Tell us your dance story and how you became the coach at Tennessee.
I am not a Tennessee native, I’m originally from PA. I’m a Yankee but now I live in the south so I bring a little of that brashness with me. I grew up a studio kid, there weren’t dance teams like there are now, it wasn’t a thing. But one of my best friends who is a year older came down to Tennessee and told me that this dance team world is so much fun, you have to check it out. So I did and I did my four years at Tennessee, stayed in Knoxville after that because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was a sales rep for Varsity for 12 years and that kept me in the spirit world, and I started coached Farragut high school after college for two years and then transitioned to Tennessee. I was young, I was only 23, and I had danced with the seniors. So that’s how it started and I’m going into my 15th season.
Talk to me about your team culture and how you motivate your dancers. In a normal year and in 2020 if that has been really different for you.
In general, I’m big on family and unity. That’s with spirit in general at Tennessee, dance and cheer and mascot are one unit. And our team is a melting pot, we have 11 states and because I was also out of state I know what that feels like to be thrown into this new environment and not know how to navigate but to have a family and a soft place to land. That’s our culture, family first, and unity. I’m looking for amazing people who happen to be amazing dancers. If you’re not where you want to be it’s never going to work out. If we are forcing you to be in an environment but it’s not the right fit for you It’s never going to work. There are days that are ugly and rough and if it’s not where you want to be you won’t push through. Our culture is not about me, it’s about something bigger. We are honest and direct and there is a lot of communication. I believe in keeping people in the loop to give them ownership so they stay included in the process and they want to do more.
Will you expand on the communication piece that you just touched on? What is the reason for that value and practically, how do you communicate on your team?
I think the value in communication is that if they are in the know they feel they can make better decisions on how to handle themselves. I learned through trial and error, when I was younger, I kept everything to myself because I wanted to be the one with the information. I’ve probably learned that through trial and error when I was younger, I probably kept everything to myself because I wanted to be the one with the information. And then I realized as I matured and got older, that that really isn’t beneficial. But the reason behind the communication is that I just feel when they’re in the know of what’s appropriate, that they feel more ownership in it and they can be a part of the process. It’s about being very upfront with my expectations for this week or this day or this month. Especially over the summer when things were crazy, we over-communicated. It was to the point where we were just saying update: no update. Just so they knew that they weren’t in the dark, because when they’re in the dark, they create the scenario. They create the stories and they create something that maybe is not at all what it seems. I know how important that is to feel you’re valued enough to be brought into the loop.
I think that’s something I see that so common with young coaches. I was a young coach too, I started coaching a high school team when I was 20 and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But maybe it came from a fear that if you share something, then people are going to judge you for making the wrong decision, but I did that too. I kept everything close to the vest in those early years. Then I learned.
Our team is very inclusive in the decision making, it goes back to the ownership thing, but also that I feel if I include them in those little decisions, even if it doesn’t really matter, then when I make a decision that they’re not included in, they know that’s it’s the final answer. So it speaks volumes whenever I say something that is not to be questioned this is how it is because they know if they weren’t brought into it, that there wasn’t an option.
I love that philosophy behind your communication. What’s the practical side? Do you do weekly emails? Do you have a band app? What do you do?
We have a group me that we use, and then we do a weekly email. But I also do what I call the “state of the dance team” and every month we sit in a circle and it’s a safe place to talk. I ask, what worked? What didn’t work? Because especially right now that I’ve been doing this for the past few years, Athletics could want to do one thing this day and another thing this day. And okay, we will but how do we balance that with preparing for nationals? And how are you guys doing?
So just sitting down with them and check-in. Keeping them up to date but also helping me keep a pulse on the team. We do a lot of communication, email, group me, and then a lot of sit down in person.
Once a month for that kind of conversation is amazing. I think a lot of coaches will do it at the end of the year exit interview. There’s a lot of value in those, but if that’s the only one you do you’re missing out.
I’ll do it with my seniors at the end, not really an exit interview but say, “Hey, you don’t have a dog in the race. You’re not trying out. You’re not going to hurt yourself, shoot me straight. Honestly, sometimes I learn a little bit about the team dynamic that maybe they didn’t want to share. I also do it with my upcoming seniors. We have lunch at the end of the year, they know what’s coming, and they have to bring three things that they would never ever change about the team dynamic and three things that they would change and how they would change it. It can’t be any more than three because we can’t handle that, but I want to know where you’re at, and so it also prepares us for the year. So I get a little bit from the seniors going out, and then I get a little bit from the people coming in and we can make adjustments from there. It’s funny because sometimes the things I think they’re going to say that they what a change is never in line with what I think is going be their thing.
It sounds like such a great culture, and I’m sure the caliber of dancer who shows up for you at tryouts is amazing, but the fit with that culture is really important. What do you do in tryouts to help figure out who’s the right fit?
Well, typically this is in-person and there’s a lot of watching. The people who are invested in your program are going to be at the stuff leading up to it. It’s rare to have someone just show up to tryouts and I’ve never heard of them before. It’s a lot of watching them when they’re not in the spotlight and watching them when they think that they’re “off”. I’m going to watch you when you’re not on the floor. I’m going to watch how you react. Are you an encourager? That is what would indicate to me what kind of teammate you’re going to be. And I would much rather have a less technical team full of really great teammates than all these rock stars that are just out there for the accolades. Typically, we have interviews and we get to know them a little bit. And the dance world is so small, you know, you can find out anything in a matter of seconds. I don’t think that this generation understands that. They feel that they could close that chapter of high school and this one starts. But there’s a lot of overlap, the decisions that they’re making, it carries over because, at least for me, I want someone who’s going to be a really great teammate first.
I understand you don’t do captains and have a different type of leadership on your team. Walk us through that.
So my very first year I had captains and I didn’t have them ever again. And not that having captains is wrong or right. It’s just for me, I think the way I manage it just didn’t make sense because it was so inclusive with all the seniors. And I didn’t want there to be a divide within that class. It was really important to me for those people to have some unity with among them. So I do committees, I have a game day committee, I have a nationals committee and then I have a behind-the-scenes committee, that could be the communication with the team. That gives them a lane. But they cross over and help, and they don’t have to feel like they can’t say anything if it’s not their “job.” You know, you might be my game day person that calls the cheers and the ditties or whatever, but when it comes to nationals if you have a good idea let’s hear it. So for me, it works. And that way I don’t feel so rigid. The natural leaders are going to show up. I don’t have to give them a title. It goes back to family. Everybody has a contribution.
Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of practice. What is a typical practice week? How does that work for your team?
So big picture of it during the week is we practice three days a week, and two of those are in the sports complex in conjunction with our cheer and mascot. So, we might be doing separate things, but we’re together. If we have to work on something it’s easy to pull together, figure it out, make sure that we’re on the same page for game day. That’s two days a week, and then we have another day that’s in the studio that we do technique combos and focus a little bit more on the skill and technical aspect of it. Then in a typical year, we would pull in Sunday practices twice a month to do nationals. We compartmentalized what we’re doing throughout the week. Two days are spent on game day because we have a lot of different moving pieces and we do a mixed routine with cheer, typically. We’re constantly making sure that all the pieces know where they’re going, what they’re doing, what role they play. I’m really fortunate that myself and the cheer coach work really great together. Otherwise, that would be a disaster. I think Tennessee Game Day is a whole other level, and there’s a whole different level of preparation that goes into it that I wouldn’t have any other way.
Then on Wednesdays, when we focus on the technique and the skill-specific to nationals, whether they already put into a dance or something that we’re working towards. Then Sundays we reserve for actual digging into a section of a dance and figure it out, kind of chipping away at the masterpiece of whatever we’re working on.
How have you adapted in 2020?
Well, our practices didn’t start until the end of September, but I can’t complain, because I know a lot of my coaching peers out there would kill to have had a late September start. So I say that very sad for them, but also, very grateful that we’ve had such a supportive administration in the process. And I know that just regionally, our experience with this pandemic has looked different than other states. And so that is just something that we can’t combat. But, it really has just been a lot of catching up. I’m a huge advocate of camp and team bonding. in the summer. Team building is my jam, I love it, and it’s so important. And we’ve missed that virtually so, really, our practices are getting to know each other and starting to build that trust so we can build the family. We just started nationals, which is still ahead of other people just because of restrictions. But that felt very foreign, that we were just touching base on that, but honestly, we couldn’t have done it earlier because the bonding wasn’t there yet. And you can’t go down that road unless you have the foundation.
What’s your approach to team bonding?
This is very cliche, but you have to have the blocks, literally the building blocks, and then you have the mortar. I look at that there’s a building, and then there’s a bonding, and so, you have to bond before you can build up. I want them to become closer and comfortable and trust each other and become more vulnerable and transparent before we can start to build that trust. Over the summer, we typically work on getting to know each other, things like two facts and one crap, just to open them up and start to understand who they are. My goal is to have that really good foundation before you hit national practices.
I love the clarification between bonding and building. There is a difference, and I think for a lot of teams you can’t dive into the building if you haven’t bonded yet.
Let’s carry this a step further, what do you do when you have a team conflict?
Sure, that’s going happen. You have that many women, different personalities, it’s going to happen. I am very direct, so I always introduce the elephant in the room. Give it a name and then we usually become friends with the elephant. I don’t even have to explain that anymore to the team because it’s the upperclassmen’s’ duty to let the freshman know, “Hey, this is how we roll. If we have an issue it comes out and we talk about it.”
Typically, I would go to the seniors first and I would talk to them because we have built that trust up over the years and they’re usually pretty open. I’ll ask, “Can you handle it? Or do you want me to handle it?” And then we talk through it, because they are adults, and I want them to learn from their mistakes. But I tell them, “I hope you make a mistake with me when you’re under my direction because I’m going to help you through it. I can’t say the same for another boss out there or the real world because it’s tough.” Let’s learn here and then make some changes.
Let’s go a little bit narrower and talk about a typical practice. Is there a system to warm up in training? Who is running things?
Yeah, it depends on what we’re doing but I usually have a senior lead warm-up. We have a loosely set warm-up that they do so it’s almost a mindset, “Okay, when this song comes on, you know that it’s go time.” And then if it’s a game day thing I have in my mind what I’m doing, but I haven’t necessarily laid that out for them. They just know when I send the weekly email these were things that were accomplishing so they can come mentally prepared. But we don’t really talk about it again. We get to practice, and we just start checking off our list.
For nationals practices, I’m much more transparent with them and let them know, “These are the things I want to accomplish today.” These are things that I need you to do. And this is what I’m asking from you so that they know what’s expected of them for the day. Because I learned from my own mistakes again trying to keep everything close to me. When I was younger, I believed, I’m the one in charge and I get to call the shots. That didn’t go well because they were in a state of anxiety the whole time. Not knowing, “am I going to have to do pom full out?” or whatever it is. Now I’m a little bit more forthcoming during the national practices which has been beneficial.
Let’s talk about preparing for nationals. Are you intentional about the mental preparation for nationals, and what does that look like? Basically, how do you help them prepare so if something goes wrong in prelims they are mentally ready to crush it in finals?
Absolutely. I think as far as being mentally tough and preparing, we do a lot of the team bonding and building. You have to have that balance of grind and then fun. If there is no fun, they’re not going to grind. And so you’ve got to have that balance and again I learned that over the years from not having the fun aspect. We have our secret sister, and we always start the practice with a chat about what’s going to happen. But then we also always do a riddle or a brain teaser or something that, because I talk a lot about how the brain is our most important muscle. And your brain is going to tell your body what to do when your body thinks it’s going to shut down. It might be a silly riddle, but they work with a partner and they’re constantly trying to solve something with someone else’s input. And I hope that will carry over into when we’re working on something later. This is not a solo act. So that kind of mental aspect goes into it.
We have a big philosophy, (and I’m stealing the straight from John Wooden) “You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your training.” So we train as if this is it. You’re not all of a sudden going to hit your turns on the nationals floor. If you don’t do it now, when the pressure is on, or when the floor is bumpy or when your friend is in the wrong formation, you’re not going to all of a sudden do it right. And so that’s our mental toughness approach: do it now, do it right. And if we can’t, let’s figure out how to make it right because I need to trust you and know that when you’re out there we’re both confident. It’s game day too, that has the same intensity. I’m sending you out to do X, Y and Z and 20,000 people are watching you in our basketball arena I want to know that you’re going to do the right thing and that you’re not going to fall to your insecurity and not be able to finish. We train every day as if this is it.
I think that’s wonderful. And that’s exactly the type of approach I encourage people to use. Often dancers will ask me for help with mental toughness weeks before nationals. While there is a little bit I can do, usually, it’s too late. Mental toughness training has to be part of your everyday routine. How you show up in practice every day is how you will show up. Because if you make a mistake in practice, then you have a chance to address it mentally and figure it out in the moment.
Exactly. I guess it was last year at camp. We did their home routine and it was fine but it wasn’t what they could have done. At our camp we usually don’t have anyone in our division that competes home routine so it’s basically we’re just going out against ourselves and that can that could affect your performance. We have to work to overcome that “showcase” mindset and make sure that we still have this aggressive mentality.
This is also the first time everyone is going to see you come together as a team. So, what are you putting out there? What do you want to do? So last year the routine was fine, but we stayed after and did the routine and drilled this one section. There was no gain from it as far as an award standpoint, but it was more for them to understand that they can do it. I’m sure the other coaches thought I was crazy, there’s no one else in our division. But it’s really about them understanding that they could do it. Don’t stop believing in yourself because we still believe in you, don’t give up.
How do you coach differently now, 15 years in, then you did in your first few years?
So different, but the foundation of what I do is the same. I have high expectations. I expect hard work and respect, and that’s never going to go out of style. But that is probably one of my biggest challenges is that I’m getting older, but they stay the same age. They’re always going to be 18 to 22 but I’m getting older. And so I’ve had to evolve my coaching because for me, the relationships are so important and it goes back to that trust. If you have a relationship, the trust will follow. But it was a lot easier for me to have those relationships with them when I was in that same season of life. But now I’m not. I’m married, I have two kids, I have job changes, I live in suburbia. We’re not on the same page. So I believe I need to meet them where they are, and understand that what they are stressed or worried or concerned about is going to look very different than what I am, and again, it goes back to communication. I can tell them, these are the big things I need to accomplish today but I need to ask: where are you at, what’s on your list?
And I’ll never forget this one time they were so stressed out about earrings, and I had a newborn and I’m just trying to get my baby to sleep through the night. I was so frustrated with their stress over these earrings! But I remember going home and having this moment and realizing that’s really unfair of me to expect them to understand or have any idea of the bigger picture. To them in their world, those earrings were really important. It’s about meeting them where they are and being open about evolving, because what worked when I was 23 is not going to work when I’m 38 because I’m not the same person. I’ve had to adjust how I communicate, the expectations have to adjust a little bit without lowering the standards.
I totally agree. I want to be relevant and connected but honor the difference.
Yes exactly. I was listening to a podcast and the person was talking about leaders and how when you lead, you pull from your experiences. To be honest, I was struggling when this pandemic first started. First of all, I’m terrible with technology. It’s a running joke, I can barely take a picture and text, I don’t even know what’s going on. And so I was struggling in the beginning and would wonder, “Why do I feel like I’m drowning, I can coach. Why do I not know how to coach right now?” The podcast is all about how, as leaders you pull from your own experience and we’ve never experienced this before. I was going through the same trauma that they were, but I was expected to steer the ship, and I don’t even know what kind of ship we’re on. I was really honest with them and said, “Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to do the best that I can, but I don’t know how this is going to go.”
Yes, I really appreciate that honesty. And I think every coach this year has felt that sense of “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Many coaches I talked to this year have said some version of, “I’m supposed to have the answer, and there is no answer. Either it’s not in my control or there just isn’t one.” It’s so hard to be the leader or to be the one to reassure them when you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m a big proponent of communication as well, but this year, there is no plan. So maybe the answer this year is just to have the grace with yourself that you don’t know, and that’s okay. And you’re not a bad coach for not knowing, that honesty is helpful for them.
What is the biggest challenge or lesson learned from coaching that you would like to share with us?
I feel I’ve touched on it a little bit but realizing that it’s okay to not do it on my own. And, in the beginning, I think it was my age. I think it was my immaturity and I felt I needed to prove that I could do this because I was younger and I didn’t have all this experience under my belt. I was very guarded and kept people out of the process. And I realized as I got older that it’s okay to bring people in, it’s okay to have other people who know what they’re talking about, probably more than you in some areas, and still be secure in your role that you’re the coach. Realizing that asking for help and reaching out to your community is really healthy.
Speaking of a challenge, my biggest turning point as a coach was early on, I won my first national championship and we have three back to back, three in a row. And then for the next, maybe six years, I think we had a couple of third places, and that was the lowest we’ve ever gone in jazz or hip hop. But it was 11 years later and all of a sudden in 2017, we’ve switched to pom. I’m thinking easy, I mean, you just put poms in your hand, right? I was very ignorant going into it, and I thought I could just do things the same way as I prepared for jazz, and we went from having third place as the lowest we’ve ever gone, to seventh and not making finals. And it was such a gut punch to me and my ego, to be honest, and that was the moment I realized you cannot do it. Everyone else around you has evolved and changed and you haven’t. And that was a really big turning moment and the best thing that ever happened to me as a coach. And that changed a lot of how I handled things. That was my start of opening up and letting people in and starting to build back up from that. I knew the past success wasn’t all because of me, but I felt it needed to only be me. And then I realized that it’s great and it’s okay to change and to do things differently. Adapting is so powerful.
I was actually just thinking about that, if you were studio trained and you were on Tennessee with a focus on jazz, then pom was not really a part of your training. So your teams’ journey to last year’s amazing pom routine was about bringing in other people and learning how to coach pom differently.
Yes, my personal experience would just be game day. Pom wasn’t a category when I was on the dance team. I think that was probably part of my hesitation when I dug in my heels is that it was uncomfortable for me. I didn’t want to do pom. So when Katie (Fear Lane) first started coming in, I realized I have a lot to learn. When she would teach it was like I was taking classes and I was watching her in her element and learning from her. And then I had other people come in that were experts in this and knew what they were doing. I was a student, and I was really grateful that they were letting me learn from them. Now we’re much better prepared, but that shift from not making finals to winning was not expected. Our goal was still that we were training like a champion, but our goal was to make finals.
That is a true definition of perseverance. I think a lot of coaches would have given up that first year you did pom and didn’t make finals. So why did you keep going?
That first year, sure, that hurt. But I knew in my gut that it was the right move. It was the right transition. I was very realistic about where we were at and didn’t expect just because we were successful in another category that really has a lot of the same technical expectations that it would carry over. I was relearning that attack in pom and we knew how to prepare for jazz, but how do we carry that over to a completely different category that has some of the same elements but really is another ball game?
Will you go a little bit further on that? What do you see as the difference between preparing your jazz versus pom?
Yeah, there are subtle differences, but I feel it’s the intention and emotion behind what you’re doing. For jazz, you’re telling the story, what happens in the beginning, and then you wrap it up with a bow at the end, and it creates this feeling and emotion. Then we realized that you could also have that in pom, you also create a story and an emotion. But the presentation of it is so different. And that was what we were missing. We had the technical elements, but we didn’t have the emotion and the presentation of it. And so, in our preparation, we made sure that we’re still telling a story. And we’re still presenting whatever message it is that we want, but it’s the intention behind it that is very different. As far as the actual drilling of it, I feel it’s very similar. For cleaning the dance, I would say that what I’ve learned from Katie is that you could only do maybe an eight-count at a time in pom. I thought you could do a bigger section of it like we can in jazz but it just didn’t translate.
Agreed, the approach to pom is a little bit more micro.
Yes, micro. And my approach to cleaning is a little different. I go from the back to the front. We’ll do a clean sweep in the beginning to clarify and make sure that we’re all actually practicing the same choreography. But then when it comes to drilling down, we go from the back to the front. We continue to add on so that by the time you get to the end, when you’re dog tired, that has been the part that you have practiced the most and your body can hopefully get through it a little bit easier.
For pom it’s the stamina that is so different. And that was also something I was not prepared for. It’s insane how different the demands are. You’re essentially doing the same skills, but it requires such a different approach. I don’t think that there’s one that’s easier or harder. In jazz, you’re working on the style on the fluidity and making sure that the lines match in an abstract way and then in pom, you’re focused on the stamina and making sure your lines are still matching in this very black and white way.
What keeps you going and fills your cup as a coach?
What fills my cup as a coach is definitely the relationships. I’m sure every coach says that, but it is the relationships that extend after the team. You know, when you go to the wedding or the baby shower, or even when you get a call and they’re getting divorced that you’re still in that place for them. A place of growth, a place of security, and that it’s just a natural and organic relationship that evolved over four years. But it continues forever in my mind. I say when you graduate, you don’t leave the table, you’re just in a different seat. We’re all at this big UTDT table and alumni involvement is huge for me. Loyalty is probably my strength and my weakness. I am loyal to a fault but it comes over into our team.
And so for me, the relationships and seeing people grow and evolve and what they become and what they do with their life is so rewarding. It’s 10% dance 90% life that we’re dealing with.
I totally agree, relationships are what drive us in all that we do. Do you have any general advice you’d like to share?
When I started coaching, I knew that I wanted there to be a unity and a family environment. I want them to feel valued. I want them to feel worthy and to know that they are a part of this puzzle. People may show up to tryouts because they want that nationals trip, but they stay because of everything else. They stay because of the parts that they didn’t even know would impact them.
I talked about communication and honesty and being direct, that is very much how I coach. It’s very rare the dancers do not know exactly what I’m feeling or expecting. But it’s that balance of giving them that safe place. I didn’t always have someone I felt I could go to. I want them to be able to come to me. I’m always going to love them through it. I’m not going to lower my expectation, but I am going to love them through it. And I think that is why I’ve been able to form very genuine relationships with them. That mentor role transitions to a genuine friendship when they graduate. I do become their friend, and that is my favorite thing.
About Kelley Tafazzoli:
Kelley Tafazzoli is the proud coach of the University of Tennessee Dance Team. Beginning her college coaching career at the age of just 24, she is now in her 14th year at the helm of what has become one of the most decorated dance programs in the nation. She claimed the dance team’s first national title in 2007 in her first year as a head coach and went on to a 3-peat championship in the jazz division, adding titles in 2008 and 2009. As a coach she continued to push the team’s skill and performances, consistently placing in the top two at UDA College Nationals, securing back to back championships in 2015 and 2016 for a total of five national titles in the jazz division, and finishing outside of the top-five only once in 14 seasons. In 2018, Kelley made the decision to transition from the hip hop category to pom, which seemed like a natural shift; however, it proved to be a larger hurdle than anticipated. Kelley recognized the need to evolve from a coach’s standpoint and approached this adversity with a new plan for preparation, practice schedule, and training. This adjustment paid off in just three years with Tennessee securing their first pom national championship in 2020, the sixth overall national championship under Kelley’s leadership.
Over the past 14 years, Kelley has worked diligently to create a cohesive spirit front with the cheer and mascot teams. One of her proudest moments as a coach is seeing the entire program working together to raise spirit on the sidelines, in the community, and at the national competition. Outside of the athletic events and competition floor, Kelley has succeeded at elevating the dance team’s experience with opportunities being featured on Monday Night Football commercials, country music videos, and traveling internationally to perform at the Rugby 7s World Cup in Dubai. Most recently, Tennessee was selected to represent the USA as the US National Pom Team in the 2020 ICU World Championships in April – that has since been postponed to 2021. Kelley is thrilled for the new opportunity and challenges ahead in competing on the world stage.
Hailing originally from Sandy Lake, Pennsylvania Kelley moved to Knoxville to earn a degree from the University of Tennessee while receiving a scholarship as a four year member of the dance team. She is married to Matt Tafazzoli and the proud mom to Shea and Cole.