Utah is known as one of the best training grounds for dance in the country, and no organization showcases why better than the Cougarettes, BYU’s elite dance team.
The group has won 12 National Collegiate Dance Team championship titles and three more top-5 finishes. Dancers perform a range of genres—jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, lyrical, character—and draw from ballet and modern dance technique. Many alumni go to dance in Hollywood and Broadway. Members of the team bring more than a decade of dance experience with them, and for many, being a Cougarette has been the goal of a lifetime.
Cougarettes auditions this Saturday are expected to draw between 80 and 100 dancers, including current Cougarettes hoping to return for the 2014-2015 team. These dancers will compete for one of 16-20 spots on the team.
The team is no small commitment. The 2.5 credit class is like a part-time job, requiring at least 12 hours of rehearsal a week. Add to that performances at BYU’s football and men’s basketball games, national championships, an annual concert and more, and, well, as Artistic Director and Spirit Squad Coordinator Jodi Maxfield put it, they “keep really busy.”
So what does it take to be part of one of the nation’s best collegiate dance teams?
Technical prowess, first and foremost. The first step of auditions is a technique class, which is where half of the dancers (if not more) get cut, Maxfield said.
“That’s where we really assess their training and skills to see if they have what takes,” Maxfield said.
This year’s hopefuls are expected to show mastery in such advanced skills as right and left aerials, several fouette combos (which involve spinning on one leg while extending the other leg parallel to the floor), leg-hold turns, and even a headspring—a front handspring in which you push off with your head instead of hands.
Not exactly a move for the faint of heart. Or neck.
Dancers who make the cut advance to a class in which they learn and perform a routine that showcases the Cougarettes’ signature style—a mix of jazz, contemporary, and hip-hop—and more technical moves.
The dance combination also lets dancers showcase their own styles, which can be a tricky balancing act, said Kayla Walker, a sophomore at BYU who will be reauditioning Friday.
“All of us [Cougarettes] have to audition again, and we’ve learned to dance similarly, so try to dance along with them,” she advised. “Don’t do too much of your own thing or you’ll look off.”
Technical ability alone isn’t enough, however, Maxfield said.
“They need to have a stage presence and to captivate a crowd when they perform through showmanship,” she said. “They also need to be physically fit and radiate wholesomeness and all that the Cougarettes stand for.”
Auditions are an all-day affair. After the first two rounds, finalists get one-on-one interviews with Maxfield.
“It’s a close-knit group, so we’re looking for girls who understand that and are looking to be part of it,” she said. “This isn’t a place for prima donnas or girls looking our for themselves. They delight and thrill at each other’s victories. The team looks out for each other.”
Then dancers wait eagerly until the team list gets posted online early next week.
“It’s hard to see girls in tears when they’re cut,” Maxfield said. “But it’s exciting and rewarding to see opposite, to see the girls who have gone through the process and are given the opportunity to have a position on team, who are elated by the fact that they made the team.”
Cougarettes, both current and alumna, spoke glowingly of their time on the team.
“Cougarettes is the whole package,” said Abbey Nelsen, a junior at BYU who will finish her Cougarettes experience in April. “It’s the only thing in whole entire world that I know of that involves dancing, which I love to do—as does every other girl in the team—but you also go to school, get a degree, get an education. At the same time, you’re not only growing technically and educationally but spiritually, because the gospel is infused into everything we do. The biggest part of Cougarettes is to show our light through dancing and to be missionaries to people we dance for.”
“One of the best things about Cougarettes is that it covers three major areas,” she said. “You get a good education at BYU, which is a good school, you’re gaining knowledge—but you also get to dance, which is my passion, something I always loved to do—and you also get a spiritual side to it. We dance to hymns sometimes, have testimony meetings together, start every practice with prayer, recite scriptures, give motivational thoughts. The girls on team are amazing. I’ve made some of my best friends that I’ll have for life. So yes, it’s so hard, and you can get burned out—but I’ve learned so much and grown, so in the end, it’s all worth it.”
What advice would they give hopeful future Cougarettes?
Be ready to handle a full plate, said Cougarettes alumna Stacy Bills, who danced on the team from 2000 to 2003 and served as captain for two of those years.
“You also have to maintain a fairly high GPA to be able to dance on the team,” she said. “It is a lot to juggle, but if you stay disciplined and organized, you will be able to do it.”
“Train hard now in all styles so that you will be ready,” Bills added. “The Cougarettes are so versatile and strong. If you make the team, get ready to have the time of your life—you not only get to dance with the best, but you have an instant group of best friends that are all amazing women.”
Stay positive, no matter what, Nelsen said.
“If you don’t make it, it’s not end of the world, even though it seems like it for some girls,” she said. “There are always other things placed in path you can do… I know a lot of girls who auditioned and didn’t make it, and a month later something happens in their life, and they’re like, no wonder I didn’t make it—and what I got instead is even better.”
Maxfield summed it up best: “Come in with a positive attitude and do your best—can’t ask more than that.”