UM Dance Team First to Compete Nationally in University, State History

MISSOULA – Between performing in front of crowds exceeding 26,000 and committing to a lengthy season that spans July through April, the University of Montana Dance Team knows how to face a challenge together.

The team is about to take on a new and historic challenge: dancing on behalf of the University and the entire Treasure State at a national championship competition.

“This is the first time in program history, in school history and in the history of the entire state of Montana that a college team is going to represent our state at the national level,” said UM Dance Team Coach Alli Baumgardner. “This is such a huge step for our program. Our momentum with the team is just exploding.”

The Dance Team, along with their coach, spirit squad director, Monte and a few very excited moms, will travel to Orlando, Florida, for the College Classic National Championship on April 10-15. They will face off against others from around the country to compete in the jazz and spirit categories.

The team and Monte also will showcase their competition routines for the campus community at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 7, in Dahlberg Arena in the Adams Center. Admission is free.

Baumgardner hopes the competition will put a national spotlight on the team, gaining more recognition, respect and support for their somewhat hidden talent.

“I’m really hoping to increase awareness of our spirit program,” echoed UM Spirit Squad Director Stacey Richards, who oversees both the Dance and Cheer Teams.  “They really are such a talented, amazing group, and I think our dance program is only going to gain more recognition after nationals. I want put the University of Montana on the map for dance.”

Baumgardner, who danced for UM as a student and captained the team her sophomore through senior years, took the coaching reins last academic year. She saw how the team had grown in talent and number – almost doubling in less than a decade to 20 members this year – and realized their talent rose to the level of nationally competitive.

Raising the $2,000 needed for each dancer to go to Orlando was the first step. The team met their goal through donations and fundraising, with some team members running dance clinics for high schoolers over winter break.

“I’m really proud of them for stepping up and finding ways to generate some revenue,” Richards said. “We’re in a good place now, and we have a good plan in place for next year so all of this is done earlier and nobody has that extra stress.”

The road to the national stage also required additional rehearsal hours to learn a new, unfamiliar routine while maintaining the dancers’ regular practice and performance duties, as well as their responsibilities as students.

During a normal season, the dancers practice four to five days each week for two to four hours depending on the time of year, and dedicate time to lifting in the weight room. They also perform at all home football, basketball and volleyball game days. In November, each sport overlaps, meaning the team can perform at as many as six different games in a week.

An image of one dancer holding up another during a stunt.
On top of their game day and student responsibilities, the Dance Team puts in copious hours practicing each week.

“We’re dedicated athletes,” said team captain Andrea Newbrough, a biochemistry senior from Great Falls who’s danced since age 4. “We put a lot of time and effort into our craft, just like any other sport does.”

Newbrough and her teammates noted how the smiles, cheers and laughter they share with crowds on game days can create the illusion that the team’s work is relatively easy, but it’s the behind-the-scenes work that allows the dancers to entertain with seemingly such ease.

Competing nationally meant adding a new practice day to their calendars to rehearse choreography for their two-minute jazz routine – a physically demanding dance that is stylistically different from game day performances and requires each dancer to operate synchronously. They danced for 30 hours over a single weekend while learning choreography from Seattle Seahawks dancers, who were blown away by the UM team’s talent.

“The choreographers were like, ‘These are the dancers hiding in Montana?’” Baumgardner said. “We are now to the point where we have the skills that big teams are competing with.”

Since then, the team has meticulously cleaned every second of choreography to ensure each dancer perfectly mirrors the other, down to details as precise as the angle of their hands.

The competition’s spirit category, which showcases the team’s fight song and media timeout routine, is familiar ground. Entertaining and hyping-up Griz Nation on game day is the Dance Team’s  top focus and area of excellence. Dancers cite the rush of performing in front of 26,000-plus fans at Griz football games, which ranks among the top attendance in FCS football, as an experience unequal in measure that helped prepare them for the pressure of nationals.

“I’ll be recognized by people I don’t know at the grocery store. It feels like being a part of a big family,” said co-captain Addie Wood, a senior elementary education major from Spokane, Washington. “I take a lot of pride in who the people in the community know me as.”

Until this year though, dancing at UM meant trading the thrill of competition for the excitement of game day.

“It’s been a dream for a lot of the girls on the team, because most of us were competitive studio dancers growing up,” Newbrough said. “It’s something you had to walk away from when you committed to this team. Now you can have both: You get quite possibly one of the best game day experiences dancing here, but you also get to compete.”

Competing is a major selling point to prospective dancers considering UM, as it was for freshman dancer Kendall Hanson of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.

“This is literally what I dreamed of in college,” Hanson, who began dancing competitively at age 6, said. “The teamwork, the effort, the determination by everyone.”

Despite the absence of a crowd, Hanson said, practicing for nationals is just as thrilling as game days. While nervous, she feels more confident in the jazz routine with each practice.

“It’s definitely the hardest dance I’ve ever done, and I’ve been dancing since I was 2,” Hanson said. “I just want my team to be the best we can be and leave our hearts out on the stage. No matter what happens, we’re proud of each other.

“I also want to make coach proud. She’s put so much effort into building this team.”

Regardless of how they place, Hanson said, it’s an honor to hold the title of first team to represent Montana at nationals, and she looks forward to carrying that torch forward at UM.

For seniors Newbrough and Wood, this year’s nationals represent their only chance to compete nationally with a team of girls who are also their best friends and fiercest advocates.

“I’ve been watching this competition for years. The moment I get on stage is just going to be surreal,” Wood said. “We’re all working so hard for one unified goal and for each other.”

Wood is proud to leave a legacy by helping the dance team take a massive leap and is excited to see how it will grow after she leaves.

“Every single year I’ve been on this team, the freshmen are better and better,” Wood said. “We are moving up in the eyes of the competition world and the dance team world, as well as in the eyes of our community.”

Newbrough has high hopes for her team at nationals but can’t help get emotional thinking about ending her college dance career with such a historic achievement.

“I cannot imagine my college experience without Dance Team,” Newbrough said. “I think I’ll miss the girls the most.”

By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service