Drill team marches on to nationals

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2000

Head coach Leslie Dahl stood atop the main gym bleachers of Juneau-Douglas High School, flanked by assistant coaches Marit Carlson-Van Dort and Heidi Freeman. All had crossed arms as they critiqued the Juneau Dance-Drill Team's new jazz routine prior to a private performance for friends and relatives Wednesday.

The 16 smiling girls performed their leaping leg kicks, triple pirouettes and back scratchers in unison - at least it looked in unison to the untrained eye. Not to the coaches. Van Halen's ripping guitar scratched to a halt and Dahl and her assistants pointed out flaws.

``What just happened there? The judge just subtracted 25 points,'' Dahl said to the out-of-breath girls. ``Two girls were out of position. There are no second chances on that. It's gotta be right the first time. Let's do it again, 5-6-7-8. . .''

For the second year in a row, Juneau will compete in the National Dance-Drill Team Championships in Orlando, Fla. Dahl, head coach of the Juneau Dance-Drill Team for 14 years, said it's the biggest such competition in the country. ESPN will televise the event, and top teams will be shown on the sports network sometime in March.

So Dahl and her coaches wanted things just right.

The drill team is well known for its high standards. In 1997 it was crowned national champion in the Miss Dance-Drill USA Pageant in Long Beach, Calif. In 1995 it won three titles at the International Dance-Drill Competition in Nagoya, Japan. Past drill teams have performed at the Great Alaska Shootout and, last year, on national television in Orlando.

Juneau placed third in the prop routine and fifth in the pom last year in Orlando against nearly 140 different teams from around the country. Dahl said she believed this year's team could do even better.

Nine girls return from last year's nationals team, including Capt. Kathleen Bevens and 1st Lt. Brittany Troutt, both four-year members of the team. Dahl said that's why the drill team is traveling Outside for the second year in a row, which is unusual due to the expense.

``We wanted to take advantage of that experience,'' she said.

Dahl addressed the friendly crowd Wednesday while the girls were changing and expressed confidence in the pom routine, which involves precision movements with metallic crimson pom-poms set to car-themed music like Sammy Hagar's `Can't Drive 55' and the disco hit `Car Wash.'

``Our goal is to win the pom category,'' Dahl told the cheering crowd.

Dahl pointed out the girls have been working extremely hard to learn their routines.

``We've spent 81 hours in the gym from Jan. 2 until today (Wednesday),'' Dahl said. And, she added, the team has maintained a 3.5 overall GPA.

``January is always like this,'' said Troutt after Wednesday's performance. ``Homework, practice, occasionally sleep. Sleep is like a privilege.''

``We just hope we've trained enough so that if we get confused, our bodies will go on auto pilot,'' Dahl said.

The jazz routine, in particular, has taken up bunches of practice time. The routine demands more athleticism and dance skill than most of the drill team's performances.

``Lots of leaps and turns and different stuff,'' Dahl said. The triple pirouette - similar to a ballerina spinning on her toes - has taken weeks to perfect, Dahl said.

``It's very athletic but at the same time artistic,'' Dahl said of the jazz routine. ``You have to be artistic but you also want to entertain the crowd.''

The competition is stiff in the jazz category, Dahl said. Some drill team members have performed with Juneau Dance Unlimited or the Janice D. Holst Dancers, but most don't have the experience of some teams, where girls have had a lifetime of traditional dance training at big-city studios.

``There was a time we would never even compete in jazz,'' Dahl said. ``But we wanted to do something fresh.''

``This was a stretch for us,'' Bevens admitted the performance Wednesday. ``This is more of a studio dance category. We're more used to the pom and prop drills. There's definitely a lot more harder dance moves. It's fast and it's aerobically challenging.''

Dahl said Juneau will be among 135 teams in the pom category and 130 in the jazz. A crowd of several thousand will see Juneau's drill team perform under the bright lights and boom cameras in Orlando.

``You can't imagine the pressure,'' Dahl said. ``It's like each girl has been handed the basketball with two seconds left and asked to win the game.''

Troutt said that crowd will be full of other dance team members and their parents.

``Not a normal crowd, but trained eyes,'' Troutt said.

That's something she ought to be used to.

``We'll nail it.''

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