The dance team in opening position at their showcase in the MAC the night before they leave for Daytona.
The dance team in opening position at their showcase in the MAC the night before they leave for Daytona.

Blood, Sweat, & Fishnets

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Last Thursday, the Crimson Dance Team performed what they thought was the strongest routine they’d ever pulled
By Kristi L. Jobson


Last Thursday, the Crimson Dance Team performed what they thought was the strongest routine they’d ever pulled together at the event that is their biggest of the year—the National Dance Association’s collegiate championship.

Their dancers were better than ever. Their costumes were hotter than ever. Their budget was bigger than ever. After ten years, they might finally crack the competition’s coveted top three spots.

The routine, sandwiched between two audio clips (the first from “Legally Blonde” and the last a seductive “That’s hot”), won enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.

But it only won a score of a 7.90—not enough to put the Crimson in the top ten. Staring at the scoreboard, Harvard’s coach gasped. Sixteen individual hearts collectively sank.

After four straight years in the top ten, it looked like Harvard wouldn’t even make it out of preliminaries.

They did have one last chance: the Challenge Cup, where the 12 teams not ranked in the top ten would compete for a wild card ticket to the next morning’s finals.

With a matter of hours to go, members of the Crimson Dance Team (CDT) got out their scissors. They had Thursday afternoon to alter their expensive costumes and the choreography that had been drilled into their minds and bodies since January.

If they won the Challenge Cup, they’d have one last shot to win it all at Finals.

And they wanted that shot. Badly.


Watching the CDT is like watching a yoga tape in fast-forward. A month before they left for nationals, the team was in the Malkin Athletic Center, balancing on their shoulders while executing upside-down splits.

“You have to sell it. It has to be super cute,” CDT coach Meli K. Currie shouts over Gwen Stefani’s music.

Currie reminds her team of the “clicker” system used at nationals: While his colleagues focus on giving performances numerical scores, one judge’s sole job is to hit a clicker every time a dancer falls even slightly out of formation.

“One click is all it takes to go from 3rd to 15th,” says Currie.

Though practice is officially two hours long, the girls arrive half an hour early for conditioning with Currie. She starts the team off with suicide sprints around the basketball court. Before taking off, several yell “We love you Meli!” per long-standing dance team tradition.

“They’re the only team you’ll ever meet who shrieks when they run,” Currie says.

Keeping in top physical condition is a high priority. Team members go through dozens of crunches, quad dips, and push-ups before they even start dancing.

Ten years ago, Harvard dancers had no such rigorous opportunities. For an experience like CDT’s today, dancers would have to turn to schools like Towson, Brigham Young, or the University of Louisville—schools that provide major funding and institutional support to competitive dance teams.

In 1995, five women decided they wanted to bring the state-school experience to Harvard’s Ivy halls. But the original CDT founders faced more than a few challenges.

“We were such a young organization,” says four-year member Kimberlee R. Garris ’01, who joined the team when some of the founders were still on it. “It was unheard of to compete with five girls. We spent no money on costumes, cut our own music. We did everything on our own.”

After their first national competition in 1997, the team kept going back, but they didn’t stand a chance against teams with recruited dancers on scholarship and professionally choreographed routines.

When Garris took over as team captain in 2001, she led a fundraising effort to get a professional choreographer and costumes.

“I really wanted to take the team to the next level. The goal was always to make the top ten. We really got serious about it,” she says of the 2001 team.

That spring, CDT ranked in the top ten at Daytona. The next year, when current seniors Thea A. Daniels ’05 and Megan G. Cameron ’05 were freshmen, they ranked fourth, the highest they’ve ever been.

Since then, the team has finished as high as fifth at nationals, but it has never cracked the top three. After finishing sixth last year, the team decided 2005 would be the year they went for the top.

The team’s five seniors have led this effort, enforcing any sign of lax efforts with an impassioned diligence. The team practices up to two-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week, every week of the academic year—with only one week’s vacation. Members are only allowed three absences each semester; when they come late, they are penalized with extra workouts or fundraising tasks.

Despite the intensity, CDT is usually a four-year activity for its members, who say they can’t imagine Harvard without the dance team. In fact, it was the team itself that drew many members to Harvard in the first place.

“It’s the best program in the Ivy League,” Daniels says. “People don’t realize I’m here at Harvard to do this.”

In one part of the team’s routine, five dancers spaced diagonally across the floor execute 13 high-speed pirouette turns while four of their teammates jump through the tiny spaces between them, landing in perfect side splits.

Practicing the move at the MAC last month, Jessica M. Leonard ’08’s turns were slightly off. In the middle of one foute she kicked into the jumping Jennifer M. Markham ’07, who made a face and jumped away without completing her split.

“Jenny, if that happens you just need to keep dancing with a broken hand for the rest of the dance,” Currie says, affectionate but firm.

Such incidents happen a lot, which is why timing and precision are so crucial to the success of the team.

“It’s more important to dance as a group than to be with the music,” Currie says. “You have to be together, always.”


The team’s push for their best season yet has—by necessity—extended beyond the dance floor.

In the fall of 2003, Cameron and Daniels recruited CDT’s greatest catch yet: Currie. Until she came on board, the dance team had coached itself. Captains were in charge of fundraising, choreography, and even auditions, selecting a team from a group of their peers.

Currie, formerly the Crimson’s competitor as a dancer with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and now in her second year as CDT’s coach, has released some of that burden.

Having a coach was especially helpful during this fall’s auditions, the most competitive yet, according to Cameron. In an ordinary year, the slim 16 spots on the team mean no one is guaranteed a place. This year, competition was so stiff that three dancers who had been members last year were cut.

“It was my hardest moment in coaching,” says Currie. “I had to step out of the friendship box and look at it as a coach, and I felt I had to take the 16 strongest girls.”

The result, Currie and her dancers say, is the strongest team in CDT’s ten-year history.

“We have the most talented dancers we’ve ever had,” says Alexandra E. C. Tatrallyay ’05. “A lot of that has to do with how good the new members are.”

Ten years of hard work have paid off—literally.

Every college dance team submits a video-taped routine to the NDA each fall. Judges use the tapes to rank all the teams before April’s National tournament. This year, for the first time, CDT was seeded number one, toppling long-time rivals and six-time national champions Towson University. The honor put Towson on edge; CDT’s captains say that after they won, Towson’s coach sent them several nervous e-mails asking about technicalities like their website. It also won Harvard a free ride to Daytona. The NDA covered Harvard’s hotel and registration fees in Daytona—about an $8,000 grant, according to Cheng.

In another case of hard work paying off, a New Jersey-based high school dance team bought CDT’s 2004 nationals routine, music, and costumes for $5,000 this fall.

The two strokes of luck let the self-funded team direct their resources towards hiring a professional choreographer to help them with their 2005 national routine.

The team went into the spring focused on one thing: the national finals.


It’s 7:30 in the evening and the Crimson Dance Team is in the MAC mezzanine, practicing in view of dozens of undergrads hooked up to ellipticals and treadmills.

The girls, decked out in black, begin with stretching, which often involves Cirque de Soleil-esque moves, legs lifted up past their heads.

Because the team has to stuff its giant leaps and revolving turns into the narrow MAC mezzanine, only three or four girls can practice full-out at any one time. The only place they can physically all dance together as a team is the Rieman Dance Studio, which they have reserved for two hours a week.

“I’m in so much pain,” Tatrallyay says after practice, rubbing a softball-sized bruise on her hip.

Because many of the spaces where CDT practices are not made for athletic dancers, the team often end up with shin splints and other maladies.

“The worst thing is the bruises on the knees,” says Silvia G. Killingsworth ’07 as the rest of the team pulls up their pant legs to show off their purple and blue marks.

The 700 dancers on Harvard’s campus have approximately 11,000 square feet of dance space, not including house dance studios in Eliot, Cabot, and Currier. Further stress was placed on dance groups like CDT when the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study a few years ago that it would not renew the dance program’s lease on Rieman, the largest dance space on campus at 10,000 square feet.

A replacement space will open August 1 on one of the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center (QRAC) basketball courts. Dance program director Elizabeth H. Bergman estimates the space will be approximately the same size as Rieman.

The space crunch is especially difficult for the dance team. Very few campus dance spaces have mirrors—a requirement for a team whose goal is perfect unity of movement.

“We really can’t learn it without mirrors,” says Daniels. “That’s about as productive as learning through osmosis.”

Currie is a coach, and the team calls their rehearsals practice. But it’s hard to determine whether the Crimson Dance Team is a sport teams or a dance company, making it hard for CDT to figure out where they fit within Harvard’s campus. The Office for the Arts sponsors the team’s annual spring show and the athletic department funds their performances at basketball games, but neither offers the team formal institutional support.

“We don’t fit perfectly in either place,” Currie says. “We’re a little bit of both, and that’s great. [It] just gets tough when we’re looking for support because we don’t [get any] from either place the way I wish we did.”

Becoming a varsity sport might solve CDT’s problems.

Varsity programs are primarily funded through the department and by alumni, while club programs like CDT are student-run and responsible for their own fundraising.

Despite the athletic nature of the dance team’s routines, Director of Athletics Robert Scalise says it’s unlikely CDT will ever become a varsity sport. The NCAA guidelines dictate that the primary component of a varsity team must be competition. For the Crimson Dance Team, Scalise says, finding regional competition would be extremely difficult.

But Currie says there are a few regional competitions the team could attend in the area. “We don’t compete in regionals primarily because of financial restraints. It would be great if we could because we’d get a head start for nationals,” she says.

Most teams in the NDA’s competition go to schools where dance is a varsity sport fueled by institutional funding. Neither the Office of the Arts nor the Athletic Department can provide cash for Daytona, where total costs come to about $1,000 per dancer.

To foot the bill for nationals, each team member pays dues, and the team raises money through sponsors, alumnae, and sales of Harvard-Yale t-shirts. The team also receives grants from the Undergraduate Council and the Ann Radcliffe Trust.

“It’s kind of disappointing that we’re such a talented team and don’t get as much funding, but I feel like we overcome those obstacles really well,” says Kathleen C. Donelan ’08. “It’s just sad because [we’re] such a talented group of dancers.”

While Harvard scrimps to send its 16 team members to nationals, Towson sends eight backup dancers in full costume to stand in front of the performers and cheer.

Varsity dance teams have recruiting, dance majors, and scholarships to help them bring in strong dancers, but the caliber of CDT’s team has been luck of the draw every year.

“You’re looking for someone who does everything—[who] brings together ballet, jazz, and gymnastics,” Garris says. “If you want to dance you might not choose Harvard because you won’t major in dance.”

Because Harvard doesn’t recruit dancers, the team has a history of taking dancers with a variety of backgrounds.

Ann W. Brown ’05 has danced on Broadway at Radio City Music Hall, Katie W. Johnson ’07 is taking next year off to dance in the national tour of “Cats,” Coral X. Day-Davis ’05 spent her first two years at Harvard on the varsity diving team, and Markham was a competitive figure skater before she came to Harvard.


At practice in mid-March, the girls go through one part of their routine with a green elastic dance band, which they roll into a ball, put behind their heads, and use to lift their legs to the ceiling in a matter of seconds. If a dancer drops the band, it would be next to impossible for her to catch up with the fast-paced routine.

They move slowly through several eight-counts of their pom routine, then practice it at four times the pace.

“Everybody must look exactly the same!” Currie tells the team.

The team will spend five minutes perfecting the angle of their arms for a move that is approximately a tenth of a second of their routine.

At rehearsals without Meli, the captains are both critics and dancers. Kimberly M. Cheng ’06 must both analyze her teammates’s movements while dancing herself—not an easy feat.

Hot and panting, with their DHAs rolled up, the girls go through their 30-second funk routine again and again.

“People aren’t fast enough yet,” Brown says, pursing her lips as she looks at everyone in the Currier dance studio mirror. “We just need to keep working on this.”

Unlike most dance groups on campus, which strive for creative expression, CDT puts athleticism and unity as its top goals.

“With dance team, it’s a team, and that’s the main point. It’s not about standing out or emoting so a judge would pick you out,” says Markham, who also dances with Harvard Ballroom.

Though says she often misses the “creative aspects” of her high school dance experience, Leonard feels that as a result of its training, the dance team’s “sense of togetherness and dynamic of group is much stronger.”

The presence of sisters Monika Laszkowska ’07 and Marlena Laszkowska ’08 also helped team cohesion this year.

“The dance team is my best friends,” says Patricia L. Pringle ’07. “I go out with these girls every weekend.”

Brown, Daniels, Tatrallyay, and Cameron are roommates in Lowell House, and the freshmen are paired in rooming groups for next fall.

“It’s always been a family because you spend so much time rehearsing and performing and traveling together,” says Garris. “There’s five or six [CDT grads] who live in New York, and we get together almost every week.”


In the MAC mezzanine the week before spring break, half of the team practices balancing on their shoulders as they execute upside-down splits.

“I have such a long way to go,” says Cheng as she crashes to the mat for the third time in a row.

“Bring ice to spring break, because you’re going to need it for your shoulder,” says Currie.

The dance team spends spring break on campus, practicing eight hours a day or more.

At the beginning of the week, Cheng and Brown videotaped each member’s routine to see where she could improve. In addition to dancing, the team also did a half-hour cardio workout every day to build up stamina.

But Currie worried the routine still wasn’t in good enough shape.

On Tuesday, their second all-day practice, co-captain Brown says an upset Currie told her privately she was concerned the team might not even make it past preliminaries. By Saturday, CDT’s coach felt better.

“It was a hot mess,” Brown said two days before heading to nationals. “But the amount of improvement over the past week was phenomenal.”

Each night—after showering post-practice—the team gathered to watch videos of past national competitions or tapes of that day’s practice, taking turns cooking for the team in groups.

“I’ve never had a spring break, but then if I were to have a spring break trip, I’d go with these girls anyway,” Daniels says, nodding towards her teammates. “I don’t even really think about it, it’s so worth it.”

Each team at the NDA nationals is required to come up with an original theme, communicated through movement and music. Beyond the actual dancing on stage, costume and music choice factor heavily into a team’s score at nationals. In the past, CDT has always received high ratings for its artistic presence. Last year the team had a “Diamonds” theme, complete with conservative pink costumes and songs like Moulin Rouge’s rendition of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”

“Teams usually have an identity when they compete, and our identity has always been kind of cutesy,” says Cameron.

This year, however, was different.

With the most talented team yet, Brown, Cheng, and Currie decided to go for a funkier, less wholesome theme and use more difficult movements to rack up points. They bought black fishnet stockings and gloves to match short black bodysuits sewn up in the back with lime green ribbon. They combined songs like Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” and 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.”

“We felt like if we’re going to do this, we need to do it now,” former captain Daniels said a month before Nationals. “I think we might shock some people in Daytona. They expect us to come up with a cutesy, classy routine. It’ll be fun to see how people react.”

Despite their improvements over break, the team had a lot on their minds during the two days between spring break and Daytona.

Brown was plagued for weeks by dreams of her teammates forgetting to show up to the competition in Daytona and the team not making it to finals.

“We’re going in first, so it feels like we have a lot to prove,” Brown said at a lunch with Daniels, Tatrallyay, and Cameron just days before leaving for Daytona. “It’s so subjective. It’s all about what they think of our style, costume choice, selection. We could be down a lot by no fault of our own.”

The seniors are extremely quiet amid the din of Lowell House at lunch time.

“If we don’t make finals I’ll freak out,” Daniels said after a long silence.

The night before they left for Daytona, the team performed in full costume, hair, and makeup in a “showcase” for their friends and the campus. About 150 students crowded the MAC basketball courts to watch, and cheer loudly, despite the fact that no one could hear the music coming from the tiny computer speakers. Several male members of the audience whooped loudly for the girls’s fishnets and garters.

The team headed home and packed identical bags with identical outfits—CDT tanks, Harvard flip flops, Crimson Crazies t-shirts, and false eyelashes.

“I get sentimental when they talk about next year,” Brown said before leaving. “Knowing this is my last shot and that I won’t have it.”


The team boarded their early morning plane to Daytona on Wednesday, April 6, wearing identical warm-ups and full make-up.

In Daytona, where the National Cheer Alliance’s championships are held at the same time as the dance competition, the teams are always dressed alike, even to go out clubbing or to lunch. The dance and cheer teams practice whenever they’re not competing; complicated cheer stunts on the beach, by the pool, and on the side of the highway are not unusual.

Once in Daytona, the team keeps up the pace of its spring break marathon. Members practice constantly, in complete focus. They’re up by 7 a.m., no one is allowed to speak while practicing, and no one would dream of showing up even a minute late for anything.

To focus the team amid the hullabaloo of nationals CDT grad and former captain Natasha Kennedy-Passler ’04 instituted a tradition of having the team warm up in a circle facing each other.

Other teams often use their warm-up time to intimidate their competitors, executing huge jumps or stunts to show off their most impressive parts of the dance as rival squads prepare to go before the judges.

But it was judge disapproval of their costumes, not the intimidation factor, that knocked CDT out of contention for finals last Thursday. In past years the NDA judges have been far more lax with suggestive moves and music, so the docked points came as a shock to CDT.

“It would have been nice to have a memo or something,” Brown said the next day.

If they didn’t win that night’s Challenge Cup, the team would only be spectators at finals the next morning.

The team tossed the fishnets.

Luckily, each member had an extra pair of black dance pants to pair with their tops. They spent Thursday afternoon cutting risque choreography from their routine, hoping no one would accidentally slip into the moves they’d memorized over the last four months.

“Ideally you’re not thinking when you perform, it’s supposed to be all muscle memory,” CDT graduate Sarah C. Whitlock ’03 explained later.

Things went splendidly at the Challenge Cup. The judges loved the changes and ranked the team first—CDT was off to the finals.

The next morning, hundreds of people lined the beach-side venue, from cheerleaders with giant hair bows to competing dancers with heavy glitter on their eyes.

As the Division II competition wound down, CDT graduates Rebecca Gomez ’04, Sarah C. Whitlock ’03, and Kennedy-Passler—who came to Daytona from New York to support the team—anxiously waited for the Division I competition to start.

“Oh my God, I’m really stressed out,” Gomez fretted, squeezing Whitlock’s hand.

A few minutes later, the Crimson Dance Team strode onstage and posed daintily in their opening positions. From the audience, they looked exactly identical, eye make-up glittering as the audience waited for the music to start.

They had two minutes and seven seconds to validate a year of practice—and to determine whether or not they would be the next national champions.


The audio clip from Legally Blonde blasts out of the powerful speakers and the team is off.

Since most schools bring both a dance team and a cheerleading squad to perform in Daytona, almost every other dance team has tons of fans decked out in spirited apparel to cheer as their teams perform. Harvard’s three graduates and scattered parents seem a paltry fan club in comparison.

CDT’s spacing gets off slightly during the routine’s third section, a funk piece; one dancer is just enough off the rest of the team to warrant notice. With a huge screen that projects the camera’s-eye view of the event both as each team is performing, even the smallest mistakes are hard to miss.

CDT hits their pom routine perfectly; no one loses an elastic band. However, in their final segment, one dancer is slightly off on her turns. Whitlock, Gomez, and Kennedy-Passler, cheering right in front of the stage, return to their spot in the audience extremely anxious.

The CDT score is announced; an 8.77 out of ten. That’s good, but there’s no way to tell what will happen with 11 teams still to compete.

Sacred Heart University competes next with a Jesus Christ-themed dance complete with preacher-like robes that they tear off after 15 seconds to reveal glittery dark blue velvet body suits with silver trim. At one point two groups of girls lift their fellow SHU dancers into the air in what resembles a crucifix, complete with heads lolled to the side.

One wonders whether this is more inappropriate than fishnet stockings—but then, Chick-fil-a, the event’s main sponsor, is a Southern Baptist company that closes on Sundays.

SHU’s score is announced; it’s slightly less than 8.77. Harvard is officially in the winner’s circle, the area just next to the stage—at least for now.

Florida International executes a parade-themed dance complete with large white umbrellas. Unfortunately, the entire top of one umbrella falls off one girl directly in the front, and another girl’s umbrella goes inside out and dangles to the side as she tries to dance. She tries to throw it behind her subtly, but there’s no hope for her team—the judges have likely already clicked the mishaps. And throwing an umbrella off a stage is hardly subtle.

The stakes are high for the teams, and for every individual.

“I think I’ve cried eight times already,” says Brown from the winner’s circle. After each team competes, the Crimson Dance Team huddles in a circle, holding hands as they wait for scores to be announced.

“And Harvard is still our Division I leaders!” shouts the announcer over the loudspeaker.

Pringle screams and hugs her teammates.

Stephen F. Austen University takes the stage in heavy bomber jackets and caps. As their “Bad Girl”-themed routine opens, they pull off the heavy jackets to reveal hot pink and black pleather outfits. They’re clean, they’re sharp, and their score of 8.83 barely pushes Harvard out of the winner’s circle.

The team’s faces register disappointment for less than a nanosecond before they start cheering and head out to the audience to watch the rest of Division I.

Finally, reigning national champions Towson University take the stage, their eight costumed alternates cheering in front. By the end of the near-perfect routine, it’s obvious Towson will retain its stranglehold on the national title for the seventh year in a row.

The Crimson Dance Team drops to sixth place, the same rank as last year.

They go up to accept their award from Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, founder of the National Cheerleaders’s Association and inventor of the pom pom.

Post-awards ceremony, CDT heads to the beach to take pictures in front of the ocean with the other top teams. As soon as their parents put away the cameras, the dancers gather up their dance bags and start heading back to the hotel.

Just as they reach the edge of the audience, the NDA announces the Overall Dance Sportsmanship Award for the most encouraging, spirited team out of all three divisions. This year, the honor goes to Harvard.

Senior Day-Davis goes up to the stage to accept the award, a spirit stick.

The team has a full day to relax in Daytona before they fly back to Cambridge on Sunday. When they get back from Florida, they will have one week off from dance team before rehearsals begin for their annual May show.

And then it’s time to start brainstorming themes for next year.