Tell us about your background and how this coaching career came to be for you.
I didn’t have the opportunity to be on a dance team in high school. Growing up in the 90s it wasn’t acceptable. This all really came about through natural ability and my family. My great-grandmother was a performer and I found a newspaper clipping when I was in middle school and she told me about it, and I was really intrigued. In high school, I was on the yearbook staff and assigned to the dance team so I was always around them and I would go home and mimic what they were doing. Eventually, I became the person that people came to when they wanted to try out for the dance team.
I’m from Louisiana but my senior year I came to Texas to watch some family members perform at a peewee football game and I thought how horrible these little 3rd – 6th graders were… they could be so much more! I ended up getting the camp job for that peewee team and I lost money doing it, but that was the start. The camp program grew, they did well, and I got a reputation as a good coach. Then I decided to make an all-star team out of that camp so I moved to Texas. I didn’t have a dance degree or any formal training but I was running a business and working at a pizza place so I could follow a dream no one said I would be able to accomplish.
I think that’s what lead to my success, I’ve always been able to take a negative and turn it into a positive.
That all-star team of 12 grew to a few teams of different ages, then I became the technique coach for the local high school as a volunteer. Later, that Director resigned, and I was asked to take over for the year. I’ve never been one to do the bare minimum, so I took that team to their first competition and really strived to improve that program. At the end of that year I moved back home and connected with Sandy Hinton at McLennan Community College. At this point I was 23, but I had never performed before. She had a male on the team before so I called and asked if I could try out. I did the video tryout and was fortunate to make the team but I realized very quickly how far behind I was.
The whole experience was very eye opening. I worked 40 hours a week at the Buckle so I had no spare time, but I was tired of being the one getting the corrections. I asked if I could have the key to the studio and come in after work. She agreed so Monday – Thursday night when we got out of practice, I would go to work then come back to school and work by myself in the studio for a few hours. I refuse to be the one that someone was yelling at. Pom is my strength now, but I got in so much trouble for my pom motions, they were terrible. To look back feels crazy… now that’s what I’m known for in this industry, but pom was my weakness.
It shows your drive, you took your weakness and decided to put in the work until it was your strength. So many people face a challenge and decide it’s too much, I’d rather focus on something I’m good at. That’s impressive T.J. What happened once you were at McLennan?
I went to McLennan for two years and then I knew I wanted to transfer and be a director still. I actually tried out at SFA and I didn’t make it. Instead, I stayed at McLennan another year to assist Sandy, finish school at Baylor, and then take over coaching at McLennan. That was my end goal, to take over that program. Then the SFA job came open the year after and I figured I would apply. Low and behold, some doors close but now that window cracks open… Last year I wasn’t good enough to be on the team, a lot had to do with being a male and they had a history of issues with males on the team so I didn’t make it, but then I became the coach.
The plan was to finish school and stay at SFA for two years. There wasn’t a fulltime position, I was told there never would be one. In my mind, I was thinking, well we’ll see about that… I can’t take no for an answer.
Do you have an example of when you wouldn’t take no for an answer as a coach?
My first year I was told I had 15 spots because there were only 15 scholarships. I knew if we were going to get on top again, we had to take more dancers. So, I studied all of the videos and I knew we needed a bigger program if we were going to be successful. I told my boss “I want 18.” He said, “you have 15.” I said, “I want 18.” He said, “you have 15 scholarships.” So, I said “what if I take some of those scholarships and made them half scholarships?” I think he was surprised at how I would think outside the box and not take no for an answer. He agreed and said I could do what I want so I picked 18 dancers. It continued to grow from there.
That first year was hard, I lost my hair! It was so stressful, so different. My work ethic and drive were so high and I was working intensely for that program. We might not win right away but I believed we would get there. I remember going into our first week of practice before school started and one dancer asked me, “School starts next week, are we always going to sweat like this? Because usually we don’t sweat like this until nationals season.” And I said, “well you better pretend like it’s nationals all the time. We’re going to sweat.”
And the rest is history!
Exactly, even though I planned to stay two years to finish my degree, it took 3 years because I changed my mind and ended up with a kinesiology degree. When I finished my degree, my boss said he didn’t want to lose me as a coach. Not only had we done well as a team at nationals, but the program was really improving. Going into my 4th year coaching when I graduated I felt like it was time to move on. I’m 29 at this point and I need to figure out what’s next. But I told my boss that they needed consistency. As much as they don’t want to fight for a fulltime position, that’s what it’s going to take. Turns out, he heard me. I graduated in May and they offered me a fulltime position.
We just kept going from there. I won my first nationals that next year. Doors kept opening and closing and here I am 16 years later, and I know I will retire here.
You truly built your career from the ground up. That is an incredible story. Talk to us about your other work at SFA within the Kinesiology department and the new coaching minor. The educator in me is fascinated by this, is such an amazing accomplishment.
Thank you, yes I work in the kinesiology department here and several years ago the dance department had some changeover. There was an influx of new people in charge who were open to a partnership. The new dance department faculty had a respect for dance team, many had been on dance team in high school and coached before. They understood what we were doing, so we were on the same page. It was so amazing to have someone who respected what we did, saw value in what we did, and also saw the opportunity for collaboration.
We started talking and eventually got approval for there to be 1 class that’s an elective. I developed the class, Theory and Practice of Dance Team Coaching. It goes through all seasons of dance team, tryouts, camp, football, basketball, competition, spring show. It was a hit as an elective. Then the next semester we did choreography for dance teams as an elective as well. It’s different than choreography in the dance department. We do pom, jazz, hip hop, and kick primarily. There’s a lot of evaluating, we talk about transitions, layering, levels, how it’s different than performance dance and traditional studio dance. The artistic value is the same, but the formula is different.
I created what I would have wanted if I was in college. I wanted to create something that if a director has that extra minor, how much more valuable would they be to their school system. This could eventually relate to money in their pocket. We went through all the hoops and now it’s a minor at SFA.
It seems that your strong work ethic comes naturally to you, but how do you get that culture in your team? How do you get them to want to sweat all the time and pretend its nationals all year?
One of our underlying mottos is that everything matters. I say it a lot, all the small things matter. Everything we do, we have the culture where we make everything count. I can be a very intense coach, my patience can wear thin, but when they do well, they are rewarded. They hear me harp on things, but also whenever they do well they hear that from me too. But we can always do better. That is the thing that we thrive upon is that yes, we’re good and it’s nice when everyone says they look good, but we haven’t reached the end.
Remind them this is their only opportunity…
I always remind them there will never be another 20-21 dance team, you’re it. So, what are you going to leave with? How are you going to help us to reach those goals? It takes a lot of repetition. I sound like a broken record; I will tell them until I’m blue in the face but then if they don’t get it, I can’t feel sorry for them. We have so many more resources now. We always film when we clean and put it on their band account if they don’t take the time to review it and make sure they have it all down, then I can’t feel sorry for them when I have to cut them. It’s about creating that culture of making sure everything counts.
The other thing is if I’m asking 100% out of my dancers, I better be ready to give more than that. I don’t think other coaches understand that, they aren’t servants to their own programs, and you have to get into that mindset. Be willing to do just as much if not more than your dancers and then it will all roll into place.
You are also the spirit coordinator at SFA, can you talk about how you keep a positive culture between the cheer and dance programs?
I have been blessed that the spirit program has always been tight here, but it’s had the challenges of keeping it that way as the program has grown. As numbers have gotten bigger it creates more of a challenge, but we are intentional about it. Game day is big, we act like it’s as bigtime as we can. We remind them that it’s fun, but we also want you to look good, it all matters. I’m very detail oriented and that rolls into how they appear to the student body. If anyone is looking from afar the whole program should look unified and even intimidating.
Now if you look at the endzone there are 100 spirit team members and we are all working together. It’s impressive. I’m not 100% responsible for the culture of comradery but we do a lot together and I work hard to try and keep it. Also, all of our standards are set program-wide so one team doesn’t get away with more than another. I don’t call them rules, I learned to call them standards a long time ago.
People will rise to standards, rules are something people try to break.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the best or the worst person on the team, everyone is treated fairly. That also helps to create the comradery between programs.
You are certainly seen as a pom expert in our industry. Will you share some tips for cleaning and polishing a pom routine?
I think the cleaning part is the most neglected within a lot of teams. I have a philosophy that the first thing you do is clarify. That’s just making sure everyone is doing the same thing the same way. What’s the pathway? What’s the angle? We aren’t drilling anything yet, that comes later.
It’s important to immediately start building endurance and stamina. For someone like me who hates to see mistakes, you have to put those blurry goggles on and just let them do the routine. Even though it’ll be an eye sore to look at because it will be wrong, they have to build the stamina to be able to get through the routine once you add the cleans in. I think a lot of times we wait until we’ve cleaned it before we start running it. I learned that we need to be running the routine earlier.
We used to run 2 miles at the beginning of practice and while that’s great, running isn’t the same as doing a routine. There’s a steady pace when you run like that, a routine is a sprint. How better to prepare than to run the routine! People will always say, “well then they get bad habits.” Sure, but you’ll clean that out of them. It doesn’t matter how clean you get it if they don’t have the stamina to execute it.
The next thing is we take it count by count and drill those counts. We’ve already clarified, now it’s drilling and making sure timing is together. Small chunks, maybe an 8 count. Depending on how intricate it is, it might be 1-3 8 counts but it’s just about repetition. Repetition creates consistency. Eventually, we move on to bigger chunks, then halves. The part that is neglected the most is usually the end, so we run the end a lot. I often drill from the end backward.
The beginning is going to get a ton of work because if you’re a coach like me and every time you see a mistake you want to stop the music and make them start over, they’re going to start over a lot from the beginning. I also write down cleaning goals as we’re getting ready for nationals. We know what needs to be done when to make sure we’re ready in time.
Give yourself a deadline…
I also think it’s important to put deadlines on things. Whether it’s a skill in the routine, or choreography, you have to have a hard deadline. You can’t just keep it and hope it gets better, because all you get is regrets. You have to listen to your heart and your head and maybe that was a good ambitious goal but we’re just not there yet. There have been many championship routines that were not what we started with choreographically. You have to have the best interest of the team at the forefront of your mind. Sometimes our pride gets in the way as coaches and we think, I know they can do it. My whole team can do an aerial. Ok great but can they do it in the routine and can they do it as one? Sometimes you have to change things.
That’s the process, clarify, running as we go, drilling. There will be practices early on even after they’ve just learned it when they run it 3 or 4 times back to back to back because as much as it will be terrible to look at, it will pay off in the end. They need that stamina.
I want to ask you more about growing up and how as young man you didn’t have the opportunities in high school and there were colleges who weren’t ready yet. Do you feel like that has gotten better or what would you still like to see for young boys who want to be a part of dance team today?
I think it is miles and miles better. I currently have 5 males on my team, and I’ve had up to 6 or 7 at a time. Of course, I wish more teams would embrace it. Not for the wow factor of having a boy, but genuinely creating an environment where it is acceptable. Also creating an environment where it is looked at with value. I took the first male on my team in 2008 and I had to go to meetings and beg because of a negative past with male dancers on the team. I had to put my life on the line and say, “I will make sure he represents the program well.”
Then it was very different, that first male dancer in a long time, people were being mean and making fun of him. To now, my biggest complaint is, “why aren’t your male dancers using poms?” Wow have times changed.
It is getting better. Part of the reason to contribute to that is a lot of us who fought through it when it was sort of ok and you then you add Americas Best Dance Crew, So You Think You Can Dance, World of Dance and now the general population is getting a better view of men in dance. It doesn’t matter who they are as a person, it matters what they can contribute to the team. It still has a long way to go, but a lot of things still have a long way to go. I don’t think teams are diverse enough either. But overall I think that it’s slowly getting better.
So the men on your team don’t use poms. I’ve heard different opinions on that, what is your philosophy?
I tried it, maybe for nationals, but then when I start to do choreography, I don’t want it. I want them to do the stuff without the poms. It’s a choreographic choice, that’s my strength so I don’t want them to put their poms down, I want them to be free handed. I personally wouldn’t want to use them as a dancer. I didn’t use them in college, I asked my coach not to. However, I’ve seen it done well on both sides. So, I think at this point it’s a choreographic choice. Game day here at SFA my male dancers don’t use poms they do motions like the male cheerleaders. I think it’s a personal preference for each male dancer to make, but for me it’s helped in the realm of choreography to have them not use poms.
Any general advice for coaches you’d like to share?
Something that I think is important, (and I see it a lot especially in young coaches) is when they don’t get the team they wanted or the job they wanted, they don’t grow where they are planted. They leave too soon. Or they think it’s going to be easy and it’s not. It takes time. It takes 4-5 years before the team is truly yours. Be willing to be truly selfless for those first years so you can reap the benefits of a long career. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but you have to water that grass. Unless you water yourself and nurture you own program, you’ll always be chasing something new.
That’s one thing I regret in what I see now, the rollover in coaches. There used to be a lot of great coaches that were with the same team for decades and I see that dwindling away. Sometimes it’s for selfish reasons, and I hate that for the students and dancers. They’re the ones that are getting the bad end of the deal. If you want a culture and a program with a certain standard put in the work to create it and live by that.
We live in a very immediate satisfaction generation so who is going to continue to teach this generation that rewards are not immediate if we don’t.
TJ Maple’s Bio:
Over the last twenty-four years, T.J. Maple has been Choreographing and Coaching dance teams across Texas and beyond. Over the past sixteen years as Coach at Stephen F. Austin, Maple has transformed the squad from a traditional “Pom” squad that focused on High Energy Hip Hop and Pom to a higher level of dance and technique.
Under Maple’s direction, the squad has won twenty –four American Dance/Drill Team School Collegiate Championships in Div. I and IA Open, Pom, Jazz and Hip Hop since 2006. SFA has won the NCA/NDA Collegiate National Championship in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 (x2), 2018, and most recently 2019. Maple has produced over 40 NDA Collegiate All-Americans over the past eleven seasons. Maple is also the creator of “Jack Attack” – SFA’s Competitive Hip Hop team. Beginning in the 2015-16 season, the names of SFA Pom Squad and SFA Jack Attack merged to officially become the SFA Dance Teams having a split into two competitive teams for basketball and national’s seasons. (You can read more about TJ’s amazing accomplishments in the dance world here.)
Maple has been a Choreographer, Head Instructor, Certified Adjudicator, Speaker and currently part of the Unleashed Master Staff for the National Dance Alliance (NDA) in Dallas, Texas. Maple is part of the ESP Productions staff for the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL. He is also an adjudicator and master instructor for numerous companies including American Dance/Drill Team School (ADTS), Show Makers of America, Crowd Pleasers Dance and MA Dance. He is also a former judge for the Dance Worlds. T.J. has been a member of the Texas Dance Educators Association (TDEA) since 2001. Maple was the TDEA All-State Choreographer in 2013. In 2012, Maple created the Texas College Dance Coaches Conference to unite all College Dance Coaches on a mission to form a foundation for collegiate excellence.
His favorite quote is “The ultimate goal is to be better today than you were yesterday”