As dancers line up on the gym floor to practice their military competition routine, Ronni Weston, head coach of Bellingham High School’s dance team, counts them off to begin their dance.
“Five, six, seven, eight.”
Remixed music blasts through speakers as dancers work on perfecting their choreography and getting to their places on time.
Weston stops the music occasionally to correct someone’s tempo or another’s technique, and the dancers, out of breath, start over. Facing the physical and presentational demands of the sport, the dance teams from Bellingham and Sehome high schools continue to improve through hard work.
While their high-pressure competition season spans from November to March, dancers train all year and perform in front of local schools and travel around the state to competitions.
In a given year, the teams will learn two to three dances to perform at around five competitions. Bellingham performs in hip-hop, military and high-kick categories, while Sehome performs in pom and hip-hop. During the rest of the year, the teams will perform more than 10 different routines for school assemblies and sports games.
Selena Arciniega-Storey, the coach of Sehome High School’s dance team, said dancers’ bodies are pushed to the limits; she sees the ice packs and tears, but understands breaking down is what builds dancers back up, stronger.
But these programs are about more than just dance.
The students build leadership skills as they work to ensure their team is cohesive.
“If all they learn from being on dance team is how to dance, then I’ve failed,” Arciniega-Storey said. “Dance is the tool to provide an opportunity to develop their character.”
Awards and recognition at competitions are just icing on the cake, she said.
Arciniega-Storey said she has observed a cycle over the years of freshman learning from upperclassmen, then reaching those grade levels and understanding what good leadership is.
“They learn from each other year after year. Things that I have said earlier on, I don’t necessarily need to say anymore because the cycle just keeps repeating itself,” she said.
Sehome senior Sierra Hawes has been dancing on the team for four years and has seen immense growth in herself from the influence of her coaches and fellow dancers.
“I’ve been able to become a mentor for the freshmen, and I feel like I’ve been able to grow up with the team,” Hawes said.
During her earlier years of dance, she looked to former captains and came to understand what makes a good leader.
“If there is always positivity or there is always negativity, there is no progress,” she said.
And even if there is strong leadership in play, dancers can’t succeed without growing their confidence.
Isabelle Benjamin, senior and co-captain of the Bellingham dance team, said being in leadership was never part of her plan. She didn’t think being a leader was something she would lean toward, but now she sees it as one of her strong suits.
“I was very shy and reserved, but now here I am four years later, being co-captain with Zoe,” Benjamin said. “I feel like I’ve made so much progress in my confidence and social skills.”
Bellingham senior and co-captain Zoe Strand said that going into high school, she knew very few people, but after she joined the dance team, she gained confidence and learned to assimilate with the other dancers.
“Being surrounded by so many different types of people, you kind of just learn to embrace your own self,” Strand said.
The connections that are created between dancers through training aren’t just exclusive to the team. They extend to other schools as well.
Arciniega-Storey describes the relationship between Sehome and Bellingham dance teams as “the complete opposite of a rivalry.” In fact, 10 years prior, Weston helped her create Sehome’s dance team and gave her insight into how a high school program is run.
Ever since then, the two teams have had great relationships and are each other’s biggest supporters at competitions.
“It just like a sisterhood kind of thing. It feels really refreshing to have another school that we can bond with,” Strand said.
Commitment to the sport is year-round. Weston and Arciniega-Storey see the strain that it can place on their dancers.
“Motivation is the most challenging thing this time of year,” Weston said. “They’ve been going at it since the beginning of August, we haven’t stopped.”
Strand said she sees a lot of other sports training hard for two or three months of the year, but they get a season break. For dancers, not every month is as intense as competition training, but Strand said the sport is ongoing, and a constant stress.
“However, in a sense, it keeps me in check because I have something that I’m constantly doing,” she said.
Weston and Arciniega-Storey, who have been coaching for 23 and 12 years, respectively, see the leadership in their student dancers as evidence of their programs’ successes. Both teams have consistently attended state championships each year.
For students, it’s a place to be, a place to grow and a place to find purpose.