The Michigan dance team is preparing for a run at a national title
Courtesy of the U-M dance team
In a brick-lined room with blue mats on the side, the 21 women were mostly silent. Instructions and criticism from the coach cut through the still air inside the dance studio at Michigan’s Central Campus Recreation Building.
Two days remained until their departure for the only competition the University of Michigan dance team would compete in all year, nationals, an annual chance to dispel the pom-pom label and show a wider audience their skills.
They finished practice late on Tuesday night with one hip-hop routine, two minutes of sweat and flying through the air like Cirque de Soleil minus the trapeze.
Behind the easy cheers and routines performed at games, nationals are what it's all about for members of the Michigan dance team.
They areÂ not on scholarship and usually shell out between $4,000 and 5,000 a year to participate.Â Some take second jobs for this. Others have sacrificed spring break because they could pay for one trip, and dance team took precedence.
All for this week.
The national championships at Disney World, where Michigan will head Thursday for this weekend’s competition, are the culmination of a year’s worth of work.
The routines are as intricate as a football play, the synchronization as critical as a race car driver hitting all of his marks along a track, the rhythm as important as tempo to a golfer striking a perfect iron.
Over and over, they work on tricks. This particular day they have been struggling with handstands and a difficult maneuver requiring two dancers to interlock arms, one to jump on another’s back and then fly into the air still attached to their partner. They jump 3-to-5 feet. All that’s missing is a skateboard or snowboard to qualify it as an extreme sport maneuver.
“That’s one thing,” 21-year-old captain Kimberly Lehnert said. “I think we’ve gotten so used to trying new tricks and trying new things that we’re not afraid to just throw ourselves. And we’ve had people get hurt.”
In that moment, as your bones and ligaments scream just watching, it’s an easy realization.
These women are athletes. No question about that.
“Say that louder,” Lehnert said.
Then she laughs.
Throwing T-Shirts into the crowd and waving the pom-poms and yelling ‘Let’s Go Blue’ is a small part of what they really do. More visible, for sure, but there’s a reason the 21 team members - only 14 compete in nationals - show up two weeks before school starts for intense two-a-day practices, complete with three hours of conditioning and technique to go with learning the actual routines from the Los Angeles-based choreographer Dee DeFillipio.
It’s because this stuff is hard. Painful. And the long hours are the only way they can improve on last year’s sixth-place finish in jazz and 11th in hip-hop.
Courtesy of the U-M dance team
“I’ll dance with a broken wrist,” one dancer said Tuesday night as she walked and then sat along the mirror on the far side of the studio. “It’s no big deal.”
With no trainer available and the routine and intensity growing as each week progresses toward this one, Michigan’s coach, Valerie Stead Potsos, says she averages a couple of hospital visits a year with her athletes.
Slipped discs, injured backs and in the case of the one dancer, a potential
Nothing that a normal team on scholarship at school doesn’t go through.Â
“A lot of us have been doing this since high school, middle school,” said the team’s other 21-year-old captain, Olivia Dunn. “Back then, nobody was like ‘Oh, those are the national dance championships.’ No one cared what Kimmy did outside of school, that she won a solo competition for dance that weekend. I’m sure she didn’t walk around screaming it.
“Now that you’re at a bigger university, you wish, at times, it was more known because you hear all these other sports teams doing so well.”
Instead they settle for this: When they show up at nationals, many opposing teams marvel at how Michigan’s athletes balance intense course loads with an intense practice regimen. Dunn is going into engineering when she graduates. Lehnert is visiting a New York City law school in two weeks.
That’s for a few weeks and months from now. Right now, their concentration is placed in theÂ Â wood-floored room in the CCRB with the glass wall overlooking the entrance to the facility, the one where crowds have sometimes gathered unsure what they were watching.
Inevitably, someone recognizes them as “those are the girls on the court. What are they doing,” Lehnert said.
The answer is simple. Trying to win a national championship.