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Aquinas dance coaches get creative for annual tryouts

The St. Thomas Aquinas High School dance team got creative in building its team for the 2020-21 school year, holding tryouts online with hopefuls sending in videos of themselves dancing to choreography put together by the coaching staff.

by Moira Cullings

OVERLAND PARK — For two years, the St. Thomas Aquinas High School Spirits dance team prepared for nationals, to be held this spring in Dallas.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, the competition was canceled.

“I was completely heartbroken,” said Marika Davis, a senior dance team member at the high school in Overland Park.

“Not only was I upset about not being able to show off our months of hard work,” she said, “but I was also upset that my dance career ended so abruptly.”

Lydia Davis, also a senior dance team member, agreed.

“I know I can speak for the rest of the seniors in saying we were ready to leave our heart out on that floor,” she said.

“At least for me, this was going to be my last chance to dance in front of an audience and with my teammates that have become family.

“And it’s heartbreaking to know that the last time I danced, I didn’t even know it was the last time,” she said.

The St. Thomas Aquinas dance team had spent two years preparing for a nationals competition that was ultimately moved to an online format due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: The Lemon Drop Studio

Since the nationals competition only occurs every other year, the team works year-round, dedicating many practices to preparation for the event.

But head coach Tara Yantis couldn’t be more impressed by how her team has handled the disappointment they’ve experienced.

“These seniors, in particular, have stepped up with such wisdom beyond their years,” she said, “and I’ve never been prouder.

“While it was definitely devastating at first, I’ve been so proud of their extraordinary reaction to lead their team with grace.”

‘We have to be resilient’

Since schools closed, Yantis and her assistant coaches have worked hard to keep the spring season flowing as smoothly as possible for their team, turning to the virtual world for assistance.

The team held its banquet virtually on March 31 and has held multiple meetings online.

It also held tryouts for the 2020-21 school year virtually — with girls applying online and sending in videos of themselves dancing to choreography put together by the coaching staff.

“When you do something like this when the kids aren’t [there] in person, you’re creating a lot of variables that are hard to control,” said Yantis.

“There are emotions wrapped into it,” she added, “so you really want it to be as fair and equitable as possible.”

Not only has the Aquinas dance team held tryouts virtually, but the girls have also stayed in touch through regular Zoom meetings.

Several complexities came with the tryouts, including girls having enough space to dance in their homes, and wearing clothes that contrasted with the background of the space they danced in.

Despite the change in format, the number of girls trying out was roughly the same as the last couple years, said Yantis, due to the efforts taken by the team and school to spread the word about the tryout process.

“I think it says a lot about Aquinas,” she said. “That’s our culture. We really take care of these kids and these families and give them the absolute best opportunities.”

Although they could have hosted tryouts this summer, the team wanted to get started earlier because “we need a team that’s ready to go and do very positive things, and to help uplift a community [after the coronavirus crisis],” said Yantis.

“Now, our job as spirit leaders is more important than ever,” she said. “We have to be resilient in these situations.”

‘Forever grateful’

The Spirits have held their heads high, and their attitudes are a testament to the work they put into their craft all year round.

The team practices three times a week, twice at 6 a.m. before school, and once on Fridays from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“During this time, we are pushing our bodies to the limit and are perfecting all of our routines,” said Marika.

Although their work was not fulfilled at nationals, it helped them grow as young women preparing for life after high school.

“Dance team to me has been the absolute best part of my experience here at Aquinas,” said Lydia. “We have all formed very close friendships and have truly become a little family.

“We hope when all of this is over for all of us to get together with the team and truly end the best part of high school on the right note.”

For Marika, being part of the dance team helped her form a stronger relationship with God.

“It’s in the little things and [in] my teammates where I find God daily,” she said. “Whether it’s when a teammate gives me a hug and asks how my math test went, or when the team will go to the musical just to support me.

“The Aquinas dance program is a well-knit family that bonds [over] our love for dancing, but also loves and supports each other every day.

“I will be forever grateful for the four years [of experiences] it has provided me [with], even if it was cut short.”

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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