by Moira Cullings
OVERLAND PARK — “A loves M” was a message students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School here never expected to see during a halftime dance performance of a basketball game against a major rival.
But for just over a minute in between two halves of intense basketball play, the Aquinas Spirits joined the Bishop Miege High School Lady Stags in a powerful display of sportsmanship.
Near the end of the routine, the dancers broke into three groups, their poms forming an “A,” a heart and an “M” — only to be received by roaring cheers from the crowd.
“We have a really unique opportunity to show even in the midst of really heated rivalries that we can work together and all be dancing for a higher purpose,” said Spirits head coach Tara Yantis.
The teams danced together at Aquinas on Jan. 2 and then again at Miege on Jan. 12.
Yantis came up with the idea for a joint performance during her first coaching job when she was in college.
The school where she coached “had a really big rivalry with another school,” she said. “It was ugly; it wasn’t positive at all.”
Yantis was looking for a good way to demonstrate sportsmanship and, although her team was hesitant at first, their dance ended up being a hit.
“Even after I left that school, graduated from college and moved back here, it continued as a tradition between those two teams,” she said.
Yantis used the idea at Aquinas for the first time last year, when she paired her team with Lenexa’s St. James Academy’s in the same way.
“I think some people looked at me like I was crazy,” she said.
But both schools and their administrations ended up enjoying the performances.
So when she told her team about dancing with Miege, the girls were excited.
“We have never done a combined dance with them,” said senior Jenna Vickers, “and it was a good way to show that rivals can be a cohesive community.”
Yantis reached out to the Lady Stags coaches, who were immediately on board.
“With a new coaching staff this year, we were thrilled that Tara reached out to us to give our girls this opportunity of collaboration,” said coach Natalie White.
“When I told the girls about doing a dual performance with Aquinas,” she said. “It was something they weren’t expecting.”
Sarah Gress, a senior captain for the Lady Stags, admits she was surprised at first, but after practicing and performing with the Spirits, her perspective of Aquinas has changed.
“I definitely have a more positive opinion of Aquinas since dancing with them, because when we practiced together we had to talk to each other,” she said.
All it took for many of the girls was that bit of communication to see their rival school in a new light.
And performing at an away game was something they normally never get to do, which made them even more grateful for the opportunity.
“Since it was such a big game, both schools had a big turnout, and the games were both really close,” said Gress.
“Those types of games are always fun to dance at because it’s easy to get pumped up,” she added.
Vickers also enjoyed performing at a rival school.
“Their student section was beyond supportive of us being there, which makes it even better while dancing,” she said. “It was a new atmosphere for us and we all felt very welcomed.”
The girls’ attitudes made all their coaches proud.
“I was beyond impressed with the girls on both teams because it can’t always be easy coming into an unfamiliar place and learning a new dance in just a few practices,” said Spirits assistant coach Erin Bessler.
“But they both had such positive attitudes and worked so hard,” she said, “and I think that showed on the court during their performances.”
Yantis was grateful for the chance to teach her team faith-based lessons, one being the importance of kindness.
Besides the joint performance, the team has also reached out to rival teams by walking to the other side of the basketball court or football field every halftime to introduce themselves to the other dance team.
“If it was really cold, we took them hot chocolate or hand warmers,” said Yantis.
“The next time we played those teams, those kids would come to our side to watch our halftime [performance],” she continued. “There were relationships growing there.”
Yantis hopes her team will find deeper meaning by using their platform as dancers in positive ways, and she believes the lessons that ensue will last a lifetime.
“I have a feeling these are the things the kids are going to remember after high school, more than where we ranked at a competition,” she said.