Dance Teams vs. Dance Departments

March 18, 2009

One sustains the arts while the other supports athletics. One encourages independent expression while the other places the group above the individual. College dance departments and dance teams seem to be at opposite ends of the performance spectrum, and they often butt heads. But do the two entities have more in common than they realize? DS investigates the root of the friction between dance majors and dance teamers, and offers tips on what directors and dancers can do to smooth things over.

Identity Crisis

Historically, dance departments and dance teams started out fighting similar battles. Universities once placed dance departments with physical education, grouping dancers alongside gym teachers. Though the first college dance class took place at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1917, it took decades for dance to become a respected major. Dance teams, a phenomenon that became popular in the early ’90s, are now grappling with a similar identity crisis—they’re often passed around from department to department, from “student life” to athletics to dance. Having no clear home, dance teams often struggle to belong. And this outsider perspective can lead directly to friction between teams and other university dancers, especially when the two groups are under one roof.

“To be frank, there are a lot of people who treat my dancers like second-class citizens within the dance department,” says Jodi Maxfield, artistic director of the seven-time championship-winning Brigham Young University Cougarettes. Brenda Parisi, former coach of Lindenwood University’s dance team, has also experienced snubs from her dance department colleagues, though she admits the relationship has improved greatly over the years. “Back when we first formed the dance team, we had our practices in a completely different building and there was a definite distance,” she says. “I had absolutely no communication with the dance department unless there was something wrong or somebody needed something from us.”

Having a clear sense of purpose helps teams define their place in the university. “We are very proud that we are in the Department of Theatre Arts and the College of Fine Arts and Communication,” says Towson University dance team coach Tom Cascella. “This is where our team belongs. We have an artistic focus and mission, and we are overjoyed to work in the same buildings as other artists.”

If you are a part of the dance department, but are also heavily involved with athletics, recognize the connection: You are all dancers. “One of the reasons I love being in the dance department is because we can maintain our artistry,” says Maxfield. “We put on a concert with the dance department every year and we do lyrical, jazz, contemporary, hip hop—a little bit of everything. It really is a great opportunity for us, and I wonder if we were in athletics if we’d be able to do the same thing.”

Teach Your Children Well

In the marginalization of dance teams, dance department heads and professors can be the worst offenders. “Even though they claim to have open-minded views on dance, many instructors have closed their minds to anything different from what they want,” says Neva Gebelein, co-captain of the University of California, San Diego’s dance team. “It’s ironic, because the dancers on our team are extremely talented and have wonderful training, but some members of the dance department hold a grudge against us just because we walk into class wearing our team sweatpants.”

The best way to deal with judgmental professors is to speak to them in person. “Sometimes professors don’t always appreciate the athletic side of dance or realize how artistic a dance team can be,” says Kristin Best, an assistant professor and coach of the dance team at Lindenwood University. “I had quite a few conversations with professors, explaining dance team style and showing them videos. They may not understand everything that goes into it, but they can at least appreciate it.”

Peer Pressure

While it’s difficult to swallow criticism from those in positions of power, it can be even harder to deal with judgment from your peers. Jealousy and misunderstanding can fuel the feud—and harsh words can be hurled from both sides of the fence. “Seeing the growth we had in our program and the initial stagnant development of the dance department created a lot of turmoil among the dancers,” says Parisi. “My girls felt it. There was a lot of picking on people. Was there retaliation? Yes, there probably was. I’m not going to say my kids were completely innocent.” In fact, sometimes it’s the dance team members themselves who tend to shut out the dance department. “A lot of times they don’t want to step back from their comfort zone,” says Best. “They say, ‘I can’t do ballet’ or ‘Modern is too weird.’ That causes some animosity. It goes both ways.”

How can you bridge the gap? Take responsibility by modeling better behavior and participating in dance department performances or classes. “By taking ballet or modern class, not only are dancers going to see improvement in their versatility, they’re also going to develop a relationship with the dance department,” says Best. “The more dancers are dancing, regardless of what style they’re doing, the stronger they become. And I think that’s what everyone on both sides wants.”

Coping Mechanisms

Although many dance teams and departments are taking steps to alleviate ill will, the tension won’t go away without a serious attitude adjustment—on both sides. For dance teams, this means working to earn the respect of dance department colleagues. “Actions speak louder than words,” says Maxfield.

“If you want to be taken seriously, then you have to take what you do seriously. Conduct yourself in a way that they can’t help but respect who you are and what you do.” In the meantime, as you try to broker peace between the two groups, find solace in your teammates. “If you are constantly worrying about whether or not someone accepts you, then you’re not focused on the purpose of your team,” says Parisi. “You have to look to the team for your motivation.”