Team Feature: Joliet West
The Tiger Paws haven’t made the trip downstate in a few seasons. Now they’re back with some of 3A’s most creative choreography
by Norm Ramil / 8ca.team.leader and dance.fan
A few minutes before 1 on a cloudy, January afternoon, the Joliet West Dance Team’s manager lets me into the building. The place is quiet, still on winter break during these first few days of the new year. The girls have been practicing since 9 and they’re scheduled to go until 2 in this huge fieldhouse, which has a sense of depth no matter which direction you look. It’s a bright, upgraded space for the school’s many athletic programs, with proof of their accomplishments decorating the walls.
If you’ve got over 3,100 kids, you’re gonna need a big fieldhouse. Joliet’s a big “edge city,” if you want to use social-studies language. It’s almost like a mini-Chicago, except it’s deep into the southwest suburbs. The old town is pretty big, with Romeoville and Lockport to the north, corn fields to the south, and New Lenox if you head east. Drive west from Joliet and you’ll cross into Shorewood, some open space, and then Minooka. Sprawling Plainfield lies to the northwest. I just threw some excessive geography at you, but that’s how big Joliet is—several towns surround it.
The last time I’d been here was at a huge cheer competition in 2014, a perfect use for this comfortable and modern fieldhouse. But before that, I remember a very warm and sunny Saturday in March, 2006, when the IDTA North Supersectional was held in the old, uncomfortable gym. So this school is no stranger to big moments in Illinois dance.
“We’ve changed a lot of the routine,” first-year Coach Alex Strahanoski tells me. Big chunks of the dance have been totally reworked in response to judges’ comments and the Tiger Paws’ own judgment. The lyrical storyline even gets tweaked, and they threw in a minor costume change, as well. It’s a challenge that this team, led by three seniors, is up for. Seven freshmen dance on the roster, more than any other class. In between are six juniors and three sophomores.
After they’ve finally learned the last new parts, it’s time for the Joliet West Dance Team to mark the whole routine. Then comes the full-out run. “When you’re turning, engage your abs!” instructs Coach Strah, as she tends to be called for convenience. She sends them to a water break and adds, “Not bad for your first time.”
Fresh from graduating from Illinois, Strahanoski took over the program last May after the team’s summer roster had already been set. And then there’s this quirk: when I ask her how many of her girls have danced at studios, Alex’s answer is kind of jaw-dropping. “Everyone but the coupé turner is trained.” Yeah, the girl with the amazing turn solo. No studio training. “She’s self-taught via Youtube,” adds the rookie coach.
Coach Strah has 17 on the floor at this practice. With a pretty sizable roster, the young coach and English teacher keeps things organized with a lesson plan written out on her notepad. But she’s not all about staying in proper teacher mode. At 1:36, she pauses mid-sentence to announce that she’s hit her activity goal according to the tracker on her wrist.
A few details in the choreography are still simmering in the minds of these Joliet West dancers. One tricky sequence gets run over and over again; each time, Coach Strah counts it just a little bit faster than before.
Since brand new choreo can look a little mechanical, she shares some artistic advice with her dancers: “Now that you have all of these [new] pieces, let them float and breathe.” She gives them a minute “to figure out how to get there.” After a few more reviews of this section, it’s time to adjust some choreo details. She takes half of the formation along with Assistant Coach Kate Cerri, while manager Dafina Bajrami pulls aside the other half. Senior Olivia takes charge of a lot of the tweaking in her group. Both groups undergo some minor tweaks and cleanups.
When both halves come back together they run the whole combo again. Remembering the new choreography isn’t a problem for the Joliet West Dancers, so it’s time for Coach Strah’s first bit of feedback: “Point your toes.” Then she turns to their turns. “Think ‘up.’ Squeeze everything, front and back.”
Presentation and body positioning are the points of emphasis while I’m there. Strahanoski wants them to keep the “body always facing forward. If you’re stepping backwards, you’re allowed to hit people, as long as you stay facing forward.” And whoever misses this correction has to do five pushups! (No one needed to).
Coach Strah took charge of choreographing this routine (set to the haunting and eerie “Medicine” by Daughter), while the seniors handled the creation of their jazz dance. Her own dance journey started when she was 3. She danced on Oswego East’s team (Class of 2012) before dancing for two years on the Illinettes. Strah has taught for the Oswegoland Park District and UDA. A trace of a Chicago accent marks her words of dance wisdom, making for an easy-going personality when you factor in her youth. She’s got the mental flexibility to have her choreo altered based on competition results.
Assistant Coach Kate Cerri, an English teacher also, danced on this team not long ago. JV Coach Emily Kowalksi played soccer at the University of St. Francis and currently teaches algebra. Before that, she danced on Lincoln Way West’s team for four years.
It’s been four years since the Joliet West dancers have qualified for state. “Not even the seniors have seen the state floor,” writes the first-year coach. The Oswego East dance alum has come to know the history of her new program. “In the ‘80s the Tiger Paws won nine back-to-back championships and travelled to Japan. We’re trying to get back to that!”
Coach Strah has the ‘80s covered accurately, so let me pick it up in the ‘90s. The Tiger Paws earned a 2nd at IDTA state in 1990 in the Open Pom category, plus a 2nd for what used to be called “Drill Team Show.” The Tiger Paws were back at state in 1991 with another 2nd in Drill Team Show and a 2nd in Open Dance (roughly equivalent to what we know as jazz). In 1993, the team earned a 6th at state in Pom.
The Tiger Paws enjoyed some success in TDI also, with a state appearance for an open dance routine in 2012. Moving to IHSA in 2013, the team earned an 18th at state.
This dance program is one big multi-generational family. Strahanoski proudly notes, “We have several Tiger Paw alums as parents!” I’ve had the chance to meet with some enthusiastic and dedicated dance team parents who are right there with their dancers to experience the peaks and valleys of this IHSA dance season.
The scores didn’t always reflect their powerfully expressive, creative choreography. I personally watched performances where I thought, “This team has definitely upgraded—and they were already moving in a good direction in recent years.” And of course, they’ve got the spark of a new coach with eye-catching dance credentials of her own. I think the spark has spread to the rest of the team; one girl’s wearing a t-shirt reads, “Athlete + artist = dancer.”
It’s 1:44 and a 5-hour practice is almost over. There’s just enough time to think about the other routine, a jazz dance to “Lips” by Marian Hill. First, the Joliet West Dance Team marks the whole thing but they do the turns full-out. Then, with the minutes winding down, the girls run it like they mean it.
Actually, with so much new stuff thrown at them, it’s a good idea to review lyrical one more time. “Do you guys want to mark it once or run it?” It’s been a long practice, but these girls are dedicated. They choose to mark it and then run it, instead of taking the opportunity to get back to their winter break quicker. “Anything you’re not 100% with, do it full out,” orders Coach Strah, hoping to spot any problem areas. With the marking out of the way, the girls are ready for the full-out run. As the music starts and as Alex hits record on her iPad, a couple girls have last minute words of encouragement for their teammates. “Kill it!”
The team gathers in front of their coaches for a quick meeting about some upcoming events. There’s the usual stuff that’s essential to know—when to get there, what to wear, and when to eat.
The girls have one more thing to do at practice. Coach Strah has her girls watch the video she just took as she holds the iPad over her forehead. I’m not sure if she’s just providing the optimal viewing angle for her whole team or if she’s just having fun—it’s probably a little of both. In any case, the girls are glued to that screen for two minutes, checking out just how much closer they got to nailing all the new choreo.
In those mid-January weeks that came after my visit, the team’s updated choreo and long winter break practices paid off. The Joliet West Tiger Paws danced their way to a state qualification spot at sectionals this past weekend. And a couple days ago they were on WCIU-TV to support their basketball team.
With all those freshmen on her team, you might think that Coach Strahanoski is about three years away from all the success you’d expect out of a senior-laden team, seven veterans leading a program that she’s spent three years restructuring. Joliet West fans may not have to wait that long. Her exceptionally good choreography along with a team that won’t quit could be the right combination to bring that success a lot sooner than later.
The Senior Group Interview
With Lauren, Olivia, Alexis, Coach Strah, and team manager Dafina
Can you guys tell me about your dance backgrounds and if you did studio classes?
LAUREN: I danced at Generation Dance. I pretty much just did the basic [track of] ballet, tap, jazz, modern.
OLIVIA: I’ve been dancing at Revolution Dance Company for nine years, but I’ve been dancing since I was 3 [in] company teams.
ALEXIS: Pretty much the same thing. I’ve been dancing my whole life.
What’s your favorite style of dance?
OLIVIA: Hip hop or contemporary.
Coach STRAH: Lyrical-contemporary.
Manager DAFINA: Contemporary.
How many hours a week do you devote to dance team?
Coach STRAH: Well we practice five days a week for three hours a day. And we’re taking Thursdays off in January just because everything’s so packed with competition weekends, so do that math, that’s not my forte.
[The seniors come up with 15 hours not including the Thursdays off.]
Coach STRAH: And that’s just in practice. They do choreography, so that’s another three or four hours of thinking about it.
What’s been the highlight of your season so far?
[everyone]: UDA camp.
OLIVIA: That was the beginning of everyone getting to know each other, me telling the ghost stories and Erin [freshman teammate] crying
LAUREN: Just merging instantly, that was a good mix.
Coach STRAH: For senior night, their dads came out and performed, and that was my favorite memory.
OLIVIA: My dad did a toe touch—it was really fun to watch.
Norm: Did anyone get hurt?
OLIVIA: No, it was good!
Coach STRAH: They all complained at first and then walked it off afterwards.
So I can pretty much guess what the team goal is at this point in the season. So how do you get there over the next few weeks?
OLIVIA: There’s some practices where we all have a rough day and we all just don’t want to deal with each other. Probably pushing through those is one of the biggest things we have to focus on now. [Or] getting to know the choreography, I guess, but we’ve been changing it so often, we’re just used to it. But I feel like pushing through those days where we’re like mentally done is what we need [to do].
What are some other teams that you’re fans of?
Coach STRAH: We love their turns!
LAUREN: They’re beautiful.
Coach STRAH: York’s pretty intense.
OLIVIA: Lake Park JV!
OLIVIA: They’re JV’s so good.
Coach STRAH: Who were some teams from camp that we liked?
LAUREN: Lincoln Way West.
What are some traditions you guys have on competition day?
OLIVIA: We play heads up.
Coach STRAH: We get into the zone. We always do abs. Other teams are like, ‘Why are you doing abs?’ Turns, columns.
OLIVIA: Some of the girls have a sleepover the night before. We do each other’s makeup in the morning so we don’t have to do it before the bus.
Anything else we should cover?
Coach STRAH: We’re a pretty young team this year—we have seven freshmen, and they’re pretty stellar. And we have only these three seniors.
OLIVIA: It’s been the first time where seniors are allowed to make choreography, and we’re allowed input, which kind of helps. It’s not like all on [one dancer]. We took a step back and inputted on each other’s choreography.
What’s it like having a first-year coach?
LAUREN: It’s been a really good change. She has a lot of new ideas and she’s full of energy, and she’s always ready.
ALEXIS: Very modern.
OLIVIA: And if there’s mistakes, she knows [to say] ‘Next time, let’s not do that.’ For all of us, it’s the first time. We had the same coach for the longest time, and they’re like two [very] different people.
ALEXIS: We used to do the same thing, so we’ve changed all over again.
OLIVIA: It was a big change for us, but it was a good change.