The Cornell Dance Team performs Jan. 14 at the 2023 Universal Dance Association’s Collegiate Dance Team National Championship.

Dance club leaps over obstacles to perform at 2023 Nationals

Two days before the Cornell Dance Team was set to compete at the national championships in Orlando, Florida, they found out that one of their 12 members had chipped a bone – and couldn’t walk, let alone dance. Then on the morning of the competition, a second member pulled out for personal reasons.

“We had worked so hard to get to where we were,” said coach Amanda Hernandez ’21. “All of these crumbling pieces made it much more difficult to achieve our goal of making finals.”

The team hoped to make it into the finals by placing at least eighth among the 16 teams competing in the “Pom division,” a style of dance Hernandez describes as “jazz on the bottom and cheerleading on top,” on Jan. 14 at the 2023 Universal Dance Association’s Collegiate Dance Team National Championship.

This was the latest challenge for the dance team, which performs at basketball and football games on campus. The club is one of the 37 registered dance organizations at Cornell, which are all still working to rebound from the pandemic. Like many other campus groups, the members had to practice via Zoom, tackle financial challenges and rebuild their membership over the last year.

To replace the injured dancer, alternate and co-captain Tiye Selby ’23, a chemical engineering major in Cornell Engineering, started practicing her new part on a Thursday night, hoping to be ready for the Saturday morning competition.

“It was very nerve wracking to go into her position,” Selby said. “I just had that pit in my stomach. And then I had to go into overdrive mode of learning the choreography.”

This year’s challenges followed several others.

They had started out as the Big Red Dance Squad, a recreational student group. In 2017, they became the Cornell Dance Team, a university sanctioned club with plans to compete.

Shortly after their first trip to nationals in 2020, the pandemic hit.

“I practiced in a dorm lounge, with no dance floor, with a few other teammates wearing masks. Others were on Zoom,” said Savannah Jeffries ’24, a mathematics major in the College of Arts and Sciences, of her freshman season. “The obstacles gave us even better perspective for all the hard work that we had done to get to nationals.”

And they needed to fundraise about $25,000 for uniforms, training camp, nationals registration, transportation and lodging, said Jeffries, the team treasurer. To meet the financial demands, each dancer pays dues and works on fundraising projects.

The team has created a care package business, through which each month the team advertises themed gift baskets in Cornell parent Facebook groups. They buy gift items such as snacks, candy and seasonal goodies, assemble the baskets and deliver them to students’ doorsteps. Word of mouth has kept the orders flowing and it has proven to be their most reliable source of income outside of Giving Day.

“We found that for the price that we offer the baskets, for a lot of parents, it would take that much to ship it,” Jeffries said. “And then they’d be paying money to the Postal Service when they could be supporting a group on campus.”

With a limited budget, the team has never had a coach before this year; Hernandez coaches for free because she loves the organization, she says. She works full-time in New York City and Zooms into their practices a few times a week.

With team members spread across the country over the five-week winter break, they had to figure out how to practice for the competition.

Hernandez required her team to film themselves practicing at home individually and then submit videos to a Facebook group.

“Normally you learn to build off of each other’s energy and we all dance almost as one,” said Ava Palic ’25, who is studying fashion design in the College of Human Ecology. “So when we’re all not together, I found that was really hard for me. I didn’t get to feed off of other people’s energy.”

Even so, they were able to find the good in a challenging situation.

“Every time we would do the posts, we would comment on each other’s with motivational things or little corrections, which I always felt was super helpful,” Palic said.

The months of practice paid off when the team got together in an Airbnb in Florida the week before nationals to practice at a nearby studio. Even with the loss of two dancers and last-minute chorography rearrangements, the dancers knew their routines. Spirits were high on competition day.

On Jan. 14, the team donned their red and white uniforms, with one dancer less than they planned, and gave the audience a high-energy performance of turns, kicks, jumps and splits.

They placed 13th in the Division 1 Pom category, missing making it into the finals.

While this wasn’t what the team had dreamt of, they were thrilled.

“Going on stage, it didn’t really matter to me what the dance looked like. I was just so happy to be there with everyone else,” Selby said. “And I was just really proud of all the things we were able to accomplish in such a short time.”

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Rebecca Valli