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Published January 14 2012

Dance may be eye-catching, but hard work is a must

Fargo - It’s delicate, eye-catching and showy. It’s booming music, flashy costumes, flailing limbs and swiveling hips.

It’s blood, sweat and tears.

It’s the world of high school competitive dance. And it’s not for the weak or faint of heart.

“They couldn’t do the sport if they weren’t physically and mentally tough,” Fargo North coach Amy Pedersen said Saturday during the Davies Eagle Elite Dance Invitational at Fargo Davies High School. “Football players get tackled and beat up. My girls are doing lifts in the air and they get dropped or they will fall face first, take out a knee. They don’t have any pads protecting them.

“My girls work very hard.”

Competitive dance is far from what you see from teenagers at the prom. There is no free-form head bobbing or hand gesturing.

It’s synchronized to the last detail, with about 12 performers attempting to nail the routine at once.

There are grueling three-hour practices, scrapes, bruises, tweaked ankles, pulled muscles and torn ACLs.

And there are four categories (Hip-Hop, Jazz, Kick, Pom), which mean four physically taxing, two-minute routines to perfect.

All four routines are performed during each competition.

That routine you see during halftime of your local high school basketball game? That is just a fraction of the work being done on many competitive dance teams in North Dakota.

“You need to feed off each other’s energy, and almost know what they are thinking,” Davies senior Sarae Olson said.

“It’s important to me, because it’s our life,” Davies junior Madi Roehrich added. “We are always doing this. And you have to love it.”

Competitive dance, which is not sanctioned by the North Dakota High School Activities Association, is a year-round sport that combines mental toughness with athleticism, strength, flexibility and drive.

Dancers need to be committed to spending countless hours honing routines and travelling to competitions. They have to do it all and maintain a healthy grade point average.

Despite the sacrifices, participation in North Dakota has grown each year. And many dancers are 14-year veterans by the time they are high school seniors.

Parents of dancers are heavily involved. They run events, host concession stands and raise funds to buy costumes and send the teams to competitions around the state and the country.

“Nobody realized how much time it takes to do this, except for the teachers who walk through the school at night and hear our music blaring through the gym,” North junior Bethany Ill said. “We are there a long time. But it’s definitely worth it when we are out there, and when we place well and feel like we did really well as a team.”

Fargo Davies coach Jessie Mattern said competitive dance is a lifestyle.

It won’t work out if a dancer’s heart and soul isn’t in it. There is too much time and money on the line.

And a dancer’s body takes a pounding.

Ill said she recently fell directly on her face on the hardwood during practice.

Several West Fargo dancers are dealing with hip injuries.

Some dancers wear knee braces to soften the damage from years of jumping, turning and running on hardwood.

“It’s definitely very demanding for them,” said Mattern, who competed at West Fargo High School. “The injury possibilities are endless. I have seen back problems. I have a girl with broken toe right now. I had a girl that sprained her neck on year. We try to contort our bodies in these weird ways that are not natural.”

The gold standard for high school competitive dance in North Dakota remains West Fargo.

The Packatahnas are a national contender in several dance categories each year. The team has won several national championships since the team began in 1995.

West Fargo senior Alexis Cowley said the Packatahnas have been successful, because they’ve learned how to balance the fun of the performance with the focus and competitiveness it takes to win.

“Burnout is easy to get,” Crowley said. “But you have to keep your mental game up. If you tell yourself you can do it, you can balance your homework, your school and your friends, it’s manageable. If you can find the fun aspect of it every day, you will be fine.”

Many dancers said it bothers them that their sport gets shortchanged or dismissed by some peers.

Many of those peers have never attended an invitational. Many don’t know the work and sacrifice put into each season.

However, the perception of competitive dance is slowly turning around, Mattern said.

“It’s huge,” Mattern said. “It’s been growing so much. It’s amazing how much things are growing. It’s growing everywhere, and the fact that it is being seen everywhere, and on ESPN, and the big schools are starting to focus on their dance teams more is helping things along. All around the nation it’s growing.

“And I can definitely see it here, too.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562. Hotzler’s blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com