Team Feature: Belleville East
They kept their fellow dance teams safe by calling off their home competition during an ice storm. Here’s how the Lancer Dancers set up their last six weeks of competition season, ice or no ice
by Norm Ramil / 8ca.creative.director & dance.fan
Flip it, Chicago. Up north, we’ve got the south, west, and north suburbs. No east suburbs, unless you want to build a subdivision on Lake Michigan. Down south in the other major metro area of our state, it’s somewhat the reverse. The Illinois side of the St. Louis, Missouri metro equals their eastern suburbs, or “Metro East.”
Throw in another layer: there’s a Belleville West and a Belleville East, and I have to admit I’ve gotten them mixed up at least once or twice. So let me check my notes…yes, I’m writing about Belleville EAST, the school farther away from St. Louis.
The Belleville East campus is literally a campus, not just one big building. Something like a courtyard sits in the middle surrounded by the separate buildings that make up the high school. Considering the wind chill on a January morning, I’m glad I eventually found the right building, and even more glad that some of the dancers spotted me through the window. Coach Kati Melton opens up the door.
The Belleville East Dance Team’s about an hour into their practice. We’re in the school’s choir room, full of pianos and music stands—pretty fitting for a dance team to run their practices here, actually, when you think about musicality, though maybe not that practical. When Coach Melton and I enter the room, her team’s busy marking a routine and freely chatting and laughing through it. I can instantly tell that I’m going to have fun observing this group.
Right now the focus of their contemporary/lyrical routine, “Diamonds,” is on facing. Eight girls occupy the floor, while another four or five plus Coach Kati watch from the front. They soon review a section of five 8-counts that starts with a Russian twist, mainly fixing arms and heads while also tweaking some of the choreo and counts.
A senior at the front of the formation offers her corrections along with the dancers sitting with Coach Melton. “What’s the timing on those arms?” she asks.
The Belleville East Lancer Dancers then run the whole thing from the beginning. Just before the music starts, the conversation veers to a discussion of the “different kinds of sweaty.” Melton joins in with her witty observations before finally capping it with “Shush your lip holes.”
Like every other team I’ve had the honor of observing, these dancers benefit from their coach’s feedback actually given during the dance (and not just afterwards). Melton calls out the counts when needed, and also asks for straighter legs.
This team thrives in a very light, fun atmosphere.
Something needs fixing. She has them go to one of the formations to clarify details and even moves some dancers around because a few can’t get to their next spot in time. “Fixed! Boom-shocka-locka!”
And that’s not the only entertaining outburst from Coach Katie Melton. There’s this:
“I literally have the worst memory. I can’t remember what I did yesterday. I think I went to the mall.”
“What did you buy?”
“I just went to the mall to go to the mall, and discovered I hate the mall.”
With that out of the way, Kati has her dancers go to the next formation. It’s a section where the girls start on the floor, and what needs cleaning is the getting-up part, definitely a spot that I’ve seen other teams ignore when they shouldn’t (literally leaving fractions of points on the floor).
Then it’s time to go through the turns “line by line” (each of the three rows), with everyone else watching and then offering feedback. A front row girl hears a teammate say she’s not happy with how those turns went. “Save your tears for the pillow,” she replies. And it’s actually good advice, because each row’s second attempt looks way better and more synchronized. Coach Melton figures out what might be throwing some of her girls’ timing off. “You guys are bouncing on your heels so that’s why you’re too fast. If you sink into that plié and hit the corner…you’ll be on time.” She’s cool with letting the team chat a little bit so each row gets a break between their two runs.
The entire team comes back on the floor to do this turn section. Those not on the floor climb up onto a ledge at the front of the room to get into watching position, and I can’t help but wonder if the choirs, bands, and orchestras that use this room ever get this creative with finding a place to sit. “This room is dangerous,” one of them jokes after a climb that requires fitness and grace. Another dancer replies, “There’s lots of hazards.” These girls and Coach Kati Melton will keep an eye on who’s got straight legs and which teammates are really using that plié.
Next, they run the whole thing from the beginning. Melton humorously calls out a couple of her girls for taking sneaky looks at the clock on the wall, leading to a quick discussion of subtle versus obvious ways of checking to see how much time is left at practice. In any event, the Lancer Dance Team is done working on their lyrical routine for this morning.
While the girls grab some water, Coach Kati tells them, “I want that Russian twist together more than anything else in this dance.” It veers into a team conversation on musicality and more. One of the girls reminisces, “I was so happy to be on the dance team as a freshman. I remember all the explosions and sounds that they put into the routine [to mark choreo elements].” Someone brings up the new IDTA music rules, and no one in the room has more than a rough idea of what the rules are or why they’re suddenly in place.
I’ve got more than a few opinions about music rules, but I’m not about to eat up practice time. That privilege belongs to (and is earned by) the dancers themselves, and even then, they use their down time to think about dance team stuff. Their mental detour? They audition a few music mixes off of someone’s phone in search of a halftime basketball routine.
Up next, it’s the Belleville East jazz routine. There’s a slight shift in personnel, so Coach Melton is joined by some different faces up front, sitting and watching. We’re all in agreement that their first run-through looks pretty energetic and sharpish. There’s probably less clean-up to do with this dance, so the team’s personality really comes out for the rest of practice.
These girls and their fun coach keep things loose, which I actually find to be a strength. They can flip that on and off switch at will, something that not every team can pull off successfully. During water breaks, any one of a million topics come up.
- Someone references the Friends episode where Phoebe, in an alternate reality, is a hardcore business executive who suffers heart attacks.
- Later, the team discusses what makes an effective phone password.
- Lauren, the outgoing senior and unmistakable heart of the team, wonders out loud, “Why isn’t skipping relevant anymore? It’s in between walking and running. So when I’m late to class, I skip.”
- Someone else reveals how one bad mishap this morning ended up changing her whole day. “I hope your day gets better,” replies Coach Melton.
To get on the Lancer Dancer roster, candidates need triples, splits, leaps, and a heel stretch. Quads and fouettes, if you got ‘em, are icing on the cake, along with stuff like tilts, calypsos, and anything acro-related. Focus! Because you’ll have to memorize a combo taught the day of tryouts.
Once you’re officially a Lancer Dancer, your calendar gets busy. There’s summer camp, a car wash, marching in parades, and performing at Gateway Grizzlies games (a professional, indie non-MLB baseball team on the Illinois side of the river). Fall’s not only for football—you might dance with the Marching Lancers at their fall field show. If you stick around and make the competition team in October, you’ll be competing by December including hosting the huge Belleville East competition. Mixed in are basketball performances and holiday parties, too. Even after comp season wraps up, the team runs their kids clinic, marches in the St. Louis St Patrick’s Day Parade and then has their team banquet.
Besides all of that, there’s the cool factor of being one of the few 3A teams (in the IHSA system) from outside the Chicago area.
Her dancers call her Kati. Coach Melton danced at Triad before dancing at and graduating from McKendree University. Melton also coached for the elite middle school dance program that feeds into Triad High School. She’s also taught at local studios including Taylor’s Academy of Dance, Jane Manion’s School of Dance, and Belleville School of Ballet.
Assistant Coach Ainsley Fournie also has elite credentials, having danced at Lindenwood University and, before that, Mascoutah High School.
BELLEVILLE EAST AT STATE THROUGH THE YEARS
IDTA 2000: 5th AAA Pom
IDTA 2004: 3rd AAA Dance
IDTA 2004: 4th AAA Pom Dance
IDTA 2005: 4th AAA Dance
IDTA 2006: 4th AAA Dance
IDTA 2006: 4th AAA Lyrical
IDTA 2007: 5th AAA Kick
IDTA 2007: 7th AAA Dance
IDTA 2008: 2nd AAA Dance
IDTA 2008: AAA Lyrical Champions
IDTA 2009: AAA Lyrical Champions
IDTA 2009: 4th AAA Pom Dance
IDTA 2009: 3rd AAA Dance
TDI 2009: 13th AAA Open Dance
IDTA 2010: 3rd AAA Lyrical
IDTA 2010: AAA Jazz Champions
IDTA 2011: AAA Lyrical Champions
IDTA 2011: AAA Jazz Co-Champions
IDTA 2011: 3rd AAA Hip Hop
IDTA 2012: 3rd AAA Hip Hop
IDTA 2012: AAA Jazz Champions
IDTA 2013: AAA Lyrical Champions
IDTA 2013: AAA Jazz Champions
IDTA 2013: 2nd AAA Lyrical
IHSA 2013: 17th in 3A
IDTA 2014: 2nd AAA Lyrical
IDTA 2014: 2nd AAA Jazz
IDTA 2015: 2nd AAA Jazz
IDTA 2015: 2nd AAA Lyrical
IDTA 2016: 6th AA Jazz
IDTA 2016: 6th AA Lyrical
IDTA 2017: 6th AA Jazz
IDTA 2017: 7th AA Lyrical
The Belleville East Lancer Dancers faced a southern Illinois version of debilitating winter weather. They get their share of snowstorms, but often it’s ultra-dangerous ice storms that bring life to a halt in that part of the state. Any team that hosts a competition counts on that event for funding their season, and when a December ice storm cancelled the Belleville East comp, the team hoped for a replacement date from IDTA (they got one in January on a relatively free weekend in everyone’s comp schedule).
Next it’s time to drill a couple of the skills within their jazz choreography. I watch as the team cleans up their capezios, which look pretty big in this unusual practice space. A dancer asks how Coach Melton wants them to prep. “However you guys are doing it in the dance.” She’s focused on getting her girls to keep facing front during various movements. “Don’t look at the ground! It’ll still be there, I promise.”
Sometime in the middle of the drills, Belleville East team members respectfully request Kati to stop saying “boom-shaka-laka.” Elsewhere in the choreo is what the team calls their “ninja jump,” and Melton makes a Mulan reference that some of her girls get.
Soon all of that clock-watching suddenly becomes reality and it’s time for the Lancer Dancers to claim the rest of this winter break day for themselves. The seniors and coaches graciously stick around for some extra chat time (see below).
Like other downstate teams, IHSA sectionals are kind of an add-on, something you do because of obligations. The team came out of sectionals shy of qualifying for IHSA state, but then quickly turned their focus to IDTA state. On February 4th at the Highland competition I finally got a chance to see how the routines I watched in that music room translated to a big gym floor in front of judges ready to audio-record their comments. From what I saw it was clear that the Belleville East dancers were ready to make a splash at IDTA state.
A week later in Springfield, the Belleville East Lancer Dancers and other Metro East made the trip up to IDTA state. I sat somewhat near the East fans and they proudly cheered on their dance team, so often highly decorated at IDTA state over the years. The dances looked big and bold compared to the practice version of themselves that I watched in their music room about six weeks before. With IDTA streamlined down to A and AA divisions, the Belleville East Dance Team went toe-to-toe against some huge, powerhouse programs to claim a 6th in AA Jazz and 7th in AA Lyrical.
Coach Melton and her returning dancers are already gearing up for the next round of tryouts on April 26th. The dancers and the rest of Belleville East’s athletic teams get to use upgraded conditioning equipment starting right now, so it’s an exciting time to wear their school colors. I’m pretty sure they’ll have a successful 2017-18, and I’m totally sure they’ll have fun doing it, with or without ice storms.
Post-practice chat with the team captains
With Coaches Melton and Fournie nearby, captains and seniors Lauren, Clare, and Remi hang out for a couple extra minutes to talk dance.
Can you tell me a bit about your dance backgrounds?
Lauren: I go to Studio Elle currently but I went to Taylor’s, and then I danced in St. Louis with Ashleyliane Dance Company.
Clare: I go to Taylor’s Academy of Dance.
What’s your favorite style of dance?
Lauren: My favorite’s probably contemporary and lyrical.
Clare: Jazz and contemporary.
Remi: I really like tap, it’s just so different than dance team.
Tell me about your favorite memory or highlight so far this year?
Clare: This is gonna take a lot of description. The band does field shows, and for four years now the dance team has done it with them. So in August and July until October I think we compete with them and dance on the field with them, so that’s a really good time to bond and know each other.
Lauren: Probably recently when we were iced in here, we had practice, and we were waiting for the game to start…then somebody got a text that said, “Oh, band’s not coming to the game tonight.” But we were still practicing. Then we found out that the game got cancelled but we were still here practicing.
Coach Kati: I couldn’t let them leave! You could guys could not leave! The roads were just covered in ice.
Lauren: So we waited for our parents to come pick us up. We had competition the next day. But it got cancelled. She went to go in the ice and go get food for us. We just really bonded. We were in here eating, and listening to Christmas music, it was a really fun time. And I think it brought the team closer together.
Remi: Yesterday morning we sat here and our coach brought a projector and we watched old state videos of not only her but of other Belleville East teams from earlier years, and of O’Fallon…and it was really interesting to watch how far it’s come and sit around with everybody and just talk about dance…I thought that was cool.
What are some other teams you guys are fans of?
Lauren: University of Minnesota.
Lauren: …Highland’s really good. I think they’re always a big factor…everybody’s like “I wanna beat Highland.”
Remi: Edwardsville’s really good.
Do you guys have any impressions of the dance scene up north?
Lauren: I know they used to compete [with us in IDTA]…
Me: They don’t do IDTA so much anymore.
Lauren: They were good when my sister was on the team, and we went up to Navy Pier one year, there were a lot of Chicago teams.
Me: Oh yeah I remember the Navy Pier comps!
Remi: I’ve heard they’re really good because O’Fallon competed last year a lot up north, and they travelled a lot, and they said it was really hard competition up there.
How about any team traditions you’re willing to talk about?
Clare: We’ve always done…we call it a pinky prayer…and put our feet in the middle and talk about, “We’re gonna do good, smile…”
Lauren: And then we take pixie sticks and we take pixie stick shots before we go on and get our energy up.
Lauren: And then we have our [chant]: “Do it, do it can, do it, do it, do it blue, whoo!”