Melissa McGhee a native of Toledo, Ohio is a graduate of The Ohio State University where she obtained a B.A. in Business Administration. She is the current Head Coach of The Ohio State University Dance Team. Under her direction, the team has consistently placed in the top five at the UDA Collegiate National Championships and won both the Pom and Jazz Divisions in 2018, Pom in 2019, and Jazz in 2020. After sixteen years of studio training, she now choreographs and consults for dance studios and teams nationally and judges for numerous dance competitions including UDA, AmeriDance, Showcase America, OASSA, and the USASF Dance Worlds.
Tell me about your dance background and how you got into coaching
I started dancing at 2 ½ and grew up in the studio life. Dance team was not super prevalent where I was in Ohio, so it was all about the studio. After high school, I was considering dancing for college because I was not done dancing and I knew someone on the team at The Ohio State. When I visited, I liked the team atmosphere and familial vibe that I felt. So, while I looked at a few schools with dance, I decided on The Ohio State. Then the coaching job was vacant right when I graduated and the spirit director asked me to take it for a year.
Talk to me about team culture at The Ohio State. You said it feels like a family and it certainly seems like that from the outside. How do you instill the fight and commitment within your team and build that culture?
It is definitely a family vibe. Sure, it can be dysfunctional at times, but it’s totally amazing. I grew up with great examples from my parents who were both successful coaches and I saw that they were very integrated into their athletes’ lives. Coaching is more than Xs and Os. It’s more than dance. It’s about developing better people. I try to run the team with the philosophy that it’s going to teach you to be a better dancer along the way, but ultimately, you’re a better person at the end of it. Basically, it’s work hard – play hard.
How has creating that culture changed over the years?
When I first started, I was looking for people on the team or during tryouts who understood my philosophy and were excited. I wanted dancers who wanted to be a part of building this team and when I found them, I latched on to them. My first year had 4 or 5 people quit within the first few months because I had a specific vision of what I wanted and the people who responded were all in and the people who didn’t respond left. It was disheartening at first. I felt like I was failing. But now looking back, it was a culture shift moment. I found the people whose eyes lit up when when I talked about the vision of the team.
Years later we are in a place where we can control who is a part of the program based on who fits our culture. We make sure our dancers share those values and beliefs.
How did you come up with your core values?
My experiences growing up really shaped my core values as a coach. My parents and coaches were a big influence. But I didn’t have my values right away as a coach. I maybe had a loose understanding, but they have changed and evolved as I have. The biggest thing is to figure out what your philosophy and values are as a coach. That guides everything and it’s your foundation for every decision.
Let’s talk about some of the nuts and bolts of your team. How do finances work and how has it changed over the years?
It’s changed a lot. We have grown from a club where everyone paid out of pocket to now it’s shifted, and we are fully covered by athletics as of 3 years ago. But when we moved into athletics, we went from the king of club sports to the bottom of athletics as far as priority for gyms and things like that. With that shift, I learned you have to see the bigger picture in regard to administration of the university. You can’t expect that it’s just going to happen, that you’ll get all the privileges just because your dancers are hard working.
What does a typical practice schedule look like?
We practice 3-4 times a week plus 2 strength and conditioning sessions. There are more during winter break then it drops down after nationals. We have very structured practices. I mentally break up the season into phases and go through the big picture plan once at the beginning of each season. We determine what needs to happen and put together version 1 of the practice plan. Then it’s moves to a weekly basis. Some practices are loosely planned but there are some I time out to the minute to make sure we get it all done.
I prefer to do one thing at a time and focus on that singular effort, but depending on the phase that is harder for the kids. So of course, I try to flex and adapt as needed. It can be super tedious to be focused on one thing at a time so sometimes we flex in other areas. We also do combos a lot during practice. About 2 – 3 times a month early in the year, none during nationals season, and 1-2 a week after nationals. The dancers make it up. It’s a great way to continue their dance training and give them a voice.
The Ohio State is known for flawless routines. What are some things you focus on when cleaning your dances?
My mantra is there is no shortcut to hard work. There’s no magic pill. It’s not going to happen through osmosis! We break the routine into sections with music. Then we go through and set spacing and details. Next we go back a 2nd time and make sure execution is there. One question I always get is “How long do you spend on an 8 count?” The simple answer: A long time! It can be 30-45 minutes on one 8 count. For some high school teams, dancers may come from the same studio or be regionally trained the same. We have dancers from all over and it can be hard to get everyone to look the same. Yes, they are all really talented, but it’s challenging to get the style to look the same.
How do you strengthen and grow dancers’ technique while swamped with choreography?
It depends on the phases of the year. At the beginning of the season it’s a big investment. We take ballet class and regularly have turn technique and work on new skills. I empower them to come up with ideas and give them more space to try things out. But there’s less focus as we move into nationals season.
When you have a hard decision to make, how is that handled on the team? Who is involved? Head coach, assistants, captains etc.
Captains are chosen after camp in August. The team vote is heavily weighted but if the vote doesn’t align with my values I would adjust. I have never needed to do that, but they know it’s possible. Captains are an extension of the coaching staff. Those two groups (seniors and captains) are on a board together to make decisions. I believe information is power so if I have to make a hard decision, I get the captains perspective and I get the assistant coach’s perspective before making the decision.
What has been your biggest challenge of being a coach and how did you overcome it?
I learned how important it was to have a solid coaching philosophy, and that came with time. I whole heartedly believing in certain principles and I’m constantly trying to balance the need to teach and guide and educate. Now we have consistent core values as a team (7). One of them is we don’t do drama.
Our program has a very direct communication style. There is no beating around the bush. You admit if you’re wrong and we figure out a solution. Efficiency is a big deal to me. Over the years I’ve learned to be more bold in that regard, understanding where I will compromise and where I won’t and why.
What has been a favorite moment or memory as a coach?
There are so many, but 2018 nationals stands out. There were a lot of alumni that built to that moment. It was our first national championship and a lot of our alumni were there. It was an amazing symbolism of the fact that this whole program had built up to that moment.
What advice would you give other coaches?
Use the coaching community and don’t be afraid to embrace competitors. The Big 10 has a tight community of coaches that are open and collaborate and share info to advocate for each other. It would be easy to close off from each other and compete but it’s actually the opposite for us. In those darker moments, one of those coaches has always stepped up for me. Embrace your dance community, it makes all the difference. In my early years I didn’t feel like I had any resources, and I felt alone. Now there’s resources that didn’t exist then like conferences, associations… all these great networks that didn’t use to exist. Take advantage of those both locally and nationally.
Overall, I’m also passionate about taking risks. So, I encourage coaches to not being afraid to step outside the box. In the dance team community, taking risks is personal crusade, so I challenge you to go for it!