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It was 10 pm in a parking ramp in Daytona Beach. Kali Bernloehr and 15 other dancers were frantically reworking their routine on the eve of the National Dance Alliance championships. They had to wake up in less than 6 hours to prepare for the biggest performance of their lives, but that was OK. Members of the UMD Dance Team are no strangers to brutal hours and tough conditions.
There’s no space, no coach, and very little funding, but that hasn’t stopped this RSOP club team from dancing circles around their completion at a national level.
The Dance Team dances where they can, when they can. The campus gym is reserved first for the basketball teams, second for the intramural teams, and third for the club teams. This means Kali and her crew’s jazz shoes don’t touch the gym’s wood floor until after 9 p.m. Once in a while they’ll run their routines in the tiny workout room underneath UMD’s fitness center, a space so small that Bernloehr describes dancers having to mime their routines jammed against a side wall, forced to fidget the finish instead of fire out the finale because they’re simply out of room.
In these spaces, team members need to take turns removing themselves from the group to assess the progress, a task usually reserved for a coach, but this team lacks a formal leader. “We lead ourselves,” says Bernloehr, a team captain. The reason is twofold: she says it’s hard to find someone in Duluth who’s qualified to coach a college-level dance team. The other reason is financial. UMD’s Dance Team simply doesn’t have enough money to pay someone to coach them.
The team’s finances are like a modern dance: difficult but somehow pulled together through careful choreography. UMD allocates $1,500, team members raise about $20,000, and each dancer pays about $1,000 in out-of-pocket costs for things like airfare, music licensing, and costumes.
Despite the odds stacked against them, this team is stacking up the wins. It took home a fourth place win in 2010, second place in 2011, third in 2012, and first place at the national championships in 2013. “We’ve been getting better and better, and so has the competition,” says Bernloehr. Which brings us to this year.
After polishing their routine in the parking garage, team members got up at 4 am on April 14 to prepare for their championship dance. They helped each other with hair and makeup, listened to their music one more time, while doling out the pep talks, trying to calm each other’s nerves. The Bulldogs were walking onstage in second place, Central Oklahoma was in first. Along with their ranking, Central Oklahoma also had not only a coach, but also had an athletic trainer and a personal trainer for their team. UMD's team just had each other. “It was intimidating, I’m not going to lie.”
But once that music started, the team was in their zone, nailing moves with a combination of confidence and grit that had the audience on their feet. UMD's Dance Team won the NCA/NDA collegiate competition, toppling Central Oklahoma's 9.418 with a final score of 9.470.
Those who can, Duluth, brought to life on a Florida stage by sixteen students who danced their way to a national championship.
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