Smile Politely

Checking in with the Jefferson Middle School Dance Team

Illyanna Lopez, coach of the Jefferson Middle School Dance Team, began dancing at three years old, and continued throughout her school career through competitive dance and community theater, eventually heading up the Velocity dance team at U of I. After she was hired at Jefferson, she was inspired to bring her love of dance to the students. This is where a huge part of my passion lies. I like teaching math, I love coaching.”

Lopez launched the dance team program in 2016, and started small. “We just did a basketball game and a talent show.” The second season, Lopez wanted to explore the competition scene, and the team began competing through the Illinois Drill Team Association (IDTA). Many of the competitive teams with middle school dance programs are schools that have access to private dance companies in their towns. The Jefferson Middle School team is unique. Even though C-U is home to several private studios, many of the dance team members have not spent much time in them. Most just love to dance and decided to give the team a try. Zeruiah Burts-Wiggins, an 8th grader, saw it as an opportunity to get to know new people, and a way to use some of the skills she learned from doing cheerleading and ballet when she was younger. “It was something for fun. In 6th grade you’re trying to do anything and everything that’s available for you, and dance is where you can make new friends in different grades.” Yandelyz (Yani) Cabrera, a 6th grader this year, says she is always dancing and making up dances. “I love to do it. It’s just a part of me.”

Photo provided by Illyanna Lopez.

Last month, the team competed in the IDTA state finals, and came away with first place in the hip-hop division, a feat that took a lot of hard work. In the fall, the team prepares three or four routines that they perform at boys and girls basketball games. Then, it’s time to hone in on one routine that they will take to competitions, and Lopez makes sure they know it inside and out. “One of the most challenging things is stamina,” says Burts-Wiggins. “It really pushes you out of your comfort zone…[Coach Lopez] knows how to get us to where we need to be, and she knew what to do for us to win state this year.”

Like any school sport or activity, the kids are students first, and Lopez tries to instill that in her team. She emphasizes that they are leaders, and that they are representing not only themselves but their team and the school whether they are in the classroom or at a competition.

All we are trying to do as teachers and coaches is produce productive members of society. Even if they don’t dance for me ever again, I want them to be positive members of society and be a team, and know what it’s like to be a family. That’s my goal. I teach dance, but I want these humans to be good people.

She says the best part is watching the girls grow in confidence as they go through the season, not just in dance but in all aspects of their lives. Angelina Conner has seen this in her daughter, 8th grader Abrianna Miner. “It’s been amazing. She’s really opened up from being a part of the team…she grew so much from when she started.”

Of course, there are many mixed emotions when competing in a state final. For Cabrera, once she pushes past the nerves on the sidelines, it’s about the joy of dancing with her friends. “I’m just thinking that I couldn’t be dancing with better people. I love all the girls and I love dancing with them. When we came off (the floor), we knew that we did a good job.” Miner felt a little bit of sadness, “I was just thinking ‘this is the last time performing together.’”

In talking with Coach Lopez, the girls, and Conner, the team’s bond is undeniable. “The dance team was the life changing experience I needed,” says Miner. “And I thank all of the dancers, and my coach, for this amazing opportunity.”

Lopez encourages parents to find ways to get kids to participate in extra-curricular activities like this one. “Get your kids involved. It’s more than a sport. It creates well-rounded students.”

Here is their winning routine:

Top photo provided by Illyanna Lopez.

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