College Dance Team Central

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Topperette Changes Bring Costs, Benefits

By Mandy Simpson
WKU Herald

To some, the changes to this year’s Topperette dance team seemed subtle — fewer girls, a new coach, different costumes.

But to Coach Candice Tope and Lindsay Thomas, director of marketing and promotions for Western Athletics, this rebuilding year has made all the difference.

Thomas said she noticed more fans sacrificing their half-time concessions to watch the Topperettes perform one of about 12 power-packed routines they practiced for hours each week.

“I can’t tell you how many fans have come up and said, ‘I love that routine. That routine was awesome,’” Tope said.

A series of these fresh routines ranging from pom to jazz to hip-hop graced the basketball floor and football field this year.

A budget resting comfortably in the black provided all Topperettes with necessary performance attire and each Topperette who met the team requirements with a small scholarship, Thomas said.

A team that was as good at dancing as advancing the image of Western emerged, she said.

“We are proud of the product we put on the floor,” Thomas said.

When the girls weren’t on the sidelines this year, they made appearances at promotional and charity events such as Relay for Life and the Special Olympics, Tope said.

As much as they were dancers, they were spokeswomen, Thomas said.

But this shift and these improvements didn’t come without cost.

The Topperettes didn’t compete in any national or local competitions this year in order to rebuild the team and the budget, Thomas said. A national competition alone can cost about $20,000.

This was a hard sacrifice for seniors dancing as a Topperette for the last time, Tope said.

“I love my girls,” she said. “All hard workers, no divas.”

Thomas and Tope also made tough decisions at tryouts in order to cut the team from about 50 girls to 21 girls in fall 2009, Thomas said.

She said the girls who made the team performed well in the three tryout routine styles — pom, hip-hop and jazz — and displayed the potential to excel in the collegiate dance world.

“This is a dance team,” Thomas said. “This isn’t a ballet company or the Rockettes. You have to be able to do all our styles of dance.”

In accordance with a new Topperette policy, current team members were not allowed to speak with the Herald, Tope said.
The smaller team was the change that stung several former Topperettes the hardest.

***

Athletes know the feeling — the lonely ache of the final walk off the floor, field, court or stage, said La Grange junior Allison Smith, a former Topperette. The end inevitably arrives.

But last May, Smith thought she had the best audition of her life for the Topperettes. She’d been on the team for two years and felt confident that her experience and technical abilities would help her make the cut.

She’d also recently secured a nationally competitive position in the Rockette Summer Intensive program.

So, with 18 years of turns, leaps, jumps, kicks and choreography under her feet, Smith completed the Topperettes’ two-day tryout, which included dance routines and technical evaluations. Then she waited expectantly for the judges to call her number.

One by one, the new Topperettes assembled on the opposite side of the gym. When all the numbers had been called, Smith remained.

“I felt my whole team sitting on the other side of that wall, and I wasn’t a part of it,” she said. “It was horrible. I had to stand there and wait to turn in my costumes.”

Smith wasn’t alone. About five other Topperette veterans were cut during last year’s tryouts and left confused about what parts of their auditions were inadequate, she said.

Smith and fellow former Topperette, Chicago sophomore Alise Hogan, had an idea.

“I knew it wasn’t my technique that kept me from making the team,” Smith said.

Stephanie Pennington, the team’s head coach for the previous five years, said she decided not to return for the 2009-2010 season in order to focus on teaching at her dance studio, Dynamic Dance.

So Thomas organized Topperette tryouts last year, and a new column — which accounted for 30 percent of the dancers’ overall score — appeared on the judges scorecard: “collegiate image,” Thomas said.

The image category assessed the neatness of the dancers’ clothing, hair and makeup, and judges explained these expectations to the dancers before tryouts began.

“It’s like, if you can write your name on the SAT, you can get points,” Thomas said about the image category. “If you can show up doing what we’ve asked of you, you can get points.”

Hogan, who joined the team as a freshman after competing with her state-champion high school dance team in Chicago, felt her body lowered her score in the image section. But she said she knew that was a possibility when she entered tryouts.

“The second I made the team (freshman year), I was told, ‘You need to work out because you aren’t necessarily where we want you to be,’” Hogan said.

Hogan had maintained the strong, petite body from her days as a gymnast, and said no one had addressed her about her weight previously.

Pennington said she didn’t include the image category when she ran tryouts, but judges conducted interviews with the dancers to ensure they had positive attitudes and good work ethics.

Pennington said the new category may reflect a shift in the Topperettes’ main priority from a competing team to a marketing
entity.

During her last year of coaching, Pennington said she did talk to groups of girls, which included Smith and Hogan, about working out and toning up.

She said girls also approached her for exercise advice that would help them feel comfortable in the form-fitting costumes the collegiate dance world requires.

“We never said body image is important. We said, ‘You’re going to be out on the floor,’” she said. “It hurts us to see people make comments about them.”

But the dancers weren’t the only ones addressed about body image. Pennington said Western marketing personnel spoke with her about the team’s image, which partially motivated her talks with the dancers.

“I was talked to about it, comparing it to other dance teams and cheerleading teams where body image was so important, just stressing that it is important,” she said. “It was, ‘Here’s the image that we’re looking for.’”

Hogan said she continued to work out with Pennington and the team throughout the year, but, by tryouts last May, her spirits were low.

“I knew ‘I’m not going to make it, because I’m not skinny,’” she said. “I just wanted to show that I could dance, that size shouldn’t matter.”

The first round of tryouts was judged by Thomas, who represented marketing and had danced throughout high school; Deborah Wilkins, chief of staff and general counsel, who represented Western as a whole; and a former Topperette, Thomas said.

For the final round of tryouts, Tope said she also judged.

When the judges turned in the score cards, Smith, Hogan and other veterans didn’t make the cut.

“That breaks my heart,” Pennington said. “I would have picked every girl that was (formerly) on the team.”

Smith requested a post-tryout meeting with Thomas, during which she mentioned that she had worked hard to lose 20 pounds in the past season, she said.

“(Thomas) told me to keep doing what I was doing,” Smith said.

Thomas said she cannot specifically recall the meeting with Smith, but stressed that she never discussed body image with the dancers.

Pennington, who danced on the national championship University of Louisville Ladybirds dance team, said she’s aware of body image pressure collegiate dancers receive and works hard to teach the young girls at her studio to love their bodies no matter what.

“It’s hard to see a great high school dancer, who might not make it in the college world because of their body image,” she said.
But Thomas and Tope said body image didn’t impact any of the dancer’s scores, and neither has spoken to dancers about their bodies this year.

“I tell my girls, ‘I want you to be healthy. I want you to feel comfortable in our costumes,’” Tope said.

She said she does emphasize the importance of fitness during conditioning, because of the physical demands of cheering at games.

“I’ll say, ‘You walked that lap. I didn’t need you to walk that lap,’” she said.

***

The Topperettes will host tryouts for the 2010-2011 team May 8 and 9, and they’re keeping their eyes on one prize moving forward, Tope said.

Tope said the women will continue their charity work this summer with appearances at the Boys and Girls Club in Glasgow, and they’ll continue working toward the highest honor in collegiate dance.

“At the end of the day our goal is go out there and win a national championship,” Thomas said.

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