The road to nationals proved challenging for the Northeastern University Dance Team, but they handled it with grace and style, breaking two team records.
By Samantha Zagha
The Northeastern University dance team returned to Boston in April after four days in Daytona Beach at the National Dance Alliance Finals, capping off a year of intense training. This training led the team to place fifth and ninth overall in their respective divisions, the highest placement in Northeastern dance team history.
But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the team encountered numerous challenges.
“The road to nationals is a very long process, and one that all of us are doing for the first time as a team because we haven’t been able to go to nationals for the past three years,” said fourth year co-captain Katelyn Andrade. The team had to get creative with how they trained and even recruited new dancers.
“We [held] a lot of zoom practices,” said Kaitlyn Simpson, a fourth year student who serves as the marketing chair for the team. “We came back in the fall and practiced outside for a little bit, but we weren’t performing at any games.”
The recruitment process was also shifted to virtual.
“I auditioned virtually [in] spring 2021 because of COVID, which was a new experience for me. I submitted videos of myself performing choreography that [were] sent to all applicants, four dances total, and also went on a brief interview,” second year student Hailey Widdison recalled.
Though the virtual system did effectively gather new members, it challenged team morale, spirit and bonding. However, when the first step to nationals, known as “NDA camp,” took place, the team’s identity began to develop.
“I didn’t get the chance to meet anyone in person until NDA camp in the summer,” second year student Emily Miller said. “Everyone was super welcoming when I got there and included me in everything.”
But the intensity of the competition was harder for a fledgling team to endure.
“While it is all dance, there is such a difference in energy, environment, and performance that I learned about when walking into NDA camp,” Miller continued.
NDA camp takes place in August and determines not only who will qualify for nationals, but who will receive a sponsorship for the trip.
At NDA camp, the Huskies “compete against other teams in the area to get a paid bid to nationals,” Andrade said. “Our goal that weekend was to get a gold bid, which is the highest paid bid, [and] really the only thing that would allow us to go.”
When NDA camp had come to a close, Andrade said, “we ended up getting a gold bid for the first time in Northeastern history, which was really exciting. From there we just had to keep training.”
This training is a rigorous, yearlong process with athleticism at its forefront. Aside from typical practices four times per week, cross training is required to maintain cardiovascular fitness. The team began agility training with Club Sports this season to prepare themselves to endure their two-and-a-half minute routines.
“Cross training is a really important aspect of our team, and it’s something we like to incorporate into our practices a lot,” explained fourth year co-captain Isabella Cho. “Our coach is a fitness instructor, so something we do a lot during practice is we’ll do [our full] routine and we’ll go and do 20 jumping jacks, or 10 burpees, and do another full [routine] right away. That might not seem like it’s the craziest thing ever, but our routines are two and a half minutes of straight cardio and actually are a lot more intense than they may seem, so it’s really important to build up that stamina as a team.”
While preparing for nationals remained at the forefront, the dance team also needed to keep in mind another formidable commitment – performing regularly at Northeastern’s athletic games.
“We were working towards nationals all season while also doing game day, so it’s a lot to juggle,” Andrade said.
Practices are spent preparing for both game day dances and the team’s routine for nationals, so time management was key.
“Game day dances are more focused on crowd pleasing; we dance with our hair down, it’s more about getting the crowd really pumped up and excited for the game,” Cho explained. “We are training as hard as other sports do but we also have to think about the aesthetic aspect of it. Even though we’re doing all these hard, difficult, athletic movements, we have to do it with a smile on our face and we have to perform for a crowd.”
The culmination of the game day season for the dance team was their senior night at the last women’s basketball home game of the season, against Towson, in February.
“All the younger members of the team set up this really nice celebration for us,” Andrade recalled. “I felt like the routines that we put out on the court that day were some of our best because we really felt like this is our last time performing on this court, so we have to give it our all and the whole rest of the team was really behind us on that. It was more a celebration of the four years we had given the team.”
Yet, there was little time to soak up the celebration. The team headed to Daytona a few short weeks later to perform their routines on the national stage for the first time as a team due to the pandemic.
“Our first day of nationals, we flew out of Logan [International Airport] at a nice six in the morning, but none of us were tired because we were so excited to get on the road,” Cho said. “As soon as we got off the bus in Daytona, it was time to practice.”
The dancers made last minute changes to their routine and got used to the different flooring.
“We do a lot of turn sections throughout our routine where the type of floor can really affect your technique, so it was a really high pressure situation,” she said.
The dancers had 10 minutes to practice on the dance floor, and then it was back to practicing wherever they could find space: the street, an empty room, even the beach.
The competition started with the preliminary round. “Five judges give feedback right away and they give us a rating on technique, difficulty, choreography, performance and creativity,” Simpson said. “We went into the finals round in sixth place, but we knew we could get a higher score than we got that day so we were really excited to show what we had worked on.” The dancers tirelessly practiced between competitions to build “new muscle memory for the changes we made.”
The final performance, Andrade said, was “really, really high pressure because this was the last time we ever were performing that dance and that was a culmination of an entire year of work in one two minute routine, and if anything was off then it’s over and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But it was clear their hard work had paid off: “We felt like we did the best we could have ever done.”
The team moved up a place in the rankings, finishing fifth in the country and the highest placing dance team in Northeastern history.
Despite the victory, Andrade said, “we didn’t have time to celebrate because we had our hip hop routine three hours later. It’s a really, really competitive decision, but I’m really happy with how we performed.” The team placed ninth, breaking another team record.
“Then we finally got to relax for the first time in nine months,” Cho remarked.
Now that COVID regulations have been loosened and competitions are fully back in swing, the future of the team looks bright.
“How we placed this last year really goes to show that we have a fighting chance against other talented collegiate dance teams,” Widdison said. “Having not gone to nationals for five years, it was hard to say where we stood, but knowing that we have placed well and were so close to the teams ahead of us, we now have the motivation to just keep working hard to get to the next level. This past year was definitely a turning point for NUDT.”