Four Mitchell High School girls have danced their way to All-American status, earning the opportunity to perform in the New Year’s Day parade in Rome, Italy, next year.

Senior Kendra Jennings, juniors Madisyn Sheesley and Victoria Colwell and freshman Logan Culhane were among five MHS dancers who auditioned for 20 spots on the All-American dance team during a Universal Dance Camp at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul June 26-30. The camp was sponsored by Varsity, a spiritwear company.

“It’s really scary, because you try out with two” dancers from other teams … “who are going to bring out their best skills,” Sheesley said.

The girls and one other Mitchell dancer were among more than 50 who put in an extra half-hour of rehearsal time after a 12-hour dance day on June 27, then auditioned in front of 153 peers, plus coaches and judges. They performed two eight-count measures each of jazz, hip-hop and contemporary dance, as well as two eight-counts of their choice. They were judged on their memory, facial expressions and technique.

“It feels really (quick) when you’re doing it, because the music is pretty fast,” Culhane said, and learning the routines in just one 30-minute rehearsal was intense.

While Culhane and Jennings prefer hip-hop dances, Sheesley and Colwell like jazz best. But all four agree it’s important to know all of them.

“If you’re an All-American dancer, you (maybe don’t need to) be perfect at all of the styles, but you need to be able to pick some of it up and do the best with what you have, because it’s a pretty big deal,” Culhane said.

“You might have your strengths and weaknesses, but you want to be an all-around good dancer,” Jennings agreed.

Young performers

The four All-Americans got their first taste of dance through local dance studios as young girls. Culhane and Sheesley have been dancing for 11 years each, while Jennings has been dancing for 13 years, and Colwell for 15.

“I was always singing and dancing” as a toddler, Culhane said. “I love putting on the costumes and doing my hair. Dance is a place for me to express my hobbies.”

Jennings and her cousins, who also danced, often would put on shows for their parents. As they’ve gotten older, the girls have been excited to take her dancing to the next level.

“I really liked being able to do the dances at a recital and perform for everyone, but with competitive dance, we can perform a bunch of times for a bunch of new people and keep making it better and better every time,” Culhane said.

Her teammates agreed.

“With studio, you work all these months and you perform once. With competition, you work … on getting better,” Jennings said, and the thrill comes in being recognized for their hard work.

While in St. Paul, Mitchell’s dance team was named the most improved team. They also were chosen by their peers for the Super Spirit Stick award for being helpful and displaying a positive work ethic and attitude.

And Jennings was named the Drill Down Queen out of all 153 dancers.

“It’s kind of like a dance-off, but it’s military command style, where they are given commands and have to do the right moves from memory,” Coach Cassey Ver Hey explained.

Perfecting the performance

Ver Hey said it was nice to see the girls recognized for their hard work.

“They’re never individually recognized during the season — it’s all about the team,” she said.

While dance is a team activity, the girls agreed that it comes down to individuals each doing their part to become better dancers that gives the performance its finesse.

“It’s a team effort, but it’s not like throwing a ball or something,” Culhane said. “You have to really work on yourself to make yourself better.”

Striving for perfection makes dance more fun.

“I want to be at a higher level than what we learned in studio dance,” Sheesley said. “I don’t see benefits if I’m not bettering myself over in the corner while (my teammates) are practicing.”

While their athletic peers chide the girls that dancing is not a sport, the MHS dance squad disagrees, and the four All-Americans say this recognition is their opportunity to prove its intensity and prestige.

“They always say dance isn’t going to take us anywhere, but look at us — we earned ourselves a trip to Rome,” Sheesley said. “Volleyball isn’t going to take you to Rome to play a game.”

She added that their practice schedule is the same for dance as for other sports. The team of 12 dancers and five alternates works on choreography during summertime open gym sessions. They will officially begin their season Aug. 1 with daily practices for the first three weeks, then begin competing with three selections once or twice a week, working between competitions to improve using judges’ recommendations.

Practices include weight conditioning, stretching, turns and choreography.

In addition to their MHS practices, the All-Americans and many of their teammates continue to participate in studio dance.

Though the girls said practicing so much can become overwhelming and weightlifting isn’t their favorite, they agree it’s important.

“All of those pieces together just make it a good dance,” Culhane said.

Some members of the dance team also are on the competitive cheer team. While the two teams attend the same competitions, they practice separately, under the direction of separate coaches.

“When the season starts, I’m practicing from like 3 until 9 some days,” Colwell said. “Homework is really late at night, and supper is at like 10 p.m.”

The girls agreed that Ver Hey, who coaches dance and sideline cheer in addition to her duties as a math teacher at Mitchell Middle School, has been influential in keeping their busy schedules in check.

“You’ve got to dance all day and find time for the homework, and … we miss half a day (of school) for competitions. You have to be able to make time for that extra work that you’re missing in school,” said Sheesley, who said she maintains an A average in all her classes while competing.

‘It’s who I am’

These days, it is more rare to see the All-American dancers not performing. The girls laughed, as they shared stories of their parents scolding them for dancing down grocery store aisles and knocking things off counters in their kitchens. But those comments don’t stop the girls from finding their groove.

“It’s who I am,” Colwell said. “I’m a dancer.”

Sheesley agreed.

“Dance made me a more outgoing person. I was the kind of kid who was quiet and didn’t talk to anyone,” she said. “Now, I could walk out on the floor and know that me doing facials looks stupid, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it benefits me and the team.”

Animated facial expressions, while important, can be the most uncomfortable for beginning dancers to master.

“If you don’t feel stupid when you’re doing facials,” Culhane said, “then you’re doing it wrong,” all four All-Americans giggled in unison.

The girls, who spend countless hours together practicing their moves, often finish one another’s sentences. Through the countless hours they spend together in the gym and at camps and competitions, the dance team has found a special bond.

“Dance has changed my life,” Colwell said. “it’s left such an impact on me.”

It’s even bridged the age gap within the team.

“I’m only a freshman, and (Jennings) is a senior, but everyone still gets along,” Culhane said. “This team is so cool.”

Though they joke about upper and lower classmen, “it’s really not a thing,” Jennings added.

The support of older dancers gave Culhane the courage to audition for All-American at UDA camp.

“My team really pushed me and helped me gain some confidence,” she said.

The sport has also provided the girls with an outlet for managing the busyness of teenage life.

“If I’m stressed, I put on music and just do a little routine,” Jennings said.

Some days, the music doesn’t stop.

“If I turn on music … I close my eyes and just envision myself dancing and it helps me go to sleep,” Sheesley said.

And, sometimes, they dance without trying.

“When the teacher turns on music in class, I start tapping my toes and then get into my foot routine. People look at me funny sometimes, but I just say I’m practicing our routine,” Jennings said with a laugh.

It’s rare that the girls sit still. Colwell and Sheesley were in the same eighth grade gym class.

“Whenever we had downtime, we were taking our shoes off, doing turns in the corner,” Sheesley said.

Other students have become so accustomed to the girls’ impromptu performances that they’ve begun to request demonstrations.

“I’ll be walking through the hallways, and people are like, ‘You’re that dancer girl. Do this!’” Jennings said.

Culhane said she often is complimented by other students who watch their studio group dance during halftime of Kernel games.

“It feels so good to hear that all the time,” Culhane said. “Kids can be so judgey, but when you’re hearing, ‘You did so good. I really like watching you’ from people your age, it’s really awesome.”

But the performances can be deceiving.

“The goal is to make it look easy, so they see the easy part of dance, but it’s really hard to make it look easy,” Colwell said. “It is physical and mentally a challenge.”

“They don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff,” Jennings agreed.

Growing a program

Competitive dance became a sanctioned sport at MHS eight years ago. The first year, Ver Hey helped with choreography while teaching in Huron. The following year, she joined MMS and took over as head coach.

The team started with six members and grew to its largest last year with 22. Ten seniors graduated last spring, so they are looking to add new members.

“We have a lot of young ones in the middle school who dance, so I’m hoping to grab some of those,” said Ver Hey, who was an All-American dancer before dancing at the University of Oklahoma.

In the coming months, All-American dancers from across the country who commit to going to Rome will learn their New Year’s Day routines by watching videos. Dec. 26, they will head to Rome to practice and perform in the parade.

In the meantime, Ver Hey said local All-Americans are working to raise $3,500 apiece for the trip. The trip will not be school-funded, so they are considering fundraisers to help cut the cost to each dancer’s family.