Go to a high school gym on a winter Saturday, and there's a chance you might see high kicks, leaps and precision choreography instead of a basketball game. Area high school dance teams are in the thick of their 2013-2014 season, competing and perfecting their routines for section tournaments in February.
Competitive dancers haven't always been as common a sight in southwest Minnesota. For example, Marshall High School's own dance program has been around a little less than 10 years. But during that time, dance teams at MHS and many other area schools have been growing.
"In our area, there's kind of a trend," said Chris Nerdahl, head coach of the Yellow Medicine East dance team. "In Class A, we have a lot of really good teams in this area."
Independent file photo
Dancers not only bring energy, athleticism and flexibility to the court, they also bring passion, intensity and a bit of attitude — traits that can often be seen through their facial expressions during a performance.
Amber Jans, head coach for the MHS dance team, said when she came to the Marshall area from Prior Lake, "I was very surprised with how many dance teams there are." Jans said it's good to see the potential for competitive dance to keep growing as an activity in the region.
Marshall High School serves as one example of competitive dance getting more attention in the area. The MHS dance team was formed in 2005 with 17 varsity dancers, said Jackie Olson, the team's first head coach. Since then, the team has grown to include multiple squads and started hosting its own invitational tournament.
"I'm very proud of where it's gone," Olson said.
Olson said competitive dance has been a high school activity in southwest Minnesota since well before the beginning of the MHS team. At the time Olson first proposed starting a dance team to the Marshall School Board, there were already dance teams competing at Tracy-Milroy-Balaton, Yellow Medicine East High School, and Lakeview.
But even among established dance teams, there has still been growth in the past several years. Nerdahl said since she started coaching, the YME dance team has grown to 46 girls and has expanded to include students in seventh and eighth grade. And there's no shortage of competition.
Lakeview dance team head coach Abbie Westby said she's noticed a trend of growing dance team sizes in the past several years. Now, even small schools may have enough students for both a varsity and JV squad.
"That's huge for a dance team," Westby said, because it gives younger dancers an opportunity to build up their skills and confidence. Lakeview is among the area schools that have a JV group for its jazz dancers.
Westby and Carly Dahle, head coach of the Canby/Minneota dance team, said they saw a lot of students try out for dance this year.
"The attention is there," Westby said, although not everyone who tries out will stay with the team.
"Not everyone decides it's for them," Dahle said.
One plus about having more area dance teams is a greater number of nearby tournaments.
"It's nice to have those competitions close to home," Westby said. Among area schools, she said, attendance at invitational tournaments is "kind of a trade-off back and forth. We'll go to their tournaments, and they'll come to ours."
For larger dance teams like Marshall's, the annual home tournament is a welcome break from traveling to compete, and it also draws a larger hometown audience.
For MHS dance team members, "It's nice to be able to have fans to see them compete," Jans said.
Of course, hosting a competition is also a chance for area dance teams to showcase their activity and attract new participants and supporters.
Dahle said hosting the upcoming Camden Conference dance championship is going to be an exciting opportunity for the Canby/Minneota dance team.
"We've been advertising in the local newspaper, and I know parents have been spreading the word," she said.
Why has competitive dance caught on in southwest Minnesota? Area coaches said there are a few possible reasons.
"I think it's because parents and schools are promoting diversity and trying new things," Westby said. Dance team adds another possibility for winter athletics.
"It's another option for girls if they're not in basketball," Dahle agreed.
Westby and Olson said the success of dance programs like Just For Kix has also added to girls' interest in competing with a high school dance team. Olson said interest from older dance students was one of the reasons she began advocating for a team at MHS.
"The girls wanted more, and some other towns had it," Olson said.
Beyond that, the draws include the chance to work together as a team and the thrill of putting on a good show.
"It's one of those things that's just a rush," Westby said.
The drive to succeed and meet goals is another motivator for many dancers, Olson and Dahle said. For the Canby/Minneota girls, Dahle said, "We like to see how much improving we can do, week by week."
"I think competition is a good thing," Olson said. "It's not all about winning. But it is nice to see where you're at and to improve your score."
There are upcoming home tournaments for some area dance teams. YME hosts its home tournament today, and Lakeview will host a tournament Jan. 31. Canby hosts the Camden Conference dance championships on Jan. 25.
It all leads up to sections tournaments in February. Section competition for teams in Section 3AA, which includes Marshall, will be Feb. 1 at Mound Westonka High School. Section 3A, which includes TMB, Lakeview, Canby/Minneota, YME and Wabasso, will have its section tournament in Montevideo on Feb. 8.