Spirit beyond compare
How Ohio State’s dance team won a national championship — and an alumni association award to boot
Twenty women who make up The Ohio State University Dance Team sat in a semi-circle on stage, waiting as the finalists were announced. Starting with 10th place, the finishes of the 10 teams that had made it this far in the 2018 Universal Dance Association National Championships were revealed in reverse order. The second-place team was about to be named, and Ohio State had not yet been called. An entire year of practices and competitions had led up to this January moment in Orlando, Florida, and for most members of the team, 13-plus years of dance training before that. No one dared move.
When, finally, the announcer declared that another team had taken second in the jazz competition, the crowd’s roar drowned out the end of his phrase.
“When we won, I don’t even really know how to tell you how we felt,” says team member Katie Devine, an Ohio State senior. “I feel like everybody on the team just took this breath that has never been taken before by any of us, and we just kind of collapsed into each other. It was incredibly powerful.”
As if winning national championships in two categories — jazz and pom, the only two in which the team competed — wasn’t enough, on its heels came the 2018 E. Gordon Gee Spirit of Ohio State award.
Coach Melissa McGhee ’11, a four-year member of the team as a student, says a commitment to excellence and a willingness to explore new and different avenues contributed to the team’s success. Of about 52,000 undergraduates who attend Ohio State campuses, 20 make up the dance team, she notes.
“That’s a pretty big responsibility to carry and also a really big privilege for us,” McGhee says. “It’s not something we take lightly on any level.”
Being on the dance team is an enormous commitment. The team practices 20 hours a week when school is in session and up to 40 when it’s not. Over winter break, when nationals take place, they hold not one but two practices every day. Add appearances at football games, men’s and women’s basketball games, ice hockey games, volleyball games, wrestling matches, Homecoming, pep rallies and more, and you have an idea of dance team members’ jam-packed schedules.
And then there are Universal Dance Association competitions, where Ohio State competes annually against similarly talented opponents, often from Big Ten schools. These competitions are for trained dancers — usually since 2 or 3 years of age — who specialize in ballet, jazz, lyrical and contemporary dance styles. Each team presents a pair of under-2-minute routines in two of three dance styles (jazz, pom or hip-hop) and is judged on synchronization, technique and creativity.
McGhee says what really sets the Ohio State teammates apart from competitors is their willingness to take risks.
“In every element of the performance, and with every decision you make, you can choose to do what has worked in the past for teams that have won, or you can choose to do what you think is really unique and special,” McGhee says. “You can push yourself to take risks with the song choice, the choreography, the costuming — that all comes into play. And it can be hard and scary to walk away from what’s safe. But I think we really pushed ourselves to do that this year, and it paid off.”
Another differentiator: the unparalleled Ohio State school spirit that team members express through dance. And if the Gee Spirit of Ohio State is award is any measure, they do this tremendously.
“Spirit is undeniably a defining characteristic of the university, and we’re honored to be able to represent that,” McGhee says. “I think spirit is the reason people come here and the reason they stay.”