Team Feature: Crystal Lake Central
A snapshot of one night in the middle of another dramatic CLC dance season
by Norm Ramil / 8ca.music.person & dance.fan
Mid-December, and a super cold Crystal Lake evening. Just a week ago, this old gym was packed with cheer fans in the morning, dance fans in the afternoon. The messy, slushy snow made the Crystal Lake Central parking lot kind of an adventure, but tonight, the only notable weather is the bitter cold.
This town is without a doubt one of the state’s dance hotspots; Central’s in the middle (duh!), just south of downtown and in a classy old building. Also in town is CL South and Prairie Ridge, and fellow District 155 school Cary-Grove is nearby. Huntley and Jacobs are a few minutes southwest and south, respectively. There’s plenty of mingling among dancers, like attending each other’s studios and middle schools, for example. Teams sometimes participate in each other’s open gyms; coaches often sit in on each other’s tryouts. Connections and rivalries abound.
Tonight’s varsity practice is in the hands of Coach Alli Heckman (assistant / JV Coach Lexi Stray isn’t here tonight). The gym has tons of orange going on, and the old place has been nicely upgraded pretty much as far as you can take it. It’s spacious for dance practice, crowded for basketball. This fieldhouse is dripping with vintage character.
Going back to my first season working for the team—the 2003-04 campaign—I mostly remember visiting the team at night. For the most part, they’ve kept that up through three distinct coaching eras, and by all accounts, it just works well. I remember practices in the smaller (and newer) gym across the hall, the cafeteria, and the small wellness room upstairs. But what’s burned into my memory are all those nights in this old fieldhouse where so much of Illinois’ competitive dance history was written.
The IHSA schedule can make December rather un-holiday-ish, so I’m pretty happy to hear Christmas music blasting out of the CLC Dance Team’s bluetooth speaker as the girls go through warmups. Winter break is just around the corner, and since the girls won’t be at this weekend’s competition, it’s tempting to relax. But the 2A field is way too competitive and the team knows it’s time to get work done.
First up: an upcoming basketball routine, mostly a repeat of a football halftime dance from the fall. So all it needs is a quick run-through, but the challenge is remembering the choreo from two or three months ago! There are some amusing pauses in the middle of counting out the whole routine, faces that look like they’re trying to reach back to the era of homecoming dresses and pumpkin spice lattes, searching for that next 8-count.
After a water break comes the real work of the night: tweaking and cleaning their competition pom routine. Right now they’re focusing on new changes for the end, formations and counts that, up until tonight, existed only in Coach Heckman’s notebook. Some new elements need to be ironed out so the right people can get to the right spots in time. “Can we figure out how I can avoid getting punched in the face?” one dancer asks.
Coach Alli Heckman danced on this team’s varsity for all four years, so she knows what this program’s all about. She carries a natural bearing of being in charge, of getting things done. And since she isn’t that many years removed from those intense weeknights on this basketball floor, Alli naturally runs out into the formation to teach what she’s previously figured out with pen and paper.
The girls freely address her as Alli, continuing the tradition of first-name-respect that I’ve always known at CLC. I love it; there’s no good reason not to drop rank when you’ve got a tight-knit dance family.
The bluetooth speaker does a C-minus job of blasting their music out onto the practice floor, but I do admit that the distortion sounds almost cool in parts of the music. It sort of reminds me of the horrible-sounding speakers this gym used to have back in the day, made worse by having to hold the microphone up to a boombox for halftime dances. So with that memory, I’m ready to give this bluetooth speaker a pass.
Coach Heckman (and as I type that, I realize that very few people would actually say or write those words) throws out a request before she hits the music. “Sharp arms would be much appreciated because then I can see what I’m looking for.” It’s a mix of honest request (she needs to check to see if what she came up with on paper really works) and veiled coach-talk, so I hear an anonymous response from the team: “Come on, girls!”
It’s cool to see this work in progress literally evolve by the minute. During a water break, Alli casually asks one of her dancers, “After you do that illusion could you pull into a coupé turn?” New ideas seem to blossom as the team works through the new material that, until tonight, existed only on paper.
Up next, Alli works with one group while she has the rest work on the new parts they just learned, along with technique, of course. “Turn with a partner so you know if you’re on count,” she calls out. Meanwhile, Alli’s group collaborates with their coach, checking on what they can come up with for this next part. One dancer starts falling in love with the idea of a jump in one part, but Coach Alli has musicality in mind when she replies, “There’s nothing in the music that calls for a jump.”
The CLC Dance Team comes back together, and Alli doesn’t mind an honest appraisal of her own work. “We’re not sure if we like it…maybe there’s too much going on.”
But for now they’ll move on and see if the rest works. One by one, Alli teaches the three groups what they’re going to do for this next 8-count. She smoothly makes changes on the fly when new ideas hit her or the outcome of a movement is a little disappointing.
Sometimes I ask coaches and captains what their choreographic approach is, but watching just a little of tonight’s practice tells me a lot. First, CLCDT and Alli want to figure out the visuals, and then the arms, all dotted with promises to clean it later. And always, always, always checking with the girls to see if they have spacing issues or if they can really get to the next spot in time.
At one point, I hear her say to herself, “…we haven’t kicked in awhile…” as she walks over to another group to consult. At other times, she looks over to check what I think. She’s a coach who’s in full command of her resources.
The arms, the arms. A secret key to decades of CLC pom success. Coach Alli frequently asks her dancers for strong arms, and teammates show no hesitation in encouraging each other. You don’t have to be a captain or a senior to look out for your teammates if you’ve got a CLCDT t-shirt on. As the night goes on, more and more girls join in on pumping each other up, shouting down any doubts just before their coach hits the music.
And after just a few runs, these dancers can indeed pull off this ambitiously busy choreo at full speed. I was skeptical, and then I was proud to be wrong.
There are water breaks and there are thinking breaks. Coach Alli takes about 20 seconds to consult with her notes. Meanwhile, the team acts like their typical selves. Brigitte, always the first to yell out to me when I’m spotted at competitions or when I walk into practice, breaks out some tap combos and it’s contagious. “You have a lot of things you can be working on rather than talking,” Coach Alli tells them.
Alli’s demeanor frequently screams out that it’s time for business, but without any excessive negativity. She’s got a great rapport with her team, asking for their best in a way that’s more of a statement than a command.
“It’s just a goal. You have a month to get it,” reassures Heckman when one girl feels a little doubtful about whether she can pull off the new parts. Still, the clock ticks onward—this is the last practice before a week off. As the night goes on and especially toward the end, more and more girls join in on the encouragement. They can do this.
Summertime for the Crystal Lake Central Dance Team gets busy with up to 3 practices each week. The dancers work on strength and conditioning two mornings per week. There’s a ton to learn: overall technique, learning their home routine for UDA camp, sideline dances, halftime dances, and parade routines. CLCDT mingles with other UDA teams at the Chula Vista Resort in the Dells.
Going to UDA camp and getting splashy at Wisconsin Dells obviously bonds this team together way before any football games or IHSA comps. CLCDT also does team runs around Crystal Lake over the summer, nicely balanced with a carb-fest at Biaggis just before school starts. Both teams dance in the 4th of July parade.
Besides the fun of Friday night lights, the team hangs out in Chicago the weekend before their first competition. The girls do a secret santa gift exchange and have their annual Christmas party over winter break. Both varsity and JV do their traditional pasta dinners the night before every comp, and both teams also do sleepovers throughout the year.
This old, shiny court has seen countless pom practices over the years. The team uses the lines to master any spacing issues (the 3-point line, free throw line, the timeline / halfcourt, the white volleyball lines). Coaches Heckman and Stray stared at these same lines when they were part of the team a few years ago. Up until their senior year (class of 2009), it was the Crystal Lake Central Poms. Coach Caroline Christensen rechristened the unit into the CLC Dance Team starting in the 2008-09 season.
Coach Alli Heckman and JV Coach Lexi Stray are an inseparable pair, and for me, it’s weird not to see them together. They’ve got distinct personalities, with Alli the intense and animated one and Lexi the chill, calculating one. But they function as a single unit when it comes to the CLC Dance Team. Both performed on some high-achieving CLC pom teams before moving on to dance on their college teams (Heckman at Miami of Ohio, and Stray at Carthage). Coach Alli, recently married, teaches outside of the CLC building during the day.
Coach Lexi also works outside the building and, as a non-teacher, brings a different dynamic to the program. Her JV team continues the long tradition of carefully crafting the skills that make for a strong varsity pom performer. “JV members practice nearly the same amount as varsity and perform during all home sophomore football and basketball game halftimes,” Alli tells me.
I’ll leave a couple topics to future articles (and I have to admit it’s pretty hard as a writer to not swerve into a long history of the CLC dance program, or the storied rivalry between Central and South). Whether they went by “pom” or “dance” team, and whoever was at the helm, this dance program has always specialized in pom.
Some of my favorite memories of the Alli-Lexi coaching era at Crystal Lake Central are all of our bleacher conversations at competitions, constantly evaluating dances and what to change for next time. Lexi’s finally outgrown the habit of spotting me across the gym and then sending me proof that she’s spotted me across the gym.
Crystal Lake Central Poms, and later, Dance Team–at State through the years:
IDTA 1989: 3rd in Pom
IDTA 1989: 3rd in Dance
IDTA 1992: 5th in Division I Pom
IDTA 1997: Champions in AAA Pom
IDTA 1998: 2nd in AA Kick
IDTA 1998: 2nd in AA Pom
IDTA 1999: Champions in AA Pom
IDTA 1999: 4th in AA Hip Hop (“Aerobic Funk”)
IDTA 2000: 3rd in AA Kick
IDTA 2000: 2nd in AA Pom
IDTA 2001: Champions in AA Pom
IDTA 2003: 3rd in AA Pom Dance
IDTA 2003: Champions in AA Pom
IDTA 2004: Champions in AA Pom
IDTA 2004: 4th in AA Pom Dance
IDTA 2005: 2nd in AA Pom Dance
IDTA 2005: 2nd in AA Pom
IDTA 2006: Champions in AA Kick
IDTA 2006: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2007: Champions in AA Open Pom
TDI 2007: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2008: 3rd in AA Open Pom
TDI 2008: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2009: Champions in AA Open Pom
TDI 2009: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2009: AA Grand Champions
TDI 2010: 3rd in AA Open Pom
TDI 2010: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2011: 2nd in AA Open Pom
TDI 2011: Champions in AA Pom
TDI 2012: 2nd in 2A Open Pom
TDI 2012: Champions in 2A Pom
IHSA 2013: Inaugural 2A Champions
IHSA 2014: 8th (Day 2) in 2A
IHSA 2015: 6th (Day 2) in 2A
IHSA 2016 5th (Day 2) in 2A
IHSA 2017: 13th in 2A
Like so many other practices, things end with a quick wrap-up of what’s next (in this case, a nice break from the team besides basketball games, and a nicer break from school). Individual dancers have quick conversations with their coach, and girls are assigned to take back the bins of poms to their storage places.
A few weeks later, the Crystal Lake Central Dance Team was knocking on the door of some big scores, coming home 5th at a super-competitive Rolling Meadows competition. Then another 5th, this time at sectionals, just a step away from the cutoff ranking. Then a state week that would cause lesser teams to crumble.
“We had a record number of injuries and illness sweep through the team at seemingly the most inopportune times (3 days before state prelims),” writes Coach Heckman. At one point, all the seniors were out. The team brought their dance-themed pom routine to state and finished 13th on Day 1, just one placement and .82 points away from coming back the next day.
Now that the dust has settled on a roller-coaster season of highs and lows, the CLCDT can look back and say they slayed as many obstacles as they could. “Although not the state finish we had hoped for going into the season, I am incredibly proud of the way in which the team overcame said obstacles by doing everything they could at practices and on the competition floor.”
Coach Alli’s notebook saw plenty of action, too. “At the end of the season, we had re-done competition formations 6 times, and only put the same team on the floor in two different competitions….my team embodied the word “ADAPTABLE” this year. They were kind, respectful, and determined dancers who never grumbled when I moved their spot in the dance, and never complained about learning new choreography and formations days before performances. They handled this challenging season with grace, and I am proud to be their coach.”
A Pre-Game Interview with the CLCDT seniors!
Sitting with me in the bleachers from left to right are seniors Audrey, Kelly, Jessie, and Katie
So tell me about any studio experience you might have.
Audrey: “I have a decent amount of dance. I took two years at Irish Steps. I also have a musical theater background from Spotlight Youth Theatre, which gave me experience in performing and facials. I danced for one year in 8th grade at Bataille [Academie of the Danse in Barrington] to prepare for tryouts.
Kelly: I danced at Cary Grove Performing Arts. My mom worked at Summers Dance Academy so I took as many classes as I could there!
Jessie: I’ve never taken dance. She’s my trainer [pointing at Coach Lexi]
Katie: I took a couple years at All That Dance.
Favorite style of dance?
Audrey: Jazz. But if I could, it would be hip hop because it’s so different.
Katie: I’m comfy with jazz. I just like the sassiness, if that’s the right word to use.
Jessie: Pom, but I also like watching jazz.
Katie: Hip hop. It’s just so much fun!
What’s your fave memory or highlight from this season?
Audrey: UDA camp when we got to do hip hop.
Katie: Yeah, at UDA the dances are fun. With our old coach we only focused on certain styles but now we get to try different stuff. Especially since it’s my last year to do it, I loved that I could try different styles and have fun.
Kelly: When the new girls first made the team. Just seeing their faces and knowing what they’re feeling.
Jessie: Our home competition. It was cool to perform in front our home crowd and peers.
Audrey: Also homecoming weekend. On Friday we do a photoshoot and we dress up fancy in front of the school, and our coaches give us corsages. We do our parade that day, a pep rally 9th period, there’s the game at night, and the dance the next day.
Jessie: It’s a long day. But it was truly a bonding experience for us.
Kelly: I was sick that day but I still had a great time!
For the captains: what’s it been like leading this team?
Katie: We definitely had lots of responsibilities, a lot of organizing to do. It was up to us to come up with the homecoming routine.
Jessie: I really liked motivating my teammates, and in the process I had to keep motivating myself, too. I learned a lot about leadership.
Me: Were you guys voted in or appointed?
Jessie: We had to give a speech and also teach a dance.
What are some other dance teams you admire?
Kelly: University of Minnesota.
Jessie: Yeah, our coaches sometimes message us saying, “Let’s watch this Minnesota video for inspiration!”
Katie: Maine South. Their kick…
Kelly: Maybe they can lead everyone back to kick again.
Katie: Huntley, just their confidence and presentation.
Audrey: Stevenson. It’s cool that even at a school where they’re good at almost every sport, that their school values dance.
Do you guys have any traditions on competition days?
Kelly: We’re the most superstitious team ever. On competition day, everyone has to go through the same door. If the girl at the front of the line touches the railing, we all must touch the railing.
Katie: One of captains last year, she group texted that a bird flew into her house. She was like, “It’s a sign…” [their pom theme was “Birds”]. Also a bird literally pooped on someone’s t-shirt. So she never washed it and brought it to every competition.
Audrey: I love the reactions we get from girls who just made the team when we do our kidnapping (by permission from their parents). The Saturday after tryouts, seniors are assigned to pick up the new teammates. They stay blindfolded in the car and then we take it off at the restaurant for breakfast. It’s cool to be like, “Ok—here’s your new team!”
Katie: I remember I heard people coming into my house at 6am…
Jessie: I was clueless about what was going on. All of a sudden I see the seniors standing around my bed—these were my role models! I thought I was dreaming!
What’s it like to almost be done being a part of this team?
Kelly: This team’s literally been my family. I spend more time with them than my actual family.
Katie: My house is just for eating and sleeping. The rest of my time is with this team.
Jessie: It’s how I found my friends in high school since only a few kids from my middle school came here.
Audrey: Same with me. And I’ll always have an essay topic to write about—hundreds of stories.
Katie: I wrote about being on this team for my college essay. It’s been 4 years and all of it was worthwhile.
Kelly: I can’t imagine high school without this team. And I learned a ton about time management!
Jessie: I can’t imagine life without dance. I gained so much confidence. A lot of the time, dance was a bigger priority than schoolwork, which sounds bad, but it’s the truth.