St. Thomas Dance Team wins its first national championship

The champs!

St. Thomas Dance Team wins its first national championship

In a season that started with a demanding conditioning program in August … and evolved into twice-a-day training sessions prior to national competition … the University of St. Thomas Dance Team won its first national championship in the open division at the National College Dance Team Championships on Sunday, Jan. 15.

The Universal Dance Association finals were held at Walt Disney World in Orlando and will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2 starting sometime in March.

St. Thomas took first place by defeating dance powerhouse Orange Coast College, of Costa Mesa, Calif. It was the first year that 12-time defending champion Orange Coast had to settle for anything less than first place in the competition’s jazz category.

College dance teams compete in one of three divisions, based on the schools’ NCAA classification. St. Thomas was competing against 26 teams in the open division. Teams enter the competition pre-ranked from a videotaped routine submitted to the national office in early November. 

The routines are judged and the top two teams with the highest scores in the open division receive an all-expenses-paid bid to the competition.  The Tommies placed second to Orange Coast College in the pre-ranking and had their travel and accommodations paid by the championships.

"It felt really good going into the competition in second place,” said dance team coach Alysia Anderson.  “We felt it was an ideal spot, having secured one of two paid bids but not in the top spot quite yet.  It left a window of opportunity to move up in the rankings and was definitely a driving force in the team's motivation."

At the competition, Anderson said the team members felt good about their performance in the preliminary round. They entered the finals in first place after topping Orange Coast College by a wide margin. "It was a thrill to beat Orange Coast, but we knew we needed to step the performance up a notch.  It was obvious Orange Coast would come back fighting in the final round.  We were confident our performance could be much stronger in finals, so it was actually good we didn't have a perfect performance in prelims.  We didn't want to peak too early."

The St. Thomas underdogs became something of a favorite at the competition, with spectators and other teams showing support.  "It was unbelievable the number of coaches, dancers and spectators who were complimenting our routine, saying they loved it so much they got goosebumps, and telling us they thought we would win it all," Anderson recalled.

Other Midwest teams who ultimately joined in cheering for the Tommies were from St. Cloud State University, Minnesota State University-Moorhead, St. Benedict’s, Gustavus Adolphus, North Dakota State University, University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin- Madison.

There was a standing ovation when St. Thomas was declared the open division national champion for 2006.

St. Thomas also performed a second routine in the hip-hop category. Hip-hop was added to the national championships in 2004 and is growing each year. Last year, St. Thomas placed second in a hip-hop field of only six teams.  This year, the Tommies placed second in a field of 17 teams. 

"It's really neat to say we are strong in both jazz and hip-hop,” Anderson said.  “It not only shows the versatility of the team, but also how we were able to prepare two strong routines at the same time."

St. Thomas and Orange Coast College flip-flopped places in hip-hop, as OCC went home with the first-place hip-hop trophy this year.  "We were thrilled to have placed second; we would have been excited with anything in the top 10,"  Anderson said.

The University of Minnesota, meanwhile, mirrored St. Thomas’ finishes, but in Division 1-A, with a first in jazz and second in hip-hop.

Anderson said the St. Thomas team already is brainstorming ideas for next year. With only three seniors on this year’s squad, she predicted they will come back with another strong team. 

Captains for this year’s team are juniors Rachel Brenk and Kara Eliason, and seniors Katherine Konrad and Eileen Weinberger.

Other team members are senior Meghan Anderson; juniors Nikki Bergene, Leah Burkard, Julie Hatlestad, Andrea LaVallie; sophomores Katelyn Breuss, Emily Bryce, Stacey Koesters, Alyssa Lefebvre, Jennifer Leone, Natalie Norenberg, Kali Pendzimas and Allison Scholz; and freshmen Sarah Akin, Lindsey Niesen, Lisa Orth, Cara Swenson and Leigh Threlkeld.

In addition to the team’s dedication and hard work, Anderson said credit to St. Thomas’ success also goes to choreographer Karl Mundt, of Eugene, Ore., and trainer Stephen McCarthy from Extreme Training.

Mundt, she said, developed a highly technical routine that focused on performance and audience connection. McCarthy developed a training program that included weights, agility and flexibility workouts, and metabolic runs. The training helped reduce injuries and helped team members to be in peak condition for the finals.