Varsity Dance Team competes at USA nationals, wins fourth place


“Full out, whole thing,” Dance coach Stephanie Anderson Ferris says as she starts the music. The dancers, trying their best to remember the new corrections and choreography changes that were just given, take their starting position. It’s the last five minutes of an 8:30 a.m. rehearsal on Friday, Feb. 17, one of many morning rehearsals to come. In exactly one week on Feb. 25, the Gunn Co-ed Varsity dance team will head to Anaheim to compete at the United Spirit Association Nationals.

This was a particularly unique year for Ferris and the dancers, as the team has been unable to attend USA Nationals for the past three years due to COVID-19 restrictions. While they participated in virtual competitions throughout the season, Nationals was the first time this group of dancers has competed in front of a live audience.

To prepare the dancers for this new competition environment, Ferris had the team practice their routine as often as possible. “The virtual competitions that we’ve done are nice because we get to compete with teams from all over the place, but it’s different because there’s no live audience screaming, yelling and amping up,” she said. “We’ve been really focusing on cleaning and making sure our formations are okay, as well as breaking through and keeping the energy up. Since they’ve never competed at live competitions before, they don’t necessarily understand how wild the energy is. So, learning how to really perform well has been the main thing that we’ve been working on so far.”

The rehearsals, occurring both before and after school, could not all be dedicated to working on the Nationals routine, however. The team also had to prepare for school events such as TEDx, boys’ basketball’s Senior Night and the Spring Sports Rally, creating a fair amount of stress for dancers like Dance Captain senior and The Oracle Features section editor Madison Yue. “For the past three days, we’ve had morning practices from 7:40 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. right before school, so it’s definitely been a lot of training for all of us,” she said. “We’re performing at the Spring Sports Rally today, and we just finished (the choreography) yesterday. It’s been a little chaotic having to go to Nationals this weekend while also performing for the Spring Sports Rally—there’s just a lot going on.”

With academic workloads and outside commitments, the team found it difficult to accommodate everyone’s schedules, leading many rehearsals to occur without the entire team present. Even for the very last rehearsal on Feb. 21, some dancers were unable to attend, meaning their performance on Feb. 25 was the first time running the routine through all together.

One final challenge presented itself at Nationals this year: It was the first time the team competed with poms in the “Varsity Song Pom” division. According to Ferris, this change was made mainly because the Nationals competition with the pom division occurs earlier in the year and therefore didn’t risk interfering with some dancers’ regional competitions for their personal dance studios outside of Gunn or with AP testing season.

Not to be confused with cheer, dance pom focuses on choreography using the poms, as well as dance technique. “Cheer typically doesn’t use poms when they compete at competitions since they’re lifting people,” Ferris said. “We’re using our poms the majority of the routine, and we’re doing turns, leaps, a kickline, a hip hop section and more formation changes as well as visuals.”

To showcase the variety of talents across the team, choreography for Nationals also incorporated styles of dance besides pom. Solos featured junior and Lifestyle section editor for The Oracle Becca Wu and senior Mylie Rodrigo in genres they excelled at: ballet and hip hop, respectively. “We really wanted to show that we are a well-rounded team, highlighting not only the pom techniques, but also the different individual strengths throughout our dance with the solos,” Yue said.

Despite never competing at Nationals as a team, the dancers found themselves with a fourth place finish in their division among strong competition from schools all across the U.S. In previous virtual competitions, the dancers had the option to re-record their routine until they were satisfied with the results. But this time, with only one shot to be nationally ranked, the team managed a performance with no deductions. “There were so many things that could have gone wrong in our dance,” Yue said. “Our aerials could have not been on time or someone could have dropped a pom, but they didn’t. I think we really performed well under pressure.”

For seniors such as Yue, this competition served as not only their first Nationals, but a bittersweet last as well. “Just being able to finally perform at Nationals for my last year was a memorable experience and one that I’ll never forget,” Yue said. “I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to end it any other way.”

Before the team’s performance, Ferris spoke to the dancers about the importance of leaving the stage with no regrets. Having trained these dancers for so long, their performance at Nationals was an emotional experience for Ferris. “When they were performing, I legitimately started crying,” she said. “It was just so much fun to see them in the zone and leaving it all on the floor. I was really pleased with how they did and very proud of them for pulling it off.”

For Ferris, Nationals also served as an opportunity to connect with old friends and find inspiration for the future. Her experiences as a student-athlete and judge built the foundation of empathy and creativity necessary to lead a team of dancers, as well as instilled in her a competitive drive that was rekindled when she began coaching at Gunn. “As a judge, it’s really cool to see the creativity that different teams come up with; there are so many things that people do to push the limitations of the division,” she said. “Coming back as a coach, you leave Nationals with ideas, feeling inspired and feeling motivated for the next year.”

The dancers also left Nationals with a new spirit for themselves and the team, according to sophomore Anriya Wang. “The main thing I took away was the importance of team spirit,” she said. “With virtual competitions, you can’t really feel it, but when you’re with everyone else at Nationals, it’s a lot more exciting. You have so much more energy and just really enjoy dancing overall.”

Following the end of the competitive season, a new round of auditions for the team will open up, as well as opportunities for open practices, which Ferris encourages interested students to partake in. In the future, Ferris hopes to create both a junior varsity and Varsity team, compete in more divisions at Nationals and collaborate more often with the cheer team. “I really want to see the team continue to develop and grow and make a name for themselves in the competition world,” she said.