Gophers dance dynasty takes the international stage

The decorated team will rep the United States at a global competition in April.

The University of Minnesota dance team practices Thursday in Bierman Field Athletic Building.

Holly Peterson

The University of Minnesota dance team practices Thursday in Bierman Field Athletic Building.

Samuel Gordon

This April, the University of Minnesota dance team will compete in the International Cheer Union — a congregation of the best dance and cheer teams in the world.

That’s what a half-decade of dominance will do.

The invitation to the ICU is just the latest in a laundry list of accomplishments for the Gophers dancers.

In both the pom and jazz divisions, Minnesota is the five-time defending Universal Cheerleading Association and Universal Dance Association College Cheerleading and Dance Team national champion.

Year in and year out, Minnesota fields a team of 18 dancers with elite skills and adaptability. That, coupled with the intuitive chemistry the current team has worked to develop since it was assembled last summer, makes for the best dance team in the nation.

“The girls on the team are the best of the best,” said former Gophers dancer and head coach Amanda Gaines. “We really look for the people that have the potential to adapt to our style.”

While most students just see the dancers on the sidelines at football and basketball games, those events showcase only a fraction of their skills.

“Our game day routines are all about … pleasing the crowd,” senior captain Rachel Fellows said. “For our nationals routine, it’s … very technical. The skills we do at games are nothing like what we do on the nationals floor.”

At this year’s national championships at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., the Gophers showcased their turns, pirouettes, leaps and jumps en route to titles in the pom and jazz divisions — their fifth straight title and the culmination of more than six months of practice.

Those dancers began their national championship defense when the current team was put together in May.

Gaines said tryouts are usually held near the end of the academic year so incoming freshmen who make the team have ample time to make their college decision.

When freshman Kelsey Sutter was still in high school, she was well aware of the dance team’s prestige and knew she wanted to be a part of it.

Tryouts, however, were a different kind of beast.

“I was incredibly intimidated,” Sutter said. “Coming into a team that won four national championships in a row. I saw it as such an honor to be given the opportunity to try out.”

Tryouts are a three-day process that spans an entire weekend.

Prospective dancers learn a minute-long routine Friday. Throughout the weekend, program alumni judge the tryouts, make cuts and recommend finalists to Gaines, who has the ultimate say.

After that, dancers get a couple of weeks off before intensive practices begin.

In the summer, dancers are in charge of their own individual workouts, and Gaines said strength and endurance training are priorities. Gaines said there are a couple “boot camp weekends” in which skill and technique are the main focuses.

Once daily practices begin in August, choreography and routines are tailor-made for Gophers football games.

The dance team choreographs all its routines — a task that Fellows said is daunting at first.

“We kind of just take it piece by piece. We’ll take a little 10-second section here, fix it and then move on,” she said. “When you take it in pieces, it becomes a lot more manageable.”

The cheer routines the dancers execute on the sidelines are comparable to the pom routine the Gophers compete with at nationals.

Gaines said pom is more of a cheer-centric routine, often incorporating a school’s fight song.

Sutter said cheering at games helped her get used to high-pressure situations, including competitions.

“I remember walking out onto the tunnel and on the field … thinking, ‘I get to represent Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota in general,’” she said.

Midway through football season, the team’s focus shifts away from sideline routines and toward developing a jazz routine for nationals.

Gaines said jazz is more of an artistic routine.

“It’s very athletic, but there’s definitely the artistry to it as well,” she said.

Once again, the team develops its own routine, and through repetition, it develops syncopation and synchronization.

“It’s about perfecting everything — making them look like it’s one dancer on the floor,” Gaines said.

In April, competing at the ICU could require new routines or some simple modifications to their championship presentation.

“In some cases, you have to add time onto the dances,” senior Grace Gerring said. “I think practices will go exactly as normal.”

The Gophers will join the University of Cincinnati in representing the United States against the rest of the world.

“We’ll probably go through the same routine we did at nationals,” Gerring said. “We know that works.”