NEW ULM - As a longtime coach and former Dance Team competitor, New Ulm Cathedral Sonics coach Missy Marti is trying to raise awareness about a sport not a lot of people know much about.
Competitive Dance Team has been around in the state of Minnesota for more than 40 years and the first State Competition at the High School level was held in the mid 1970s.
The sport was first recognized by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) in 1996. Marti, who competed for New Ulm High School, began as an assistant coach at New Ulm Cathedral during the 2001-02 school year and became the head coach in 2002-03. Since then, the Sonics have built a solid reputation as one of the better teams in south central Minnesota. They have participated in 11 state tournaments since 1997 and six since Marti took over the program in 2002.
The Cathedral Sonics dance team practices their high kick routine.
"It's very exciting for both the girls and the school," Marti said. "When you get to that level, it becomes expected of you and the school, it just looks good for the program and in turn it helps us gain more dancers because of it. When you're a successful team, people want to be a part of it, so we try to keep that tradition going."
Dance Team competition takes up a good portion of the school year schedule. Teams begin practicing in late October and the season concludes with the state meet, now at the Target Center in Minneapolis, in the middle of February.
Like all sports, fatigue and injuries make their place and disrupt team chemistry at times.
History of Dance Team in Minnesota
In the mid-1970s, interested dance team advisors in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area met to organize the first State Dance team Competition which was held at Anoka High School. In the early years of the dance team competition, the winner of the state tournament was in charge of and hosted the next year's event.
This concept created an incredible amount of work and a lot of responsibility for both the school and the dance team. Advisors served as judges, but there were no regulations to guide the number and type of competitions. During the late 1970s dance teams began to hire judges for the State tournament, but there was no formal training for judges other than their experience as former dance team members.
In 1980, the state tournament was moved to St. Olaf College, and the state champion from the prior year was still responsible for the organization and administration of the tournament.
On August 23, 1980, a group of 11 advisors from throughout the state met at Minnetonka High School to discuss dance team issues and to find better ways to organize regular season and the
state tournament competition.
This meeting led to the formation of the Minnesota Association of Dancelines (MAD), the name chosen for the organization. A Board of Directors was elected, and the group began planning "State '81." During the initial year of competition there were 55 schools.
The first Judges' and Coaches' Clinic took place in the fall of 1983, and the State tournament was moved to St. Cloud State University. In 1984, the State tournament moved to the Minneapolis Auditorium and functioned comfortably there until the move to the St. Paul Civic Center in 1989. In 1995, the University of Minnesota became the state tournament site. This change coincided with a change in the name of the coaches
organization, the Minnesota Association of Dance Teams (MADT).
In the fall and winter of 1995, member schools of the Minnesota State High School League began a
discussion with MADT and, on March 20, 1996, the League's Representative Assembly voted to
include girls dance team as a League-sponsored athletic activity.
The 2012 tournament at the Target Center in Minneapolis marked the 38th year of dance
"A lot of people think it's dance line, it's girls, cute, pretty, they dance on the sideline of a football game," Marti said. "That's not what we are, if people would come out and see what we are, they would realize that these girls work hard, they sweat, they get sore muscles, they get injured. It's amazing to see the challenge of the girls at a state tournament. They're doing things that I couldn't imagine. They're turning five times in a row and they're doing leaps that are just powerful. You have to see it to believe it.
"And I think too, it's Dance Team, it's not Dance Line anymore, and the High School League is starting to see us more as a sport, and it's just evolving," Marti said. "I think people can see that too by the high school league numbers. We're gaining teams all the time and it's one of the state tournament team revenues - for girls I think we're number one for bringing in revenue."
New Ulm Tanzreihe coach Joanie Hiltner is also actively trying to get more fans educated and aware of the sport.
Competitions usually take place on Saturday's and according to Hiltner, they last all day. Most competitions have about five teams to as many as 15 teams competing at once.
Dance Team competition consists of Jazz Funk and High Kick routines. Each team does a presentation in each category and then they are judged by a panel of five to seven judges. Each judge has to go through a specific training process. There are standard judges and a superior judge at every competition, who has the final say if there is a discretion.
"The main criteria is choreography, your technique, the routine effectiveness, your stamina, there are a variety of things, and then they're given points from one to 10, based on different categories," Hiltner said.
Of course, a team's score is left up to every single individual judge. According to Erin Kruesi, who runs the blog mnhsdanceteam.blogspot.com, the scoring is based on "rank points."
On her blog, Kruesi goes on to give an example. She gives an example of a four-team competition and it reads as follows:
"Say there were four teams in a meet. Judge No. 1 gives the teams 75, 34, 66, and 87 points respectively. The tab room would assign a "rank" to the highest scoring team first (87 points), giving them a "first place" or "1" rank. Then go down the list and assign the second place (75 points), third place (66 points), and fourth place (34 points) team from that one judge's scores. Each individual judge has this done to all of his/her scores turned in at the end of the meet.
"Then we change from looking at the judge's scores to looking at all the scores and ranks earned by a single team," the blog went on to say. "Typically, larger meets drop one "low" (good) rank, and two "high" (bad) ranks. This makes sure one bad opinion (or one overly good opinion) doesn't skew the result. The ranks remaining for your team are added together to get a "total rank." The team with the lowest total rank wins."
Despite the fact that a lot of people are unaware of the sport, it continues to grow in numbers each year. According to MSHSL.org, the sport had 4,495 competitors statewide in High Kick and 3,863 in Jazz in 2011, with 172 schools competing in High Kick and 162 in Jazz.
The teams practice 10 hours per week, working on a variety of kicks, turns and other details to perfect the routine.
"Just like any sport, they all have to work really, really hard," Hiltner said. "They have to continue improving their individual skills and they have to work together as a team to bring the whole dance together. It's really a great opportunity for them to expand their dance skills individually, and they get to learn the life lessons of working in a team atmosphere and working with different personalities."
Marti has been coaching long enough that she's seen some of her former athletes go on to bigger and better things once they graduate high school.
"We have these girls from seventh through 12th grade, and then they go on to be a Vikings cheerleader or they go on to be some other basketball cheerleader and they keep going and I guess that's impressive as well," Marti said. "Just teaching these girls how to be a young lady too, we're teaching them a lot."
Marti has seen the sport continue to grow and improve over the years. She admits that she would have a tough time with a lot of the moves now.
"The things that these girls are doing and the dances that they're doing are just unbelievable," Marti said. "The choreography is creative and just when you thought you've seen everything, some team whips something out and you think, 'gosh, that was amazing.'"
New Ulm Tanzreihe
Hiltner is in her second year of coaching the New Ulm High School team, called the Tanzreihe. She competed in high school and she even competed at the state tournament for her high school. She has about 14 girls out for the sport this year, down one from last year.
Despite having a fairly young team this year, Hiltner is impressed by what she's seen so far.
"I've got a pretty young team, the majority of my team is freshmen and eighth-graders, but for their age level, they're very, very talented and they impress me a lot," Hiltner said.
Hiltner said the New Ulm squad of young and old and she's in the process of getting everyone to jell as a team.
"I've got some girls on my team that have more experience dancing and some newer girls that are just starting dance," she said. "
Hiltner, along with assistant coach Ashley Firle, is trying to build up the reputation of the Tanzreihe.
"One of my goals is to continue to build up the dance program," she said via e-mail. "It is a great opportunity for young female athletes to not only increase their dance abilities but to gain valuable team and leadership skills that they can use throughout their high school career and beyond. I encourage other female student athletes who have an interest in dance to join the dance team."
Hiltner said she loves her job as a coach.
"The New Ulm Tanzreihe has a wonderful group of dedicated dancers, whom I am honored to coach," she said.
New Ulm opens the season December 8.
New Ulm Cathedral Sonics
New Ulm Cathedral has a history of success in the sport of Dance Team.
The Sonics won the Class A High Kick Title in 2000.
While the state tournament has eluded them over the last few years, they once again have high hopes as they turn a young squad into a more experienced one.
This year, the Sonics are made up mainly of seventh-and eighth-graders. While it may be tough at first dealing with new competitors, Marti is looking forward down the road when the team gets better, and she's hoping they can get back to the state level soon.
"It's very encouraging," she said. "We can get them in at this young age and kind of teach them the ropes. Maybe a year or two down the road we'll be really successful."
The Sonics have 18 girls out for Dance Team this year, up considerably from less than a dozen a year ago.
"We went through a streak where we had a lot of girls, and then we dropped down to probably 12 or 10 or nine," Marti said. "This year we gained, the bulk of them seventh- and eighth-graders, basically we doubled our team size and now we have 18 girls out."
The team's assistant coach is Heidi Schwab. There are no juniors or seniors on the team. The captains are sophomores McKenna Mages and Catherine Miller.
"Talent-wise, I think they're right up there, it's just kind of getting all of that tuned in and figured out," Marti said.
The Sonics opened the season Dec. 1 at Apple Valley.