8 Count Audio | Team Feature: Eisenhower
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Team Feature: Eisenhower

Can dance be more than just dance? These dancers put it all on the line hoping to share the power and the glory with the dance community and beyond.


by Norm Ramil / 8ca.music.person & dance.fan

Dance has always had out-of-bounds lines, whether it’s IHSA, TDI, IDTA, or UDA. But what happens when the heart of your routine’s story crosses those lines, and holds open the door of the gym, inviting you to take that routine out into the world? The athletes on the Eisenhower Cardinal Dance Team did exactly that this season.

Blue Island…doesn’t involve an island. Totally landlocked, it sits right against the southern city limits of Chicago (official city neighborhoods like Morgan Park and West Pullman aren’t too far to the north and east). Go in the other direction and you’re soon in Oak Forest. The working class and diverse suburb of about 23,000 is home to Eisenhower High School, originally “Blue Island High School.” When the former World War II general and future US President came to dedicate the rebuilt high school, Blue Island renamed it in his honor.

The first time I saw this season’s Eisenhower CDT routine was at the Mundelein competition in November. Everyone knew they’d bring a killer hip hop routine as usual, but no one realized that it would be so lyrically-infused, that it would speak a message so poignant and urgent through the portrayal of Common’s “Glory.”

Up to this point, all I’d ever seen of Eisenhower has been their gym, where the dance program has hosted lots of dance competitions over the past few years. So on this chilly morning, I found Eisenhower High School’s Cardinal Dance Team hard at work in their cafeteria. It almost looks like just a widened part of the main hallway, but it’s nice. Big, bright windows overlook the courtyard, and classy brick walls decorate the perimeter. The school does have a dance room, but with a big dance team, this space works fine.

While veteran Coach Marion Castillo explains all of this to me, her team’s hip hop routine is being tweaked and cleaned by choreographer Lindsay. She’s got other high-profile, talented teams looking to have a good run at state. Lindsay mentions them and I instantly recognize that these are elite lyrical and hip hop teams. And then it hits me: Eisenhower’s uniquely lyrical take on hip hop makes total sense in terms of Lindsay’s choreography specialties.

Besides Coach Castillo and technique specialist / choreographer Lindsay, Assistant Coach Crystal Castillo is here at practice (she usually handles JV). Fourteen Eisenhower athletes are here at practice this morning. Everyone’s in the same lime green practice t-shirt that reads, “Eisenhower Dance,” printed in a font that sort of reminds me of the So You Can Think You Can Dance logo. The team has its competition shoes on, the same shoes that about a month later would literally leave their marks on the state floor.

It’s a hallway-cafeteria hybrid at Eisenhower High School! 

The Eisenhower dancers face a challenging practice. Their mission is to change a few things with the help of choreographer Lindsay, who quizzes them on the new details like hand positions and angles. With hip hop, those “and” counts and off-beats are critical, so she gives the team a couple minutes to go through the new counts on their own. Coach Castillo keeps a sharp eye on her dancers and fixes their body placements, sometimes literally moving an arm or a wrist to the right spot.

Choreographer Lindsay takes one group while Coach Castillo handles the other. Lindsay keeps things flexible and makes changes on the fly if she sees that some dancers can’t get to their new spots cleanly or in time. She also makes a change where the entire team does a drop that previously only a soloist did. That one dancer shares some very helpful tips on how to pull off that move so that all the Cardinal dancers can execute it just as sharply.

Just before running this new part with music, Lindsay reminds certain team members of what they’re going to do and not do. The music starts and sometimes the captains call out the counts when needed, while Coach Castillo and Lindsay focus on fixing some errant leg positions. Next comes another full-out run-through, then ten pushups before grabbing some water. At every water break this morning, the Eisenhower dancers take advantage of the lull to ask their coaches and choreographer questions to help clarify the new choreo.

One of the top choreographers in the game, Lindsay helps the Cardinal Dance Team work through some new elements

What’s really cool about teams that focus on hip hop is that there’s more in common with the rest of the dance world than meets the eye. A lot of the terms are the same—windows, diagonals. Diagonals! They challenge any team, and I watch the Cardinal Dance Team working hard to keep the proper spacing of their two parallel diagonal lines.

The Cardinal Dance Team coaches always keep an eye out for the fearless attack of movements you need in hip hop routines. The trick is to really commit to that movement (especially the first sharp millisecond), but also to do it in a way that lets them get to their next position.

So, timing’s critical. But it’s also tricky because some of Lindsay’s choreography features movements that go more on the vocalist’s rhythm rather than on strict eights, another aspect of the free and lyrical feel of this unique hip hop routine. Elsewhere in the song, one moment in the choreography calls for a big team breath—a new element that the Eisenhower dancers take time to practice, nailing down the details.

A lot of Cardinal Dance Team captain Alycia’s questions throughout the morning really help her teammates take command of the updated choreography. Coach Castillo’s open to collaboration, but she’s always got the routine’s balance in mind. At one point Alycia asks, “Can we do a headspring forward?” The veteran and multi-state-championship coach says, “No, because it’s not about you, but about the two soloists [in this spot of the choreography].”

The Eisenhower dancers reaching for new heights at the Huntley competition

Time for another run-through. Even though it’s practice, these dancers show a lot of heart. One Cardinal dancer looks like he could use some ice, but instead waits and pushes forward, not wanting to hold back his teammates even for second. But even though this might be one of the state’s most athletic dance teams performing one of the heaviest routines out there, the Eisenhower dancers are still a fun and enthusiastic group.

Someone calls out, “Nationals are in a month.” Another remarks, “I’ve never been to California!” “Florida,” corrects one of her teammates.

The CDT’s leaders don’t hesitate to fix something right there and then, besides geography lapses. The staircase trick is “rocky,” in the words of one captain, so she directs the team to do it again.

I’ve never met a team with a higher sense of hospitality. Coach Crystal had an unexpected Starbucks waiting for me when I arrived. The team takes a mini-break during practice to honor choreographer Lindsay with Christmas and thank-you gifts. And Coach Castillo makes sure I don’t leave without an Eisenhower t-shirt!

You’ll need quads (the muscles, not the turns) to pull off Eisenhower’s hip hop choreo

Eisenhower Dance Team at State Through The Years:

IDTA 1988: Champions in Novelty

IDTA 2006: 2nd place AA Hip Hop

TDI 2009: Champions in AA Hip Hop

TDI 2010: Champions in AA Hip Hop

TDI 2011: 9th in AAA Hip Hop

TDI 2012: 5th in 3A Hip Hop

TDI 2013: Champions in 2A Hip Hop

IDTA 2012: 6th place AAA Hip Hop

IHSA 2013: 8th place on Day 2 (2A)

TDI 2014: Champions in 2A Hip Hop

IHSA 2015: 10th place on Day 2 (2A)

IHSA 2016: 14th in 2A

IHSA 2017: 2nd place on Day 2 (2A)

Dance Team Union 2017 Nationals: Champions in Small Varsity Hip Hop; Best Overall Hip Hop Performance

The Cardinal Dance Team shows some love for their choreographer and tech trainer Lindsay

“Welcome back to practice,” jokes Coach Castillo to her dancers, still in winter break mode as they push through a demanding section. On the other hand, Lindsay’s new parts aren’t meant to shake anyone up. “Don’t overthink it,” she reminds them.

One of these new elements is what I’d describe as a half-plank turn. The part of the team that needs to learn it unrolls the nearby mats for a little cushioning while they work out the details. Meanwhile, Cristian, a team leader yet just a sophomore, takes charge of cleaning up the diagonal line that he’s in.

By 11:16, Lindsay’s got to leave to get ready to work with her UIC dance team (they have a game in a few hours). She’s left plenty of stuff for the Cardinal Dance Team to work on before she returns on Monday. And it’s not just the actual new stuff, but also a handful of questions to solve (it’s almost like homework!). How to avoid a collision at that one new formation shift? How to keep the spacing? How to maintain the right depth, front to back? But the team accomplished a lot this morning, and she high-fives each dancer before leaving.

Next up is group work, some of it guided, and some of it independent. Maybe it’s a little like taking the foot off the gas pedal after a couple intense hours with their choreographer. At this point I start to see that these dancers wisely go by both counts and lyrics. Whether they realize it or not, this shows deep connections among their physical movements, the sounds in the music, and what those lyrics are all about. Then the whole team reunites at 11:40 for more full run-throughs.

Coach Crystal manages the CDT dancers as they help each other to conquer gravity

“At tryouts, we pretty much take everyone who’s willing to work hard and learn,” Coach Castillo reveals to me. “Some of them can’t even roll when they first come to us!”

Whether you can roll or not, you’ll be part of a busy summer if you’re willing to join the roster. Team captain Cristian has no trouble listing everything his team does away from their home floor. The Cardinal Dance Team hosted their own UDA event during the summer at which they picked up 1st-place honors. The team also enjoyed the spotlight when they performed along with other dance teams at a Chicago Bandits professional softball game. Eisenhower picked up lots more off-court performance experience: dancing at middle schools, a classic car show, a teacher appreciation event, the public library, and a McDonald’s grand opening (I’m told they had a pony there, so…there ya go).

The Cardinal Dance Team always keeps their community in mind; even right after hosting their own home competition in December, they went right to a chilly parade for another performance. Cristian adds that “Coach always makes us ‘volunteer,’” and his air quotes signal that Coach Castillo has some pretty clear expectations!

A lot of the team’s efforts go toward fundraising. They also receive community support (the mats are donated, for example), a sign that their hometown of Blue Island appreciates CDT’s contributions like marching in the 4th of July parade. Eisenhower’s dance team also works to promote school spirit: they perform for the incoming freshmen on the first day of school, for example. They stay busy with halftime performances, too, including coming up with six football routines that cover multiple dance styles.

Coach Marion Castillo has been a fixture in the Eisenhower dance program for years, a veteran of plenty of successful seasons under TDI and IHSA. For four of them, her daughter was on the team and now it’s Coach Crystal Castillo who leads the 12 dancers of the JV roster. Mom credits the Robert Morris student with “helping me mold the team into the young adults they are.”

An alum of Yorkville’s poms team, choreographer Lindsay Lococo coaches the UIC Dance Team in addition to crafting dances for several big-name high school teams. This is her 14th season with the Cardinal Dance Team. She’s licensed to judge, but rarely does.

Coach Castillo and team co-captain Cristian feeling the momentum at an early January comp

“Our choreography is so different, so emotional this year. We were really unsure of how it would turn out,” Castillo says. Once in awhile, you’ll see a routine that tackles an important social issue—cyberbullying, cancer, military sacrifice, just to name a few. Social justice topics, on the other hand, are way more rare. Too sensitive, too controversial, or maybe the right song just hasn’t been paired up with the right choreography or the right team.

But in the past few years, both sides of a fractured America have ironically reached the same conclusion: there’s no time to be too timid, no reason to hold back, no room for subtlety. Now more than ever, we’re all moved to act, whether it’s in the voting booth, in which words we choose to describe each other, or a million other little decisions each day.

Beautifully, honestly, and powerfully, the Eisenhower dancers ran with the dominant issue of our time and coupled the raw emotions of their song with physical expression, making art out of art. Besides a stunning visual performance full of athletic force and intense dynamics (check out all the highs and lows, level changes, and speed shifts in their routine), the dance is so totally authentic.

It’s packed with the truths they face when they leave the competition floor, exit the building, board the bus or drive their cars. Best of all, it’s not a depressing litany of defeats, but an empowering look at their future triumphs. In short, it’s a little more than two minutes of real-life glory.

These kids have done nothing less than to give voice to the most intense questions of who we are as Americans…and as human beings. Hearts and minds take forever to change, especially when we thought we’d already changed them in 1865 and 1965. What the Cardinal Dance Team did was to dare to believe that dance can plant the seeds of change. And just as dancers use the mirror as a tool, this routine held a huge mirror up to our faces. The song and their choreography and performance posed this question: What do we want to see in that mirror?

Eisenhower’s dancers exhibiting a blend of grace and core strength at practice

Just as practice begins winding down, Coach Castillo turns her team 90 degrees to perform in a different direction, partly to shake things up, but also to see if the dancers can stick to the spacing they’ve worked on all morning. To me, it looks no less impressive, and I can’t wait to see how this upgraded creation will score throughout January. Before slipping out of practice, I make sure to thank these dancers for their courage and their open hearts.

The next time I run into the Cardinal Dance Team, we’re celebrating on the floor at the Huntley competition. By now, word’s spreading about this amazing routine. One of my staffers home from college keeps hearing rave reviews about it and has me send her the video. The Eisenhower dancers get congratulated by Huntley, a team known for their hip hop skills over the years. A coaching friend of mine isn’t feeling the CDT routine, and I don’t ever find out if she means the choreo or the message.

The dance is being talked about. It’s doing work. You can feel the momentum.

By the Grayslake Central comp—the last one for Chicago-area teams before sectionals—the Cardinal Dance Team has emerged as favorites to make it big downstate. Again it’s a co-celebration on the floor after awards with the Huntley dancers, a show of unity across opposite ends of the Chicago suburbs, across 2A and 3A, and across lifestyles and experiences.

A couple Saturdays later I’ve got a great seat in the mostly-empty US Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, watching Day 2’s 1A teams receiving their trophies. Eisenhower sits a couple rows ahead of me. After wishing them good luck, I point out to a couple team members that what’s going on at that 1A podium in front of us could be them in a couple hours.

They’re fans of each other: Eisenhower and Huntley get together in a show of unity after the Grayslake Central competition

Sure enough, by late afternoon, the Cardinal Dance Team files one-by-one onto the podium to receive their medals and a 2nd place 2A trophy. Ever cool and confident-yet-humble, the team looks like they appreciate the weight of what they’ve done, all in front of the elite teams in 2A standing in front of them. Eisenhower’s administrators beam with joy and pride at what their team just accomplished. And Coach Marion Castillo—a veteran of previous championships prior to IHSA—bears herself with a graceful kind of elation. I’m pretty sure she knows that this this golden moment is far more than just her program’s highest achievement since joining IHSA dance. She’s successfully guided her kids to sharing an idea with the rest of the dance community and beyond, and looked good doing it.

Eisenhower literally left a long mark on the floor as they sharply transitioned into a new formation on Day 2 of IHSA state

Eisenhower keeps it classy as they stick around to watch the 3A awards unfold, taking their seats in section 102, this time joined by their huge IHSA trophy. Even out in the concourse, they take some extra moments to applaud some 3A teams they look up to. It’s a pure and moving kind of sportsmanship, proof that it’s part of the CDT way of doing things. Thinking back to their TDI days and what I’d heard and seen about the team, I’m pretty sure that Coach Castillo cultivates this in her dancers, a respect and mutual adulation that was around years before this routine ever took shape.

But Castillo’s crew wasn’t done. While some Illinois teams competed at the nearby UDA Nationals in mid-February, Eisenhower also took their dance on the road to Orlando’s Dance Team Union national competition. The Cardinal dancers not only shared their artistry on a national stage but claimed the championship for best overall hip hop performance along with the Small Varsity Hip Hop title.

Writing about her team’s exceptional season, Castillo knows “there were a lot of ups and downs but when everyone had their mind set on one thing you saw results.”

The Cardinal Dance Team carries their 2nd place 2A trophy off the marley floor at IHSA state

Before this season and its “Glory” routine, Eisenhower was already Illinois dance royalty, especially if you liked hip hop routines. But this season, they busted through that label and melded the best aspects of lyrical and hip hop, performed by a team entirely without technical training. Instead they were powered by a ton of heart, wise and caring coaches, and a phenomenal choreographer-teacher. They amazed me and I’m a better person for having seen this dance develop throughout the season.

They wielded a sophisticated yet innocent kind of power, while calling for a glory that we can all share no matter who we are or what we might have believed yesterday.

Power and glory indeed.

Eisenhower knows who’s number one, and shows a little love for the idea of category awards

The Senior Interview:

Coach Castillo joins seniors Alejandra, Amairany, Alycia, Brian for a quick chat toward the end of practice

Alright, does anyone here have any technical studio experience?

[Everyone says no]

Me: Awesome! Cafeteria-trained!

Amairany: Yup!

So what’s been the highlight of your season so far? Or the most fun moment?

Alejandra: Just competing on the floor is very exciting.

Amairany: I think how we formed like a family. It’s fun hanging out with all of them.

Alyica: My favorite part is also competing on the floor because it’s very exciting.

Brian: Competing at other schools!

What’s it like being one of the few hip hop teams out there?

Alycia: It’s a lot of pressure.

Brian: Yeah, it’s a lot!

Alycia: Because most teams are really excited to see hip hop, and there’s not too many out there.

What’s it like being in 2A and having all these jazz and lyrical teams to go up against?

Alycia: [It] makes us really wanna work harder, because it’s a lot of [tough] competition.

Do you guys have any team traditions?

Alejandra: [laughs] Oh yeah!

Brian: Sometimes before we get ready, we turn up, like with each other.

Amairany: And we have a song that we play, and we hold hands during it. And we have a little stuffed animal that dances with us. And we also pray before we enter the floor.

What’s it like to work with Coach Castillo?

Alycia: She’s very strict. She keeps us together so we WILL work harder.

What are your guys’ goals for 2017?

Alycia: To kill it!

Amairany: Conference!

Are there other teams that really impress you guys?

Brian: Huntley. Lake Zurich.

Amairany: They’re one of our…they set up good competition for us.

Anything else you’d like the rest of the dance community to know?

Alycia: I think I’m very persistent. I don’t learn the fastest, but I try my best to practice as hard as I can and as often [as I can]. At home I try to push myself because I don’t wanna go back the next day not knowing it, so I wanna work as hard as I can.

Amairany: I feel like we push each other a lot. Even though sometimes we argue with each other and there’s conflict, we always find a way to resolve it. We’re very united.

Brian: We’re like one big, happy family.

What’s it like having guys on the team?

Brian: It’s a lot of pressure. Other teams are mostly all girls, they’re not used to seeing boys on the team. We get so many compliments. Other girls talk to us…we get some nice comments…

Do the guys get the hard stuff in the choreo?

Coach: I think Lindsay does a lot to have them stand out. But they really don’t need it because they stand out on their own!

What do you guys do in terms of team bonding?

Alejandra: Volunteer!

Me: Who do you volunteer for?

Alycia: Everybody!

Coach: We start off early April [with] a lot of the ones that are returning. The feeder schools, the grade schools, we go out and perform. We do back to school night.

Amairany: And camp! Camp’s fun.

Coach: We host a UDA camp in the summer. I keep them very busy…they have no life.

Alycia: We do kids camp.

Coach: Kids camp…so the kids perform on the football field, or in basketball season we do it also. During the school year, they volunteer for registration, and they do other performances. We do the Blue Island parade…

Alycia: Right after competitions!

Coach: This year, yes. We hosted our competition here on December 3rd, and literally finished about 5, and went to the parade at 5:30! So it’s a constant thing. It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work for them. I try to keep showing them that hard work does pay off.

Amairany: I feel like since there’s so much involvement, we don’t have time for like…you know how other kids are doing bad stuff. We don’t have time for that. We’re focused!

With a hint of chill swagger, CDT celebrates a good day at the last comp before sectionals