Dance team ranked No. 1 in national prelims

It’s easy to think of St. Thomas teams that are competitive year in and year out. The basketball team has been at the top of the conference the past few years, as well as the baseball, softball and track teams. But one team that’s also always on its game is the dance team.

The team’s first-place ranking in the preliminary round seems to indicate another successful year at the Universal Dance Association National College Dance Team Championships – dance’s version of college basketball’s March Madness – which will be held next Jan. 14 – 18.

“This year, we’re really focused on winning,” senior captain Jackie Kling said. “It’s hard to say that but we all know we can achieve that goal and we all know we’re talented dancers. We have the tools, we have the coach, we have the choreographers, and we have the dances that can be national champion dances.”

A program on the rise

The St. Thomas dance team’s record at UDA nationals is a laundry list of accolades: second place in the jazz category in 2005, first in jazz and second in hip-hop in 2006, second in both jazz and hip-hop in 2007, first in jazz and second in hip-hop in 2008 and second in both jazz and hip-hop in 2009.

To say that the dance program has blossomed under coach Alysia Ulfers, who began coaching the team in late 2004, would be an understatement. It’s more like the program has gone from zero to 60.

“I think a lot of [the success] has to do with how the program is run,” Kling said. “[Ulfers] knows how the competition is run. She knows what the company that hosts the competition is looking for. She takes all that information and applies it to our team.”

But Ulfers gives all the credit to women on the team.

“Each year it keeps getting better and better,” she said. “I give the girls a lot of credit for that.”

How nationals work

Dance nationals begin with each team submitting a video-taped performance, called the preliminary round, which is scored and ranked by judges. Teams ranked either first or second have all expenses paid for the trip down to Walt Disney World for the competition. This is huge incentive for a program with a limited budget. The team has gone into nationals ranked either first or second in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.

“We take taping very seriously simply because of the monetary reward that’s up for it,” Ulfers said. “We get funding from the school but not completely. We’re not under athletics. We’re under campus life so the money’s just not there.”

After the tape is scored and the rankings come out – the date was Nov. 11 this year – teams must wait a little more than two months for nationals to arrive.

“It’s always hard because you don’t know what your competitors are doing and it’s so early,” Ulfers said. “You have to go in knowing that teams are going to change.”

And with each passing day, practices count for a little more, culminating with a grueling two week “camp” right before nationals.

“We meet for nine hours a week for practice and then we have ballet outside of practice for an hour and we have our trainer come in,” Kling said. “And in addition we have workouts twice a week on our own time … We’ll have all-weekend practices. When we hit J-Term, before we go to nationals in the second or third week, we’ll have two-a-day practices. So we’re here every day for six hours a day just getting ourselves ready to compete.”

Once in Orlando, Fla., the first round begins. Teams can compete in up to two of three categories. The categories being jazz, hip-hop or pom, which was introduced last year. Routines are then scored by a panel of judges and teams move onto the next round.

Scoring dance routines is rather discretionary.

“It’s really subjective,” Ulfers said. “It’s not like football or basketball where you cross the line or make a basket and get so many points. It’s not like that with dance. It’s purely subjective and can be really frustrating at times. You can love it or hate it.”

The finals are then scored by a completely new panel of judges, which can be a blessing or a curse, Ulfers said. Last year, the team went into finals in first place in both jazz and hip-hop, but ended up finishing second in each.

Matt Wolfgram can be reached at