Gophers dance bonding and practicing without football and comps in the fall

The 19-time national champion and 3-time world champion Gophers dance team is one of the elite DI programs in the country.

Photo+Courtesy+of+Janelle+Elise+Photography

Photo Courtesy of Janelle Elise Photography

Matthew Kennedy

Fans of Gophers’ football and Gophers’ men’s basketball can catch the Minnesota dance team on the field and court during games, but few know the ins and outs of one of the most successful sports programs at the school. 

The dance team competes in two different styles: Pom and Jazz. Pom is known for being more physically demanding and requires more athleticism than the classy and expressive Jazz. While each style has its merits, senior captains Leah Kasner, Katherine Hebig and Chloe Bauer agree that Jazz is their favorite.

“Pom is great because you wear a uniform representing the University of Minnesota, but every time you have to do a Pom routine full-out it can be a bit intimidating. Jazz is more artistic and has an interesting story to every dance,” Kasner said.

Competing in nationals last season, the Gophers finished eighth in Pom and second in Jazz. For Bauer, Kasner and Hebig – who experienced the joy of winning first place in Jazz in 2019 – eighth place in Pom stung. 

“It shook us, yet I was really proud of our team to turn it around in Jazz to finish second. Nationals is a high stakes week for us and you can feel the pressure escalate going head-to-head against the best teams,” Bauer said. 

Despite last season’s disappointing outcome in Pom, the Gophers dance team has seen a wide range of success in the program’s history. The Gophers have won 19 national championships and three world championships, making it one of the most successful DI programs in the country. Kasner, Hebig and Bauer are looking forward to another successful season, even if it will be wildly unique amid the pandemic. 

“We haven’t officially met as a team … We’ve been having two practices a week over Zoom wherever we can find a mat and getting creative,” Hebig said. 

When new dancers come to campus they usually show up for tryouts. There is little recruiting in high school, and even the skilled dancers getting looks from the Gophers are not guaranteed a spot.

“We can’t offer scholarships to incoming freshmen because our budget isn’t as large as other sports,” Kasner said. “Tryouts are usually in April, and then we have May off and start the season with the new rookies. This year, tryouts were sent in by video and it was different than anything we have done before.”

Unfortunately, with comps canceled due to COVID-19 and no Big Ten football, there is little to prepare for as of now. 

“Right now, we have a new coach and still are learning a lot of new material, especially in Pom, and welcoming in our rookies to the program,” Bauer said. 

This gives the team time to grow closer, opposed to the typical schedule of practicing endzone celebrations and preparing for competition.

“Right now, our focus is more on team bonding instead of practicing in the fall for learning football endzone dances and practicing for each new game. Our one big competition got moved to the spring. So, normally, we would practice our comp routines from now until January, then take a break and focus on basketball. Now that we don’t have nationals right away, we are going to start practicing harder later and can relax and focus on more team bonding,” Hebig said.  

But without football games or comps, the team needs to stay mentally tough as they practice to maintain their form. The Gophers have used hypnosis to help keep them focus and to provide the necessary mental toughness required competing at the highest level.

“We have a 30-minute recording that has been a part of the team for almost a decade. Coming into our freshman year it was a little odd but it really does help,” Kasner said. 

The three captains recommend hypnosis for helping other athletes with mental toughness. They’ve seen results in the biggest moments. 

“One thing about dance that is unique is you have two minutes to perform exactly what you have been training for the entire season. So, what I love about our team is that we consistently thrive under pressure,” Hebig said.

Yet, all three captains agree that the biggest reward in joining the Gophers dance team isn’t the program’s prestige and constant success, it’s the community formed. The trio agrees the friendships formed on the team and the opportunity to meeting a wide array of alumni and make connections within the professional world is something special.