In the middle of a late-night practice, preparing to compete in the finals the next morning, the Michigan dance team dropped everything to make a phone call.
The Wolverines had already made the finals in jazz and gameday. But their fate in hip-hop — an event in which they hadn’t made the finals in seven years — still remained to be seen.
So Michigan stopped practice and called into the announcement. The finalists were read off, one by one.
There were eight spots in the finals. Six names had been read off. With just two places left, the Wolverines heard what they’d been hoping for all night.
Ultimately, at the UDA College Dance Team National Championships this weekend in Orlando, Fla., the Wolverines netted top-10 finishes in all three events they entered, placing sixth in gameday and seventh in both jazz and hip-hop — one of just four teams in their division to place in three different events. Michigan’s seventh-place finish in hip-hop was also the best in program history.
“It felt amazing,” senior Allison Gu said. “I think as seniors at least, we have been dreaming about this since we were freshmen, so it was something super, it was really unreal. We’re so excited.”
Even after exams ended last semester, the dance team didn’t get to go home right away. The Wolverines stuck around Ann Arbor, holding grueling practices that lasted from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. to prepare their nationals routines. Over New Year’s, they performed at the Citrus Bowl. The night they got back, they held another practice.
Nationals is the only event where the dance team gets to compete and be evaluated solely on its own merits. Unlike other sports, where teams have multiple games to show what they’re made of, dance teams get one shot at glory, one chance to step away from the sidelines and into the spotlight.
In past years, teams competed in two of three categories that included pom, jazz and hip-hop. Michigan typically chooses to enter jazz and hip-hop, and this year was no different. But for 2020, there was a new event — gameday. The idea of the gameday category is to bring the stadium experience to the stage. The Wolverines’ routine included sets to “The Victors,” “Let’s Go Blue” and “Mr. Brightside.”
Competing in a new category was tough and unpredictable at first. Not only did Michigan have to navigate a new set of guidelines and perfect more sets of choreography, the new category meant possibly two additional rounds of competition, something the Wolverines worked up to with training and cardio to build the requisite stamina.
Despite all that, Michigan — which regulary performs in front of a crowd of 110,000 at the Big House — didn’t shy away from the challenge.
“We definitely had to figure out a new way of prioritizing our time,” senior Sophia Simopoulos said. “And we put in a lot more work inside and outside of practice in order to work on everything equally and figure out what needed to be done. But I think given that our sidelines are really strong and that the team was really dedicated this year, we put the best thing on the floor that we could possibly have put.”
In every event, teams first compete in semifinals. Half the teams in each semifinal advance to the finals — a number that this year ranged from seven in pom to 13 in jazz. Finalists are announced after every team has competed. The Wolverines competed in the gameday semis and finals back-to-back on Friday afternoon. Then, on Saturday, they had semifinals for jazz in the afternoon and hip-hop in the evening.
Michigan knew it had advanced in jazz before it competed in hip-hop, but because its hip-hop semifinal was at 8 p.m., it was nearly 11 when the Wolverines halted practice to learn they had ended their finals drought.
When they heard the news, the dancers began screaming and crying out of pure happiness. But the celebration couldn’t last long — jazz finals were at 10 a.m. Sunday morning.
The finals came with a blank slate. Semifinal scores wouldn’t carry over. Only a “spirit score,” determined by a video that showed community engagement and sideline presence, remained. Michigan had to leave it all on the floor one more time.
On Sunday, the Wolverines left the stage feeling they had given it their all.
“We were all so happy with how we felt when we came off that floor,” senior Alyssa Winnie said. “So we just kind of savored that moment until it was time for awards. We really took the time to just be proud of ourselves and our performance before we had to worry about what other people had to say about it.”
In the end, the hard work paid off. Not only did Michigan get its record hip-hop finish, every senior had the experience of competing in a routine that placed.
When the Wolverines return to Ann Arbor, they’ll be back on the basketball sidelines, their triumphs in Orlando largely anonymous. But behind the scenes, Michigan will already be planning for its next moment in the spotlight, building on this year and chasing the high it found Saturday night when its name was announced.
“Our junior class is hungry,” Michigan coach Valerie Stead Potsos said. “I know that our seniors are going to give them lots of great advice and helping them, they certainly paved the way for them for next year, so the expectations are higher, so they’re going to have to start working like, next week.”
Then she paused and corrected herself.