The real dancing stars are not on a Hollywood ballroom set, mugging for television cameras, and hoping to win a mirror-ball trophy. No, the real stars of dancing – the University of St. Thomas Dance Team – can be found on campus in St. Paul and occasionally in Orlando, Fla., at the collegiate dance championships, where the Tommies just won their fourth national title.
The team competes every January in jazz and hip hop categories in the Open Division at the College Cheerleading and Dance Team Championships, held Jan. 14-16 this year, at the Walt Disney World Wide World of Sports Complex. The team won hip hop for the first time and placed second in jazz.
The competition is the largest collegiate championships in the United States and is attended annually by teams from around the nation and Puerto Rico. The Open Division includes Division II and III, and smaller schools. Schools are limited to competition in two categories.
Since 2005 the Tommies have never placed lower than second in jazz or hip hop, winning jazz titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and runner-up honors in hip hop for the past six years. This year, the Tommies were determined to dethrone three-time defending hip hop champion Lindenwood University of St. Louis, Mo.
Coaches Alysia Ulfers and Pamela Gleason prepared the team well. According to Ulfers, the head coach, the Tommies gave strong performances in the Jan. 15 preliminary rounds, placing first with both their jazz and hip hop routines. The scores were within tenths of a point among the top three teams in each category
"We knew the team had the drive to win hip hop, but when Pam and I saw that we had placed first in prelims, we decided to tell the team we were actually in second. It turned out to be the right strategy because thinking they had something to fight for gave them the one last spark they needed for finals," Ulfers said.
On Jan. 16, in one of the most competitive hip hop finals the competition has seen, it was a duel between St. Thomas and Lindenwood. With the final score tied, the judges’ picks for first place broke the tie, 5-4, and gave the national championship to St. Thomas.
"There is no doubt that Lindenwood had a great performance and it was a close race, but I am most proud of the fact that having thought they were in second place, our team fought hard, and turned in the performance of a lifetime in the finals to win it," Ulfers said. The University of Puerto Rico-Bayamon finished third, followed by Avila University (Missouri) and the College of New Jersey rounding out the top five.
With their first-ever national hip hop title in hand, the Tommies went into the jazz finals with momentum. Once again, the competition was tough and a fight among the top three teams from the prelims: St. Thomas, Orange Coast College (Costa Mesa, Calif.) and Lindenwood.
"Everyone had strong performances so we knew the win could go to any of us," Ulfers said.
The Tommies placed second, finishing 1.4 points behind Orange Coast College. This marks the seventh year that the jazz title has gone back and forth between St. Thomas and Orange Coast College.
"First or second place, I'm so proud that year after year we contend for national championships,” Ulfers said. Lindenwood University finished in third, followed by Avila University (Missouri), Northwest Missouri State University and UW-Eau Claire. The College of St. Benedict (St. Joseph, Minn.) finished 10th and St. Cloud State University finished 12th.
The championships will air nationally on ESPN and ESPN2. Dates and times are available on www.varsity.com, as well as videos and photos from the competition.
“Each year the competition gets better and better, so to have placed in the top two for the past six years in both jazz and hip hop says a lot about the talent and dedication of our team members,” Ulfers said. “But I am also extremely proud of their sportsmanship and the way they represent themselves and St. Thomas at the national level.”