SYCAMORE – Less than an hour before tip-off of the boys basketball game against Burlington Central last Friday, Sycamore’s competitive dance team is running through its halftime routine in the dance room.
Typically the Spartanettes create a new dance number for each home game, but this week they’re performing their competition routine, a lyrical dance choreographed to a Boyce Avenue cover of Katy Perry’s hit song “Teenage Dream.”
When the 15 girls walk out at halftime to perform, the usual nerves hit for senior Emily Karsten.
“Out here, you’re dancing in front of people you know,” Karsten said. “It can be sometimes intimidating seeing your peers and members of the community.”
The two-minute routine is well-received by the crowd as coach Alyssa Pawola sits and watches from the front row.
A mere 12 hours later, the Spartanettes board a bus headed for Fieldcrest High School in Minonk, a 100-mile trek to their final competition tune-up before the Illinois High School Association sectional finals this Saturday at the same location.
“For games we get nervous whether the crowd will like our dance,” senior Alison Buick said. “At competitions it’s more of ‘Are our technical elements going to be well-received by the judges?’”
So is the life for high school competitive dance teams, balancing an unusual schedule that includes both official dance competitions against other teams and public performances for their towns.
Never has it been more difficult to manage than this season, the first under the IHSA label. If either DeKalb or Sycamore places in the top six at Saturday’s 14-team sectional, they will qualify for the IHSA state finals in Bloomington on Jan. 25.
But the preliminary round of the inaugural competitive dance state finals falls on the same date as the schools’ annual rivalry basketball games held at the Northern Illinois University Convocation Center. It’s a chance to perform in front of the largest crowd of the year at the biggest event of the winter season.
Timing may allow the teams to do both, but there’s also the possibility the two events would conflict.
“If that doesn’t work out we’re going to have a tough decision to make,” Pawola said. “I think we would look toward the whole team to kind of look at what everything means to us and weigh our options. We’re hoping we don’t have to.”
Karsten heard the good news sometime over the summer: For the first time, the IHSA voted to make competitive dance an official sport.
With it came the opportunity for official state championships under the same umbrella organization that hosts postseason events for all of Illinois’ mainstream sports.
Before this year, competitions were sponsored by TeamDance Illinois or the Illinois Dance Team Association. The two organizations still put on events, but Sycamore decided to compete in only IHSA competitions, hoping to become more familiar with the new standards and procedures.
Among the major changes is the way feedback is given to teams during in-season competitions. Teams used to receive recorded verbal notes synced with their music, but now IHSA judges give only a paragraph of written text.
“There’s a lot of similarities, but understanding and trying to pick up on what the judges are looking for in each of their rubrics is new,” Pawola said.
Yet for Karsten, the IHSA label means more than finally having an official state competition.
“People in the community that don’t really know a lot about the team, now if they hear that it’s endorsed by IHSA, it definitely puts a higher standard to it and it also gives people an understanding that we are finally a sport,” Karsten said. “Now that we are [IHSA] I think it helps a lot with people appreciating our efforts.”
After Sycamore finished second out of eight teams last Saturday, the Spartanettes were back in the dance room at practice on Monday.
For the first hour the team drills its competition routine, making final adjustments based on Saturday’s feedback from the judges.
Much like a coach’s playbook, their main routine is not static. It has consistently been tweaked since it was created at the beginning of the winter season.
But unlike most other sports, the responsibility for changes often falls to Karsten and Buick, the team’s senior co-captains. In addition to their dance roles, Karsten and Buick are charged with creating new routines almost each week for Sycamore’s home basketball games. The competition routine showcased last weekend has been in the works since November.
“The three of us got together, broke it down, wrote some stuff out and we did it piece-by-piece,” Pawola said. “Alison and Emily...they’ve done a lot of edits to the choreography as we’ve gone on and they’ve done some really awesome stuff.”
Even with the sectional finals less than a week away, the Spartanettes turn their attention away from the competition routine for the second hour of Monday’s practice. The seniors recently finished the choreography for the routine they plan to perform at the DeKalb-Sycamore game and start to teach it to the rest of the team for the first time.
For almost every other sport, it’d be a no-brainer. A shot at an IHSA state championship is always the top goal, the only goal.
But it’s easy to see how Sycamore and DeKalb are in a difficult spot, potentially having to prioritize between the two biggest events of the year. It highlights the complexity of what their team members seek to gain from the sport.
“We care about both just as much as the other,” Pawola said. “It’s great to be able to compete for ourselves, but we’re performers and we like performing for a crowd, and a crowd of people we know and care about.
“Competition we get that rush of being able to push ourselves and work towards higher things, and then at games it’s fun and that in itself pushes you.”