UK dance team

Dawn is the Head Coach of the University of Kentucky Dance Team, which is currently ranked 5th in the Nation in Game Day and 5th  in the Nation in Hip Hop at Universal Dance Association. In 2017, her team was chosen to represent the US National Team in the Pom and Hip Hop divisions at the ICU International Dance Championships.  They represented America well and brought home Silver medals in both divisions. Dawn danced on the original UK Dance Team and then became a two-time UCA National Champion cheerleader for the University of Kentucky. Dawn owned CHEERS! Inc., the first All-star Cheer and Dance gym in KY., where they were 5-time Jr. Allstar NCA National Champions, and NCA Danz Jr. and Sr. National Champions.

Dawn organized and coached the UK Wildcat Danzers, the 1995 NDA Collegiate National Champions. Dawn was featured in the Japanese TV documentary entitled “Miracle Learnings.”  This documentary showed how students learn mentally and physically, through her teaching “cheer dance.”   Dawn judges and speaks at Coaches Conferences both Nationally and Internationally and she is currently the IASF Pom Panel Director for Worlds. She owns CHEERS! Inc. Cheer and Dance Competitions.

Tell us your story and background, how did you start coaching?

When I initially went to the University of Kentucky, I danced on the Dance Cats, the 1st dance team at UK because back then you couldn’t cheer as a freshman. I was a gymnast before I became a cheerleader, but I love to dance. So I did the dance team during my freshman year. Then at the end of the year, some of the cheerleaders talked to me and convinced me to try out for cheer. So I tried out and became a cheerleader for UK. Then after school, I opened a gym, Cheers! Inc. The first all-star gym for cheer and dance in Kentucky. We used to do the old school production category which I loved, and we won a few NDA (NCA dance at the time) national championships.

dawn walters

Funny story about that production category and making silly mistakes…

One year I told the team to take their time getting on the floor. Walk out with confidence, make sure the judges are ready and paying attention to you. Get the crowd all up and excited so everyone is watching you. All 30 or 40 dancers come walking out, taking their time. It takes forever and I’m thinking they look good! I get the score sheets back and there is a legality. I was over time! That next morning, we went into finals and when we were announced the girls FLEW on the floor. The judges were all laughing, everyone knew why. We won the national title for that routine and I laugh now. As a coach, there are so many crazy stupid coaching mistakes that you make along the way. It’s ok, just go with the flow.

Back to my coaching story…

I had been working at my gym and someone said they heard the dance position was open at UK. So I sent in my paperwork and they told me the application was online and I decided that was too much. Plus I already had the Wildcat Dancers at UK, the student organization. I loved dance club and it was made up of some of my old cheerleaders and all-star dancers who asked me to start that club. When it came to the position with the athletic department I decided not to go for it. But they called me and told me to put in a resume. I did the interview etc. and got the position.

They were actually thinking about doing away of the program, so I knew I had 1 year to prove myself. Their biggest thing is they wanted the excitement of the performances to match the excitement of the games. They wanted a more upbeat style. They wanted pom, and the dancers were very talented, but jazz based. We switched to pom and the girls had never trained pom and most of them thought it was easy. I asked them after we did our nationals routine that year, “do you have a better appreciation for pom now?” and they all said YES! It was a tough transition that first year!

Give it 3 years

The first 3 years are going to be tough. Many of those early dancers thought I was going to ruin the program, but I knew I had to save the program by doing what the athletic department wanted and switching to pom and an upbeat style. The dancers were hurt that the style was being changed but I was trying to save them. It was tough that first year, some dancers where on board some weren’t.

But when it gets hard, you use the philosophy to do the best you can, give 110% and keep doing the right thing. I’ve slowly implemented in hip-hop and now that’s really where we are. It’s been a long ride, but I always tell coaches who come in and say this first year is really hard. Just get through the first few years and eventually it’ll work itself out.

Talk to me about team culture. You have talented dancers but yet you have to get these dancers to care, and fight, and not be entitled. How do you instill that team culture of hard work and perseverance?

I don’t think there are many programs who have as many kids as I do. I have the Blue squad and the White squad, so I have two teams. They were very separate originally and I didn’t want that. I wanted to get as many kids in the program as I could, just to get them involved, and get them an opportunity. Now it’s just how we work. Some people are extremely talented in jazz, some in hip-hop, etc. and I wanted that to be ok. Our main job is for game day performance, and all the rest is for fun and icing on the cake. I really wanted to foster that, get in as many people as possible and build this up. I want dancers who have that overall buy-in on the team for games and the whole program. Then we can talk about competition.

Early on, about my 3rd year I had a parent come up to me and say, “thank you for giving my daughter a dream.” And that was huge, it has always stuck with me. I want to keep that for the kids, that it’s a dream to be on this team. That’s what pushed me to keep it going at that level. I want bring in lots of kids into the program and then go from there. We are now hip-hop based, but it is really game day based first.

I even changed up my tryouts this year …

I changed the requirements a little to be more game day and hip hop focused and I was nervous, but it went really well. Even in COVID and video auditions we still had a great turnout. I hear from many people who aren’t ballet trained but excel at hip-hop who have told me they know they can’t try out for another dance team. I’m so excited to have opened the door for even more people to be a part of the program.

How do you break up game day duties between the two squads?

I have 42 kids, this is the first time I’ve gotten it down to that. I’ve been trying to get it to 40 for 5 years! Basically I consider the UK dance team is everybody, both squads. I have my White squad that does women’s basketball and football. Blue squad does men’s basketball and football. When we do community events, or alumni events, that type of thing it’s usually everyone.  When we pick the team, I’m looking for those with overall talent, but they may not be game ready. They are lacking a little something and need to learn our game day.

When I took over, I found out there was only 1 girl who had ever moved from White to Blue and I thought that was crazy. I want it to be my feeder squad. Now I’ll have lots of girls move up every year. And even for nationals, I’ll have girls from White squad that weren’t as strong game day but are talented in what we do for competition, so they compete. That keeps them excited too. I’ve had kids who say they want to stay on White squad. It’s still a big family no matter what squad you’re on.

That makes a lot of sense. Game day, in the SEC especially is incredible for football and both basketball teams. I’m sure being a part of game day at UK is in and of itself a dream.

Talk to me about a typical practice.

We have 5:45am practices. For a few reasons:

  1. When you have nearly 50 kids, I’ve got to find a time they can all meet and early morning works. They try to avoid an 8am class and that gives us good time together. At the beginning of the season as a coach we have high hopes for all we’re going to get done. But then in the thick of the season when know it doesn’t all happen. On a great, early season practice, we start regular stretching, they are trying to wake up so there’s no talking or goofing off, that works to my advantage. And the other great thing, the parking lot is empty!
  2. The other main is reason is that’s the time we can use our gym. We don’t have a dance room, we are in the Memorial Coliseum, and maybe a practice gym, but we are on the main floor for practice.

Practice Plan…

We do stretch, turns, jumps, drill some tricks, and then work on whatever we need to do for the next performance. The girls choreograph a lot of the routines. They get a couple practices to work on it, then I get to see it. And I’ll watch it, film it, and then I’ll go back and see who has that dance down and who is ready and set formations. It creates a lot of extra work on my end, and they tell me they’re nervous when I film. But I don’t want the same dancers in front every time but whoever is actually shining in that specific routine. Whether it’s more aggressive hip-hop, or girly sassy hip-hop, I want to get the girls who shine in that dance. It’s not the same kids in front all the time, and they know that. 

Sometimes as coaches, we can get stagnant, we know who is talented and we get in a rut. Filming forces you to watch all of your kids all of the time. You get to see the kids who start to blossom and pay attention to everyone. It keeps the kids going, if they are a senior and they didn’t put the time in, they are in the back. They know they have to earn it each and every time.

Then I clean, and my kids know when I clean that’s my talent. I am a cleaner.

I’m old school clean clean clean and I can’t just overlook those things. Right now, our newbies are learning their ditties over video and we clean them, down to the thumbs. I hate thumbs, clean those thumbs! Old school candlesticks and buckets, etc. I’m all about it. I will spend a practice or two cleaning routines. I know some coaches learn it one practice, formations the next, clean a little bit and do a routine in a week. It takes me longer. But we also, knock on wood, are so ahead of schedule because I’m a big planner so we have the time.

I plan it all out.

We have to think about what type of crowd, what venue etc. so I’m usually a few weeks ahead. What I will also do is I will film once they have formations. I’ll switch a few people right then if I need to, and then I’ll go clean it off the video. Then they have to watch and see what I’m saying and clean themselves off the video.

The kids are so excited, and they actually listen. They are receptive to learn. I tell them from when they first go to our summer camps to make the team that if they are a diva and the best in their program they have to take the crown off when they walk in the doors at UK because everyone is in that position. The ones who are here understand they all have more to learn so they are generally very receptive.

Go with the flow…

I always say, “go with the flow.” You know you walk into a community event, and you think you have a stage, but you get there and only 3 of you fit on the stage. Go with the flow. So that’s a big focus for me. So many dancers come into the program now and they are so wired and stressed. I have to push them to go with the flow. I’m a planner too, but 90% of the time there is going to be something thrown in there that you didn’t expect. Just clap and smile and we’ll fix it when we can.

Then to end practice we do a little circle, cheer out and go about our day. Then they run out to their car to make sure they don’t get a parking ticket!

Do you think you’re coaching style has changed over the years?

Oh yes, I know people say treat everyone the same and be fair, but I don’t always agree. Yes, be fair, but you can’t always treat everyone the same. You have to know your kids, their personality. Some want you in their face to push them, and others if you raise your voice at all they shut down. I know my coaching style has changed over the years, my old school girls will say I’m a pushover now. The kids coming in are different and as a coach you have to think about so much more. Parenting styles have changed so we are going to get kids who are different. You have to evolve.

I was always the coach who goes to the next level emotionally and can take on the mother role. In college when you have kids who are far from home, and get sick, you need to dote on them a little, take care of them a little more. We started a bible study group years ago that is kid run, but it’s a place of connection for them. People ask with that many girls, how do you keep it a family? And it’s because we take over so many aspects of their lives outside of dance because we are their family now. They are far from home and they need roots here. These are going to be your people for the rest of your life. You’re meeting them now, so I try to always cultivate that type of atmosphere. So, to bring it back, you can’t coach everyone the same.

Talk to your dancers…

I did pull my Black girls together on a text recently and asked them how they’re doing. They were appreciative of that. That’s when we had that zoom call with Toya (Ambrose, TRA Choreography) and Wanda (Weir, Premier Dance DC), I threw out that challenge (#dawnschallenge) to get coaches to reach out and talk to their dancers. Get out of your comfort zone and just reach out. Coach from what you feel in your heart. But in the end if it was meant to be for you, if God gave you that talent, it’s your responsibility to coach because these kids need it. (If you haven’t yet, take #dawnschallenge to reach out and talk to your team about inclusivity, respect, racism, and have the hard conversation).

Yes, that zoom call was so amazing! I loved hearing from you, Toya and Wanda, thank you for doing that.

They have also created a new workshop called Include which is an incredible opportunity to keep this momentum moving forward in the right direction. If you want to know more click the image below for details)…

With the Black Lives Matter movement, what would you like other coaches to do, or what would you like to see change in our dance world specifically?

We talked about taking off the appearance part of the score sheet and I think that’s amazing. Coaches feel like they are in a box and everyone has to look the same in order to score well at competition and that’s not true. One thing I had to do early on was deal with the tights. You hear they all need to be the same color but that didn’t feel right. I remember going back and looking at the Rockettes and they don’t all wear the same color so I felt like we could do that too. I’m hoping that will be more conversations happening that coaches will feel ok to talk. Even if they don’t understand, just open it up and talk to your dancers.

Even concerning hair. When you tell your kids, “everyone has to have a high ponytail tomorrow at the game” well your Black girl with tracks in, she can’t pull in into a high ponytail. I am more relaxed. As long as you look cute, no specific straight har, curly hair, whatever, just come out polished and nothing crazy like green hair. I’m hoping coaches will now step back and see if they were being too strict. And not for being mean but understanding more perspectives.

I’m so glad we were able to even go to the competition level.

Hopefully we will see some scoresheet changes to take the pressure off coaches who think everyone has to be exactly the same or they will lose a point. I hope that some of those things we were so picky about at competitions to be clean and look the same, we will relax. Our kids who felt like they had to have a weave or do something to their hair or they wouldn’t make the team will feel included. Hopefully we an let go of that need to be exactly the same and celebrate differences.

I want to get coaches talking, that’s what was so beautiful from what Toya and Wanda brought up. I know the “boy” thing got a lot of people and was a big eye opener. (On the call, they shared how calling a Black male dancer “Boy” was extremely insensitive and triggering because of its roots in slavery.) I know you don’t say that, but I think a lot of coaches were shocked and now it’s ok to have the conversation. And it’s ok to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. I hope the dialogue and conversation is there, so your Black dancers know they are accepted.

UK dance team

What has been your biggest challenge as a coach, or a big lesson learned that you can share?

I had a really tough year a few years ago, where I had a few kids who didn’t like me or where still mad about something they didn’t get to do. They harbored such negativity towards me and that opened my eyes. When you go into a tough conversation, you have to cover yourself more than I used to. I have learned now that when I have to vocalize concerns that can be misconstrued, I have to be more careful. Every conversation at this level I have my assistant coach there. I’ve heard from so many coaches about how, “oh that’s what happened, I had one parent who was upset,” “oh, that’s how I got fired.” Something things can get turned around, you have to have something else backing you. Someone else on the phone, etc. so it’ can’t get turned back on you.

You have to be fair across the board.

If you are going to sit someone for not having a trick, it has to be fair. You have to think before you make a call or write an email. Your communication now a days has to be careful, and you have to cover yourself. Take the time to think things through, run it by an assistant coach, “is it ok if I say this…?” ask your administration, “is it ok if I write this…?” It’s too easy to lose your credibility, and we coach because we love it and we’re not out there to be mean to kids. We do it for the love and passion and to help kids, but if we have a tough exterior those negative feelings hurt just as bad. I thought I did the right thing and it all turned around. You have to protect yourself.

Do you have a favorite memory as a coach? You have a lot of amazing moments, but anything that stands out to you in particular?

Every year, after Big Blue Madness I always feel so great. (The event that kicks off basketball season for UK). I have to give my props to my choreographers they are incredible. But that moment, with all 50 kids, it is such a defining moment. For those who are disappointed, they didn’t make the Blue squad or are an alternate, it doesn’t matter. We all work together, and we put together a great performance. Every year, I think, “that was my favorite.”

The kids right after the performance are on cloud 9. Every piece to this puzzle matters. You’re never in the back because you’re in the front to the other side of the arena. There is no bad place to be and the formations and movement are incredible. Each person knows they played an important part, visually they were all a part of something so cool. The whole Big Blue Nation looks forward to it. I love that moment when it’s going on, but especially after when are in the back of the arena and they are all jumping up and down. It’s the defining moment of teamwork and everyone had a role. (If you haven’t seen this video from the most recent Big Blue Madness… WATCH IT! )

Any last piece of advice you would give coaches?

When the going gets tough, try your best to hang in there. As long as one member has taken something positive and left your practice feeling good about themselves, you’ve uplifted at least one person, that’s what you were there to do. That was your purpose. Yes, it gets tough, there are times we want to quit. But really sit back and think about the contribution. Look for the shining moments, they may be small, but look for them.

Know that it’s not about just being a coach. You know that title, there’s a whole lot involved in that. You’re not just a coach. If that’s your God-given talent, you have to use that. Everything has changed in a year, but you’ve got to keep going. I thought it was my time again last year when my husband was battling cancer. I thought it was time to get out. But now look, other opportunities have come up and I’m looking forward to coaching again. Maybe the challenge you face is just to direct you to do things a little differently, go with the flow. Just always follow your heart and do the right thing by all of your kids.

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