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University of Minnesota dance team in various dance poses.

Some members of the University of Minnesota dance team at the 2006 Universal Dance Association's national championships.

shooting for a penta-peat

University of Minnesota dance team heads to Florida for fifth bid at national title

By Pauline Oo

Jan. 11, 2007

Editor's note: On Sunday (Jan. 15) the University of Minnesota dance team took third in the Division 1A Dance category at the 2007 Universal Dance Association's Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships. The team also placed sixth in the Division 1A hip-hop.

Split leaps, cha?n?s turns, double and triple pirouettes... not only can each member of the University of Minnesota dance team execute these beautiful--and technically difficult--dance moves on their own, each one of them can also perform those moves with such ease and in total sync with the other 16 women on the team.

Yes, they're that good. And they have four consecutive national titles to prove it.

Last year, the Gophers became the first dance team to win four straight titles in the past decade. This weekend, the team--along with the other Spirit Squad units (cheer team and school mascot Goldy Gopher)--will once again attempt to spellbind more than 4,000 spectators when it heads to the 2007 Universal Dance Association's Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships (Jan. 14-17) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

The University team will compete against 28 other teams across the United States in the Division IA jazz category and close to 20 teams in hip-hop. Preliminary rounds are on Saturday and the finals are on Sunday.

"When people attend our practices they really understand how much work and how athletic these girls are," says head coach Amber Struzyk. "They truly are Division IA athletes because they are at that elite of a level. There's so much work that goes into [a routine] that by the time the audience sees it, it looks effortless and it has that grace. But there's so much power and athleticism that has to go into it to get it to that point."

From July through March, the dance team practices for two-and-a-half hours, three times a week. On the off days, they lift weights. "But over the last two weeks, they've been practicing almost every day," says Struzyk, a 2000 graduate of the Carlson School and former member of the team. "It gets pretty intense."

University of Minnesota dance team
The U's dance team at the 2004 UDA national championships. View the performance on YouTube.

And when they're not competing, the dance team performs at all home women's and men's basketball games, helping to entertain the audience as part of the Gopher Spirit Squad.

Of the 17 dancers--all University sophomores, juniors and seniors--who are competing in the UDA nationals this year, 11 are championship veterans, including co-captains Gina Becchetti and Brianne LaGrano. "We consider ourselves athletes and artists, and we seriously pour our hearts into what we do that to go out there and win is so gratifying," says Becchetti.

Becchetti, who is majoring in communications studies and participating in her fourth UDA nationals, says she and her teammates are "definitely prepared" for this weekend's challenge.

"I'm a senior this year, and I know how the competition works," she explains, "so we've been able to tell the younger girls how everything works and get them really prepared mentally and physically."

Making the cut

Each year teams and mascots from across the nation send in videotapes of their performances to the organizers of the competition, and top seeds are selected from all the categories to receive funds to travel and compete. The Minnesota team is not exempted from this rule even though it is the defending champion.

Did you know?

Cheerleading was born at the University of Minnesota. In 1898, after three straight losses by the U's football team, a student named Johnny Campbell made the then-radical suggestion that he lead organized cheers to root the players on to victory. A few weeks later, he put his idea into action during a home game between Northwestern and Minnesota. When the Gophers won by a score of 17-6, much of the credit went to Campbell and his squad of "yell leaders," as they were initially called. The yell leaders were the first organized cheerleading team in the nation. Soon, no self-respecting college or university could do without its own cheerleading squad.

Today, this proud tradition is carried on by the U's Spirit Squads--more than 70 dedicated student-athletes who each devote an average of 700 hours per year to practices, games, special appearances, cheerleading camp and competitions. Like student-athletes in other Gopher sports programs, members of the Spirit Squad--cheer teams, dance team and Goldy Gopher mascot--must maintain high academic standards and carry a full credit load in order to participate.

To learn more about the Spirit Squad, see GopherSports.

Source: University of Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics

"[A win depends on the] judging," says Struzyk. "It's not like basketball where the players score the basket and they win the game. [The dancers] do their work, then someone else judges it and tells you three hours later who won. So, my expectation [for the members of the University of Minnesota dance team] is that when they walk off the floor, they know that they could not have done any better with both of their routines."

The judges score teams on a 100-point system, based on the following criteria: overall effect (the team's image and crowd appeal), communication and projection (eye contact and showmanship), choreography (difficulty and creativity), group execution (synchronization, spacing and timing with the music) and dance techniques. Each team has a maximum of two minutes on the stage.

This year the U's dance team will perform its jazz routine to an a capella song. (Last year it performed to an instrumental piece.) In the hip-hop category, the team will dance to a mix of 10 different songs.

From 1996 to 2002 the University of Minnesota dance team's average finish at the national championships was sixth place, but since then the team's work ethic, skill and style has put them on top. "What really sets us apart from other teams is we work harder, and we make sure that we do so that we can achieve our goals," says Becchetti. "If we need to stay an hour after practice and keep working and working and working, we will do that."

To catch the University of Minnesota Dance Team in action, check your local TV listings for ESPN or espn2 coverage.