Work hard, dance hard
Dance Team is not for the faint of heart.
The 16 varsity girls and 16 junior varsity girls on the Detroit Lakes Dance Team practice for two hours after school Monday through Thursday, get up early for a 6:30 a.m, Friday practice, and spend long Saturdays at invitational competitions.
Most of them also spend evenings at private dance studios, when they aren't at long late-night rehearsals for the high school musical.
No wonder Detroit Lakes varsity dance coach Britton Ramsey compares dance families to hockey families -- always away from home.
And no wonder physical therapy exercises, ice packs, heating pads and therapeutic kinesio muscle tape are the dancers' best friends during the season, which runs from late October to mid February.
The region's best dance skills were on display Saturday at the Detroit Lakes High School, where 10 dance teams met for an invitational competition.
About 400 people came to watch the event, which included teams from as close as Frazee and Pelican Rapids and as far as Becker, Aitkin and Alexandria.
"Dance team is evolving so much over the past five to 10 years that more and more schools are offering the program," Ramsey said. "But it's still concentrated in the metro area."
Outstate Minnesota teams can expect to travel.
"We do a lot of smaller invites because we can't afford to travel to the Twin Cities every weekend," she said.
The other double A dance teams in the area are Fergus Falls, Crookston and Alexandria. Moorhead and Brainerd are the only triple A teams in the area. Frazee, Pelican Rapids and other smaller school districts compete in the single A division.
"Most of our competition comes from the St. Cloud area," Ramsey said. "They kind of dominate the section."
Competitions are usually held on Saturdays because of time considerations. The events themselves take three to four hours, but pre-competition floor tests start at 8 a.m. and can take several hours, and it can take several hours more to travel there and back again.
"It's definitely an all-day event for the girls that are there," Ramsey said.
Like gymnasts, most dance team members start young, in private dance studios, Ramsey said. "Ninety percent of kids remain in the private institutions they hail from throughout high school," she said.
"And I encourage that as a coach -- our sessions are so limited as far as the amount of time we have. There's not much time to work on technique and conditioning -- we're focusing on choreography and things we need to do to compete well."
Dance is judged in two categories -- jazz and high kick -- and the Detroit Lakes Dance Team is unusual in that there are essentially two teams: a jazz dance team and a high kick dance team.
The young women try out for each separately -- so it's possible to be on the varsity jazz team and the junior varsity high kick team, or vice versa.
That keeps more of the dancers active and fewer sitting on the bench during competitions, Ramsey said.
Try-outs are also unusual in Detroit Lakes, in that the coaches aren't part of the process -- a group of three judges comes in and scores the dancers individually.
"It just seems like the most fair way to do it," Ramsey said. "It's just good to have another set of eyes look at them."
This spring, 40 dancers tried out and 32 were accepted between the varsity and junior varsity, which practices two and half days a week.
It's Ramsey's second year as head dance coach, and so far the system has worked well for her and junior varsity dance coach Michelle Bakken, Ramsey said.
Ramsey masterminded the varsity teams' music and choreography, with the help of some dancers -- up to a third of the team can assist in the process, according to the Minnesota State High School League rules, which governs dance team competition.
They stick with the same routines all season, but with constant adjustments.
"I watch video, analyze it, pick it apart," Ramsey said of Saturday's event. "At practice tonight I plan on changing a fair amount of things."
Trained and certified dance team judges come from one of two independent organizations and rate teams from 1 to 10, in 10 specific areas, under five broad categories.
Minnesota high schools have some of the best dance teams in the nation, and that shows up in the high quality of college dance teams in Minnesota, Ramsey said.
Dancers are every bit as dedicated as athletes in other sports, she said.
"When you have a dancer in your family, it's a lot like hockey -- it's what you do with your time," she said.
There isn't a lot of backbiting or infighting on the dance team, Ramsey said.
"I think my parents are the best group of parents," she said.
The parents basically ran the invitational on Saturday, she added, saying, "I got a lot of compliments from other teams about how great our parents were."
Go to the Dance Show
One of the best places to see the high school dance team in action is at their annual fundraising show, set for Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. at the high school.
The Laker Dance Show lasts 60-90 minutes and will include a performance by the kindergarten-through-fifth grade students who attend a dance clinic that morning.
Like other athletes, dancers grow to love their sport.
"These girls who do it so much -- there isn't anything else they'd rather do," Ramsey said.