best video that you can get.”
The audience is what makes performance sports what they are, but the pandemic did not allow for an audience to exist. This brought about another obstacle.
“It was difficult not having much of a crowd since we normally feed off of the energy of the spectators at competitions,” senior and captain Megan Kabel said. “But our parents came to support us, and it was really nice having them there to cheer us on.”
Throughout the season, this team has been working both against and around the clock to ensure they have the best shot and improve their Nationals placings from previous seasons, all the while dancing in other competitions and events.
“Typically tryouts would be in April or May, but this past year we didn’t have tryouts until late August and first met as a team a few weeks into September,” Coach Lisa explained. “This gave us only two weeks to prepare a routine for our first game performance. We quickly had to choose music for our competition routines, and in addition to prepping for game performances, I was pushing to create our competition choreography for both our Pom and Jazz routines. Thankfully we were able to learn both competition routines and get started with cleaning them before we were back to virtual practices over Zoom.”
Zoom challenges brought many challenges to the table. One of the major hardships the dancers faced was finding motivation when the fate of their season was up in the air.
“It was hard not being able to get together for a while to practice as a team,” Sikkelee explained. “It was difficult finding the motivation at times, but our coach was always great in pushing us and trying her best to get us back together. Once things started opening back up we were all very excited and in turn very stressed trying to clean our routines in weeks rather than months. Although it was hard at times, luckily we all worked really well together as a team and were able to get through the rough patches and end the season on a high note.”
During Zoom practices, the team focused on building and maintaining endurance and stamina. They worked out virtually as a group and on their own to ensure they would be in good shape upon returning to traditional practices.
“Our competition routines are very demanding and not something the dancers can get through if they haven’t been training to build up their endurance,” Coach Lisa said. “I’ve learned that if you focus on what can be done, and what we can control, it keeps the team moving in a positive direction. It’s easy to get down and caught up in the negatives we’ve all gone through this past year with covid, but with the right attitude and outlook, we have been able to find success this year.”
Of course, these practices were not 100 percent perfect, nor were they a reflection normal practices.
“It was sometimes difficult to maintain our motivation during the Zooms since a lot of us had Zoom burn-out and it was difficult to dance within the space constraints of our living rooms,” Kabel explained. “But we kept pushing ourselves, and our work on Zoom really paid off since it allowed us to seamlessly transition back to in-person practices in January.”
This year, there is one freshman dancer on the team. Her name is Katie Soriano. Typically, one’s first year on thee team is crucial in building bonds with the dancers. Soriano did not let the circumstances get in the way of that.
“I don’t think it affected me that much because I already knew some of the girls prior to dance team,” she said. “But now, I have good bonds with everyone… I love and appreciate everyone on the team, and it makes me really happy.”
This year has presented its challenges, but it has also forced the girls on the RVDT to grow closer. Their bond has become even more unbreakable.
“The team dynamic this year was the best yet, which was amazing especially during a pandemic,” Kabel said. “We all pushed each other to work hard, but we also had lots of fun at practice.”
The pandemic altered the seasons of most athletes, and these dancers are not excluded from that phenomenon. However, they stayed positive and continued to roll with the punches. Evidently, this approach worked for them.
“Everything about this year was different from previous seasons,” Sikkelee explained. “We didn’t have as many performances to prepare us for competition season. Our team went from being classified as a large group to a small one, which is a different category in our competitions. Also we were not able to practice as much for a while and had to try to zoom practices which was… fun. But even though this wasn’t a typical season we made up for it in the end and it was still a great year.”
Although the RVDT was unable to compete as much as they traditionally do, they did participate in some virtual competitions and one hybrid one. They are incredibly proud of their performance at each of these. One of their biggest accomplishments was beating Dakota High School at the Detroit Regional.
“Last year we came close to beating them at this annual competition -I think we were just a few hundredths of a point away – so it made our win this year extra special,” Kabel shared.
According to Farrell, virtual competitions were not all that bad. They had their perks:
“It’s a little frustrating that we don’t get to do our dances in person, but the parts where we just watch everyone else being virtual has saved us time, so that’s nice.”
The RVDT dancers and coach all agree that this season has had its ups and downs. There were times when there felt like there were significantly more stormy nights than sunny days, but they worked hard to stay positive. They are all proud of and happy with how their season turned out, and they will keep the lessons the learned on this journey with them.
“What I took away from this year is you only have so much time so don’t waste it,” Sikkelee shared. “Obviously, this past year was crazy and a lot of people feel robbed, as they should. As a team, we lost a lot of time we could have had to improve. But, our coach and captains were able to be super focused and diligent to keep us working hard to get us where we needed to be. Next year, I am going to try to not waste any of the time I have and always try to push myself and my team as much as I can and just enjoy everything while it lasts.”