The Juneau-Douglas High School dance team will be competing at the Universal Dance Association’s National Dance Team Championship on Saturday (6 a.m. Juneau time) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
“It has been many years since the team has gone to compete,” team mentor and nationals coach Leslie Dahl said. “This is a huge competition.”
Dahl began coaching in 1986, retired three times, and has compiled 18 years of coaching experience, including every nationals competition and guiding JDHS to dance titles in California, Florida and Japan.
“We want to re-inspire dancers and dance teams in our community,” Dahl said. “We need to get our Juneau kids out among the very best, so they can see what is happening in the world of dance, rub shoulders with the best, and raise the bar for themselves.”
Coaches include Jodi Watts and Kayla Price and assistant coaches are Alex Brown and Julie Tran.
“I have coached every one of these girls that are coaching now,” Dahl said. “But none of them have actually coached a team at nationals, so that is why I am helping with these events.”
The UDA National Dance Team competition features over 400 teams in the junior high, varsity and all-star levels. JDHS will compete in the varsity program level, which features seven divisions.
The team will perform two routines in the small division (under 14 on the floor), one in Pom and one in Hip Hop, competing against 80 teams in each routine. Many of those teams compete each year.
If the team advances from the preliminary rounds early Saturday in either dance, they will compete in the semifinals and, hopefully, finals.
“We are a very hard-working team,” JDHS senior captain Hannah Cassell said. “We love Pom and Hip Hop equally. I am very proud of our team for making it this far and working so hard this season. We are more like a family than a team.”
The team’s preparation for the national competition has included some eight-hour days, as well as the daily grind of school studies, performing for local sports fans and fundraising.
A lot of fundraising, in fact. The roughly $36,000 raised took nearly three years.
“We are all very thankful for the support the community of Juneau and our families and coaches have given us,” Cassell said. “And we are very excited to compete in the warm Florida weather of course.”
The UDA fees to stay at the Walt Disney Resort, where the competitions are held in four different venues, tallied $18,000 alone and includes lodging, bus transportation among venues and competition fees. Meals are not included. Dahl said previous coach Krista Baxter was conservative with spending and the team had a good start with funds.
Each team member had to raise $1,800 in sponsors this Fall plus an individual team fee of $400.
The team could not just pay their way to compete. They had to qualify at an UDA summer camp in which each girl is judged at the end of camp. The team average has to prevail with 10 or more girls qualifying. JDHS hosted a camp that featured three UDA officials and had participation from Ketchikan, Thunder Mountain high School and local middle schools.
The team was given permission from the Juneau School District to travel as long as they had an established criteria in place, which included individual fund raising goals, dance skills, no unexcused absences, a certain number of excused absences, no missed deadlines, be grade eligible and have no school rules infractions.
The Pom and Hip Hop routines have not been seen at local basketball games. The pieces were choreographed by Southern Californians Carrie Smith and Kaitlin Collins. An original choreographer cancelled three days before she was to bring the routine to the JDHS team. The present routines are extremely advanced and were previewed for friends and family on Monday night. The Hip Hip routine features black leather jackets and red tights. The Pom dance highlights the teams roots with “Alaska” written on their blue, white and silver costumes and the theme is ice and cold, with the poms resembling snowballs.
“We think the theme will spark interest,” Dahl said. “The costumes look like fur and Alaskan. They were warm last night in the JDHS gym, I can’t imagine what they will feel like in Florida.”
The team will practice the routines outside in Florida as teams are not allowed in the venue until performances.
Coach Watts danced for Dahl in 1995 when JDHS won three first place titles in California and competed in the International Dance Team Championship in Japan. The team also swept the international titles.
“We weren’t going to go to Japan,” Dahl said. “We thought that was crazy, but the community sold out two of our shows and we had to have a third. We never expected to win. Japan was a pretty special experience. We tried everything. We were in a strictly Japanese speaking area and had guides. It was in the summer and about 99 percent humidity and we marched in like the Olympics in front of 40,000 spectators.”
In 1999 and 2000, the nationals were moved to Florida with the sponsorship of ESPN. The finalists were televised and JDHS made the “Stand show” in those years. Coach Price danced for Dahl in those championship performances.
“We aren’t sure how we are going to do,” Dahl said. “This is our first effort. In previous years we had lots of competitions leading up to something like this. When you haven’t had major competitions for almost 14 years... I want to emphasize how hard this team has worked. Their goal began last spring and they had to elevate their skill level very quickly in order to be able to attend a competition like this and none of them have ever been at a competition like this. They are definitely going to make Juneau proud. I can’t say they are going to get first place, that would be improbable given that the teams they compete against have been going for years and years. But we are going to make a far better showing than most teams do that go for the first time.”
Now, a new age of dancers will have the chance to bring the JDHS smiles and athleticism to the national stage.
“We are feeling a little anxious and a little nervous,” dance team first lieutenant Brandi Hall said. “Overall, everyone feels pretty good about the routines. We have done a lot of work and prepared pretty well. It is just the part of getting there now that is taking so long.”
Hall, a senior, is a third-year dance member. The team earned the top Superior ranking at last year’s Southeast Region V basketball tournament, one of the only venues available for the team to showcase their work and one that is an annual ‘adjudication,’ meaning dance squads compete against themselves, not other teams.
“It is hard to say what the competition will be like,” Hall said. “The team hasn’t been to a venue like this in 13 years. It is going to be a lot of new experiences but overall it is just exciting. It will be new having our technical skills and dance skills compared to other teams, it is just a lot of new territory we are going to discover.”
The complete JDHS team includes Cassell, Hall, 1st Lieutenant Corby Abel, officers Sarah Endicott, Brooke Moss, Haley Ogoy, Adrienne Sypeck and Krista Yadao, and teammates Marial Carrillo, Maureen Carrillo, Varsha Chhabria, Le’Neaha DeTienne, Hannah Harrington, Randi Held, Brenda Lamas, Kylah Moises, Ashleigh Rich, Jessica Sjoroos, Amanda Stevenson, Anna Tran, Ashley Wittwer, Jasmin Yadao, Mingming Yang, and manager Adriana Pintang.
While the team is anticipating the venue there is also another highly sought pasttime looming.
“We want to bask in the sun a little bit,” Hall stated.