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Wendy Reuer, Published October 26 2013

Emails shed light on NDSU ‘dance team drama’

FARGO – While it’s unlikely the Bison Dance Team will perform at any North Dakota State University athletics events this year, the team could be back on the sidelines by next season.

In August, Justin Swanson, NDSU director of marketing and promotions, notified the team it would not be allowed to perform at any athletic events, citing a strained relationship with the athletic department going back five years.

Dance team head coach Meghan Wabner said any wrongdoing wasn’t intentional and cited miscommunication as a factor.

On Sept. 17, The Forum requested all emails sent to and from Swanson regarding the dance team in the previous 90 days. The emails show that while some NDSU officials may not have been communicating with the team or in public, they expressed opinions on the matter.

No response

After the dance team was notified it would not be allowed to perform, a number of dance team parents emailed Swanson and NDSU staff expressing their disappointment. Some parents wrote that perhaps the most frustrating aspect was a lack of communication by the athletic department and the school.

Libby Bakken, a Bismarck mother of a freshman dance team member, said she wrote to NDSU because she wanted to help find a solution.

“I have not gotten any response,” she said.

Bakken said she and other parents started contacting multiple officials at the school, hoping for clearer answers.

In an Aug. 27 email, NDSU President Dean Bresciani wrote, with the subject line “Dance Team Drama: “As you may know, they and the parents are on the warpath … again.”

In the email sent to Athletic Director Gene Taylor and Vice President of Student Affairs Prakash Matthew, Bresciani wrote he had advised an office assistant of the issue’s history just before a parent called his office.

“Which she side-stepped at least for the time being,” Bresciani wrote. “Their situation is REALLY not something the president should have to or can deal with. Either they are in an athletics activity, or a student organization activity; I’m hoping you guys can draw straws (play Russian roulette?) and decide who gets them.”

In a later email sent on Aug. 28 to a parent, Bresciani begins: “Thank you for your gracious note of concern, and I hope that a personal and quick response directly from the NDSU President will demonstrate the attention we give to such situations.

“That’s probably not typical of most major research universities – but I’m proud of that fact we’re not like ‘most major research universities.’ ”

Taylor was direct about his feelings on the matter.

“We are not interested in visiting with the dance team members, their parents or their leadership at this time or in the near future,” he wrote in an Aug. 29 email to Bresciani, Matthew and other staff.

Taylor wrote it was the team’s decision to step away from the umbrella of the athletics department and that it must resolve the issue internally.

In his Aug. 29 email, he wrote he didn’t think the dance team would be missed at games.

“Not one fan noticed or commented about the dance team not being there,” he wrote about the team’s absence from playoff football games last fall.

The dance team – made up of 18 women – is considered a student organization or club. It was part of the cheer team until about six years ago when a former assistant cheer coach helped form the team into its own entity as a means to focus on dance rather than cheer and for competition purposes, said coach Wabner.

The team won back-to-back national collegiate dance championships in 2012 and 2013.

Wabner, a member of the dance team when it split from the cheer team, said that at the time she didn’t think the split would cause a rift with athletics.

“We’ve always wanted inclusivity with athletics,” she said. “We wanted to be involved as much as we can, but we were also very much self-supported so it made sense to be a club. That consequence [not being allowed to perform at football games], if you will, was never discussed or talked about.”

Making a decision

According to the emails, as the 2013-14 school year approached, Swanson and Wabner were ironing out details for the upcoming year.

On Aug. 21, Wabner sent a number of questions to Swanson, including an offer to perform at more games and an inquiry about specific dates of possible performances.

In Swanson’s Aug. 22 reply, he wrote he would “keep the soccer/volleyball offer in mind and let you know if the need comes up …”

When it came to football, he foreshadowed a possible problem. “End zone dances at football will be tough,” Swanson wrote. “We’ve expanded our corporate partner inventory to capitalize on the success of the past two seasons. Our media timeouts, quarter breaks and halftimes are full with sold sponsorships.”

He also alerted Wabner that free tickets to games for dance team parents would no longer be available.

While he acknowledged there were past issues, he assured Wabner the team was “not a pain.”

Then, on Aug. 27, Swanson asked Wabner to call him and notified her the team would no longer be allowed to perform.

Swanson outlined the reasons for his decision in an email attachment sent to Wabner. The reasons included an unauthorized use of the Bison Sports Arena for a team send-off on Jan. 15.

“Neither the athletic department nor facilities management was asked permission to host the event or even notified,” he wrote. “Serious liability issues come to the forefront when your team continually makes decisions to use our facilities without approval that puts both the athletic department and the university at risk and compromises the safety of those involved.”

Swanson said the team repeatedly practiced at the BSA outside the one-night-per-week slot assigned and without proper supervision or certified staff.

“A blatant disregard and disrespect of our building and staff cannot continue to be overlooked,” Swanson wrote in the attachment.

In an interview, Swanson said those issues were ongoing, but he did not specify why they came to a head that week in August.

On the morning of Aug. 27, Swanson received an email from a dance team parent asking for tickets to games. The parent was disappointed they were not notified before tickets went on sale and felt it was unfair.

“It was more of the fact that we were informed after tickets sold out,” Wabner said in an interview. “The parents are paying for school; they’re paying to dance. They felt discriminated against.”

In an interview last week, Swanson said parents did not influence the decision to not allow the dance team to perform. Swanson said demand for Bison football tickets is so high, comp tickets had to be pulled, even for some athletics staff. Cheer team parents did not receive tickets this year either, he said.

“It’s not a matter of taking them away from the dance team because we want revenue,” Swanson said. “We took it away internally. We took a hard look at numbers, and these decisions had to be made.”

Team united

After they learned of Swanson’s decision, team members just wanted to “make things right and move forward,” Wabner said.

“It took us a good month to work through those feelings of feeling very hurt and sad,” she said. “But now we are just really eager to want to do what we practiced for so long.”

Steve Winfrey, director of Memorial Union, said the team is working with the Congress of Student Organizations to clarify its organizational constitution, mission and goals.

“If the group can make sure they are organized and following policies, it seems like they will be back on the field at some point,” he said.

Winfrey and Swanson said a meeting with athletics will likely happen soon.

“We’re happy to sit down and see what we can do to get them involved in the future,” Swanson said.

Although Swanson heard no “blowback one way or another,” the dance team received a wave of support, Wabner said.

Third-year dance team member Megan Supan said this fall’s events led to new opportunities within the school and community.

“We will support our school and will have NDSU pride no matter where we are,” said team captain Elizabeth Kossan.

The team continues to practice and is preparing to defend its back-to-back Universal Dance Association Collegiate National Championship wins at the Florida competition scheduled on Jan. 18 and 19.

It will also perform at a Minnesota Timberwolves NBA game against the Miami Heat in Minneapolis in December.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530