I grew up dancing in Peoria, IL for 8 years and attended Lindenwood University after graduation to study dance and nutrition. I took time freshman year of college to travel with NRG Dance Project, working on the business side, and spent much time learning core values and teaching methods from so many inspiring choreographers. In 2014, I joined the Lindenwood University Lionettes Dance Team and had the honor of leading the team for 2 years, one being the first year we brought home our first national title. In 2017 I was asked to join the coaching staff at Lindenwood and Francis Howell.
Then in 2018 I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Dance and spent the next 2.5 years coaching alongside Whitney Sterns and Krysta Streisel at Lindenwood. During that time we brought home back to back national titles, making history for the program. Since joining Courtney Kassabaum at Francis Howell we have achieved one state title, for a total of 6 for the program, and many history-making ranks at the national level. I have recently decided to shift my focus to Francis Howell and my career at lululemon, ending my journey with Lindenwood this past year. I am entering my fourth year at Francis Howell and looking forward to many more!
Tell me about your dance background and how did you get into coaching?
I was on a dance team in high school but not a competitive one so my first introduction to dance team was at Lindenwood. I was on the Lindenwood Lionettes for 3 years and what I world I just walked into. As college dancers we volunteered at the high school state championship in the Chicagoland area and that was the first time I saw what high school dance team could really be.
When I graduated from Lindenwood I came onto Francis Howell and was also coaching Lindenwood with my old coaches. It was a crazy year but it was great. High school and college teams are so different. College dancers you can tell them to clean and they can do it relatively quickly, and then high school they need the repetition, but their bodies are able to absorb the new info and try all sorts of new tricks. That leads to now and I’m entering my 4th year at Howell coaching alongside Courtney.
You told me about how you had to transition the culture and it’s been a project over the last few years. Will you talk about that culture shift and how you made it happen?
Historically Howell was on the top of their game. Winning, always a couple steps ahead of the dance game. They were super successful and that became a norm. Until the rest of the world started to catchup. The competitions lay out “this is a successful hip-hop routine” so everyone starts to fit that mold and suddenly, the things that you’re doing aren’t special anymore. The team was successful, not without trying but just naturally.
When I came on it was Courtney’s 3rd year and she had been through a transition herself from choreographer to coaching and a lot of staff transition so there was a lot to deal with. I was lucky to be coming off Lindenwood where we had really figured out the culture and what it means to be a family. We figured out the important things about dance team which is not the trophy and I was able to bring that into Howell.
When I came in the school rivalries were huge, and the dancers were used to being successful but the people who had built that success were no longer on the team. It was a strange time for them to understand that we can’t ride on the success of the past, we have to create it ourselves. But we don’t know how to do that.
Coming in I tried to take a back seat and not flip everything upside down. Courtney was gracious and took in my ideas and we really pushed for two years that you do this for each other. You are fighting for the person standing next to you on the floor. Whatever happens, you smile about it, you accept your trophy – or you don’t – and we go back on Monday and you do something to be better.
If you want different results you have to be better.
It was a hard lesson to learn that. They felt like “we did all the right things, we did two-a-days, we worked so hard, why didn’t it happen?” And we had to explain it doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not guaranteed. Just because you were standing in the school and working hard doesn’t mean we did everything we needed to do, so what are we going to do differently?
That was the first step, then we graduated out those dancers who grew up with the rivalries and more intense “we want to win” attitude. We got to focus more on what we actually wanted to do in the future. We took inventory of the personalities we had and got a nudge from outside people telling us the team was strong. It took camp instructors telling us, “you have something going here and if they believed in themselves a fraction of how much we believe in them they would be unstoppable.”
As coaches we decided, ok that’s our goal. Get them to believe in themselves. We finally got their brains focused on the idea that your goal is to top yourself. We got them realigned on that first. Then we started to talk about how it’s ok to want to win and be ok with not winning at the same time.
It’s all about the leadership…
Last year we had some fantastic leadership who brought out the right mentality. If we want it that bad, we have to do the work. I want to say it was me and Courtney, but it wasn’t, it was those leaders who took the reins. They told everyone else, “these are the types of teams we’ve seen and we want to be this kind.” There was no talking bad about anyone on the team. We walk in and we do the work.
Coaches never had to worry about team bonding that year, they just took it upon themselves to make sure they felt connected. The leaders truly made it happen. It actually made us shift our coaching style. We used to have to scream and be hard on them and now it was a simple look and the captains would say, “ok let’s go back to the top!”
After that, their goal culture wise was to keep our eyes forward, focus on us, and do what we need to do to get where we want to be or at least proud of our work. They made program history again at nationals going straight through to finals so then on the back end of that, it was coaching through being set up for a result that you didn’t expect, even if it’s positive.
Fast forward into this year.
In hindsight, they did everything right last year. They never told us no, they never complained, there were no excuses. They did everything to prepare, but they were still short. We are in a space where their work ethic is amazing. And we’re still trying to form the plan for where we go from here. We told them, “You are where you are because of all the work you’ve put in, but it’s not going to get us further than last year unless we do something different.”
When is your mentality going to change? So that you don’t stop after you get the aerial you’re so excited for and rest there. Instead flip the switch and say, what’s next? When are you going to start working on the other side, or doing it from standing etc. on your own rather than waiting for me to tell you do that? You work got you to this point but now we have to say, “what’s next?”
What an amazing place to be, to teach them how to do that is a life skill. You’re teaching them how to say, I hit this goal so that means the bar moved. I’m not done, it’s what’s next? That’s such a great life skill.
You said leadership was a powerful aspect of the culture shift, how do you keep that going for this year with new leaders and a new team?
I hope every coach gets to feel this at some point, but it’s the ability to say you 3 are the perfect people to coach this team this season. Had I put you in charge of last year’s team, it would have been a disaster. And the same thing the next year. Every team dynamic is different, and you need the right people that works with that specific group. It’s not going to be the same type of leader year to year. Different leadership styles work for different years.
Last year we had a lot of seniors with big personalities and they needed one type of leader. This year we have a team full of returners who know what to expect, and work like little minions. They already know what to do so the captains didn’t need to instill a practice culture. Instead they are setting the example. When they stand up and go again after a mistake or pushing for another side of an aerial, others will follow suit. This team doesn’t need loud leaders, they need examples who are friends with everyone so that everything is well received. They aren’t big personalities. They are fairly quiet and direct but can have the individual conversations. This year’s leadership fits this specific group.
I think you’re right that it’s team dependent year-to-year. And coaches get stuck on trying to duplicate past captain dynamics that worked but the team isn’t the same. That’s great advice to focus on each team’s unique dynamic and what they need in a leader.
One thing that has worked well for us is that we have traditional captains, but then we have hype girls. To kick of practice, they start doing the team chant they developed with [Chelsea] at the beginning of practice. The captains say the more serious focus spiel. Today might be hard but remember why we’re here and what we want. We have to keep pushing for our goals, that type of thing. And then the hype girls chime in with the more light-hearted fun and make them laugh. Captains set the practice intention, then hype girls make it light and fun, then they do their team chant and then we start practice.
It’s been really nice because Courtney and I were both the captain who didn’t mind being in charge and doing all the talking. And it’s been a nice reminder that maybe we need to step back a bit and let them do things their way. They don’t need to hear us right now. They might come to the realization about what we need to focus on today on their own and find their own intention so we should let them take the reins on practice. Then we can recap at the end. They do so much better when they find a practice intention before we start.
Talk to me about a typical practice at Francis Howell.
We practice three days a week for 3 hours, and into the season a bit we introduce Sundays for 4 hours which are more focused practice. They do so much better when they aren’t coming off a full day of school. We talk about the plan for the day, they line up and do some basic across the floor warmup to ease into things, then workout.
For the workout, we switch between cardio, weight training, and more technique like floor barre or modern based warmups. We use a lot of paper plates to help resistance work. You can put the plates under their feet in a high plank, and then different core work like pulling feel in and putting their butt up in the air. Then after the workout we move into stretch which we usually budget quite a bit of time. If it’s a game week we head into a full out run of gameday routine, as a test, “can you do this the first-time?” If we need to review, we will touch on some things but then move on to nationals and they take responsibility for fixing the game-day routine.
Game day vs. Nationals Season
When we don’t have nationals routines yet we would workout, stretch, technique across the floor, center, time with JV, and then game day and ending with some team bonding silly games. We tend to workout more during the week because it’s more mindless after a full day of school and then Sundays we do the more cognitive aspects, heavy cleaning, or learning when they are fresh.
The team only works on one nationals routine per practice. We used to split practice and I don’t know how we did that, except for sometimes on Sundays. When it gets close to a competition we try to have full practices that are just around tricks and highlights in a dance without fully running it. Then we split it and work skills in both routines. It’s less consuming and they have a tighter focus. Especially when they are in the thick of it and they can’t think of another clean we just do tricks and highlights.
How do you clean, do you have a method to that process?
It is an evolving process. What has worked most effectively is we chunk it out into about 4 sections and usually work front to back but it depends. Last year we ended up learning the last part of hip-hop really late at night so the end was jumbled in their brains and we decided to work that routine backwards.
I start in 4 sections but as we get closer to competitions we mesh into 3 sections instead. That way the two middle sections will be divided. They panic a little at first, but it’s proven to trick their brains to realize they aren’t tired. “I just finished the first section but really, I’m in the middle of section two. I can do this!” It was a good way to trick them into having the stamina to get through it.
The 4 Layer Cleaning Process
As far as the details it’s 8 by 8. Down to the smallest detail and then we do it over and over until it’s good enough to move on. So that’s first layer. Then second layer we go back through from the top and look at transitions. Are you two opposites crossing the panels at the same time on your way to the next formation? Because who doesn’t get nailed on transitions?
Then 3rd layer, which used to be the end but we really leaned into this desire to get to a 4th layer before nationals. We wanted to define our own 4th layer. So 3rd layer is more individualized cleaning, highlights, and small sections. And more so drilling for stamina. Doing the first section, second, third, then whole thing. We would say, “You know what it feels like and the 10 second break between the sections doesn’t mean much… Now You can make it through if you have 4 seconds to breathe, but you don’t need it.”Layer 3 is really drilling for stamina.
Then we established our own 4th later of cleaning last year which is really two counts at a time. Stop and hold that picture until it’s perfect. It felt so cool to get to that detailed level before we went to nationals.
That’s so nice to wrap back to what you said earlier about, what got us to that level last year isn’t enough. What are we going to do differently? And you added a deeper level. You have decided that next level for yourselves and you were able to define that.
Is that your goal to reach level 4 again this year?
Yes, but we also want to really try and simulate the competition butterflies before they get there. What does this look like and feel like? We want to get that prelim performance feeling out of the way where they know you get one chance in prelims. You can’t do it again after this. Usually we would run it and then fix and say, go and do it again! But in prelims you don’t get to go back and do it again. So we may let them be done. This is what happened, but we’re done, live with the video.
I think that’s a great idea. When you get to those last few practices before you leave, test that. Say this is prelims and set it all up. Visualize the arena, what you’re wearing etc. Do warmup floor A and then B, you have X minutes before you’re on, coaches are leaving to do music so circle up then you’re on. Whatever you do right now is prelims and we are done so you have to be happy with what you put out there no holding back. And potentially send them home when it wasn’t good enough so they have to think about how that feels and what they will do differently next time.
What has been your biggest challenge of being a coach and how did you overcome it?
I’m am the coach who is stressed about all the little details and I hold onto that stress until I see it better with my own eyes. It takes my whole night and I obsess over videos. I remember those thoughts happening as a first-year coach and I was so fresh out of college that I also remembered being on their end. As a dancer I would say, “I need to sleep, it will happen Coach.” It’s that feeling of standing in formation knowing you got it, it just didn’t happen that time. I don’t have that instinct anymore and I don’t want to stop until I see it perfectly. Overcoming that is the biggest hurdle. And all of these details that I’m obsessing over are not as important to them, and they shouldn’t be, that’s why I’m the coach.
Another one is that we tell them how great they are all the time, but it’s challenging to take the time and have that one meaningful moment to really check in with them. Those lists of corrections in my head will never stop, but we know how great they are. It’s hard for me. I have to recognize when they are wired differently than me and not expecting them to handle situations and have the same reactions that I would.
What is your favorite moment or memory as a coach?
My first-year coaching, we were at nationals and they hadn’t made it to jazz finals in a while and they really wanted it. We are sitting anxiously awaiting them to announce it and we were worried about it. They had a terrible prelims performance. They were basically sleep dancing and they knew it. But we made it to semis, and I drew first for performance order. You know that terrible feeling right? So I said, “you better wake the judges up with our acapella song!”
It was scary but you want this goal so bad and the second that first note came on in semis it was a completely different team. To watch them genuinely fight for their life to make it through to finals was incredible. It was better than winning state that year. I just remember watching them get off the floor and that feeling…all crying and hugging and having that genuine, connected performance.
What advice would you give other coaches?
Listen to your dancers. They are going to tell you everything you need if you’re listening. You have to care about them as people first. If you don’t, it’s all downhill. They have to feel valued as a human being first and then they will perform for you. Even your toughest of kids will show up in their best way if you listen to them.
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