8 Count Audio | Team Feature: Wheaton Warrenville South
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Team Feature: Wheaton Warrenville South

A year ago, I spread the word that this team was quietly becoming one of 3A’s finest lyrical programs. Here’s a look at their mental approach…including the “Goosebump” test


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

Fog and light drizzle ruled the afternoon I visited the Wheaton Warrenville South Dance Team during the week before sectionals. And that’s probably the last time in this article where I’ll use their full school name.

See, I’m notoriously guilty of shortening long names. And it’s not just a Twitter thing where I’m trying to save space! I’ve grown up literally calling it Downers North and Downers South (I can live without the Grove whenever possible). And since there’s a Wheaton North, I tend to call their district counterparts “Wheaton South” whenever I can get away with it.

So a quick history. There used to be a Wheaton Central (1925-1992) near downtown, completely awesome at football (future Illini and Chicago Bear Red Grange started his career there…google the guy…ESPN calls him the greatest college football player of all freakin’ time). And they were good at producing future famous people (like the Hubble telescope guy and the Belushi brothers).

Several miles southwest, Wheaton-Warrenville High School handled the booming population in that direction through the ‘70s and ‘80s. After 1992, both schools combined and used the newer building on the very southwest tip of Wheaton, and Wheaton Warrenville South High School was born.

Words of wisdom from the east wall of the WWS Dance Team’s practice space

The Wheaton Warrenville South Dance Team dazzled audiences a year ago with their stunning lyrical dance right up through Day 2 of IHSA state. I even mentioned in a tweet that I thought their were quietly becoming one of 3A’s star lyrical programs, and not just based on the 2015-16 season alone. Something good’s been brewing in south Wheaton for a few seasons, especially if you’re a fan of traditional lyrical styles.

The vividly lit dance room has tile floors but huge front mirrors, which are “nice but a crutch,” admits Coach Tiffany Marconi. It’s also used for dance and other wellness classes, so there’s a carpeted mini-platform up front that also serves as a good podium for Coach Marconi as she directs practice. And like so many other dance rooms and cafeterias that dance teams practice in, this one’s got a big ‘ole pole in the middle. Marconi says that “the pole is a problem but it’s a poor excuse for formation and spacing mistakes.”

The nine team members dressed in standard practice tank tops (1 girl is absent) stretch and warm up while Coach Marconi reminds them about posture and keeping a tight core, both during warmups and during their actual dance. She also has them think about their emotional delivery, citing the judges’ feedback sheets that often say that their emotions kind of drop off during their skills. Marconi rephrases it: “Don’t drop it unless it’s hot!”

And then she hits on a different part of the mental game of competitive dance: “What is every other team doing right now? We have to do what they’re doing, but more.” Before warmups are even done, she assigns her dancers some homework—to watch the video from this past weekend’s competition.

The dance team at Wheaton South enjoys a bright dance room…but it does have that pesky pillar…

The Wheaton Warrenville South Dance Team runs through a tough part of their dance to start off this afternoon’s practice. Amazingly, Coach Marconi has a knack for getting her dancers to self-evaluate without a trace of sarcasm or negativity. Some of the turns on this first run are, well, iffy. “Are those turns hard for you?” she asks, with the desired effect being, “No—we can do them—no problem.” But this team’s got a sense of humor, and a girl answers back, “Yes…” Once the chuckles are out of the way, Marconi asks her dancers to “Dominate those turns!”

And then comes an example of that whole emotional delivery and posture issue that the judges were talking about. Coach Marconi demonstrates a movement from the choreo, and then asks, “Is this exciting?” The answer she’s looking for is, “It can be, if we make it look more intense and committed.” She also reminds them that “Eye contact is a powerful tool.” One dancer admits with a laugh that “I have to look away after eye contact!”

Of course, upping their points will take more than emotion and confidence. There’s the technical aspect, the stuff that these dancers most likely picked up over all those years of studio dancing. And like the music fan she is, Coach Marconi connects sharpness with musicality when she instructs her dancers to stay on-beat even though this part of the song is on the “off” beat (meaning it emphasizes the “AND” counts). “Don’t use the excuse that it’s syncopated!” I hear that term and I start to wonder if most of these girls have a musical background in addition to a dance background.

And in the middle of the routine, she tells one of her dancers to really listen to the music. “These turns are not a big deal, so stop making it a big deal,” she tells the team. Still, these secondes can’t be bouncy or loose, and “not hip-hoppy,” in her words. “Maintain proper technique.”

One thing that Coach Marconi frequently asks for, at least at this practice, is for more “oomph” out of her team. “I saw your combination, but I didn’t appreciate it,” she remarks after a run-through of that part of the routine. “If you wanna beat big teams, you gotta look like a big team…and you are.”

Coach Marconi has a mini-meeting with her team in the middle of practice

But one thing that I appreciate is the loose and light-hearted atmosphere this team shows at practice. And it’s not just because Coach Marconi’s always willing to trade laughs with her team; I think these dancers likely have a sharp sense of humor away from the dance floor.

They’re also a classy and polite group. I hear that tell-tale sign of studio training when girls say “Thank you” to any little correction offered by anyone else.

But Marconi knows when to mix in the humor. When she takes a moment to complement the team on some aspect of their recent competition performance, one girl adds her voice to the chorus of “Thank you”s.

“You weren’t there, so stop saying ‘thank you!’” Coach Marconi tells her, and that triggers some of the loudest laughs of the entire practice.

And a little later, Marconi says something that’s part witty and part eye-rolling groaner. “I’m full of bad jokes, Norm,” she adds. By that point, I’d already stopped trying to take notes on the endless supply of silly humor coming out of this team.

The Tiger Dance program at Wheaton South is no stranger to state titles

The Wheaton Warrenville South Dance Team’s unique way of tying together technique and musicality stands out time and time again during this practice. Like most dancers, they hear the usual hints from their coach, like the ones that declare that the relevé and plié are key to good turns. But then Coach Marconi demonstrates some expert musicality: “The section right before [the turns] is a good time to breathe.” In fact, a couple minutes later, the team adds a sharp, musical exhale that literally becomes part of both the choreo and the music. Even in the middle of a run-through, Marconi calls out, “Listen to your music. It’s a chart.”

The confidence issue keeps creeping back in, so the Wheaton South dancers are sent off to figure out these turns on their own for a few minutes. t could be that over-thinking and confidence problems are feeding into each other, like a feedback loop. “Your head right now is your disadvantage, and we need to get over that.” Coach Marconi tells them not to rely on the mirror for this exercise, and to also have no one in front to look off of. “You need to have that confidence to do it yourself…we’ve been over this,” she tells them. And for max confidence and poise, she has them breathe with intention first as part of the prep.

Then it’s time to come back together, and their coach pumps them up: “We’re gonna kill it! Like a squirrel just ran under our tire!” “Good analogy!” replies a WWS dancer.

During the well-earned water break that follows, the team’s reminded that, once again, tech judges tend to find problems with their performance. But they also review how they did earn a positive comment from the judges over the weekend. “Do we need to watch the tape again or do you know it’s hideous?” asks Coach Marconi. The girls reply in near-unison, “Hideous.”

Finally it’s time to move on to another section of this routine. This time, as they mark it without legs, the Wheaton Warrenville South dancers hear technical corrections instead of mental ones. “1st and 3rd lines, you’ve got some variation [to fix].” “Capezios and calypsos do look pretty—but you need stronger spot.”

Choreo ideas and funny lines are always freely and quickly exchanged at a WWS Dance Team practice

Next they add the legs, and again, there’s a call for more power (both physical and emotional). Marconi compares what they need to be doing with Whack-A-Mole. Just to be safe, she asks them if they know about that old game. Pretty soon, we’re drifting back to the mental side of the performance, and for good reason. “Look at the judges, tell them your story. Don’t look at the ground—it’s probably nasty.”

Lyrical dances need to move you whether you’re watching in the bleachers or filling out a scoresheet, so after a full-out run of that section, the veteran coach asks, “Do you see any goosebumps on me? A tear?” Her girls get it. In the span of a few minutes, they agree with Marconi that their performance has shifted from a D+ to a solid B, just by “emoting” more (as some judges might say).

Ten dancers made the varsity roster, while just 13 or 14 tried out. Here at WWS, cheer is a big deal and dance has a lower profile. On top of that, the feeder schools don’t exactly have strong dance programs—those middle schoolers mostly gravitate toward cheer. But drawing from a small talent pool was just one of the Tiger Dance Team’s problems a few years ago, even after winning a TDI state title.

Coach Marconi almost left after their 2010 Team Dance Illinois championship. Back in those days, she had to “go crazy for gym space,” and the dance team didn’t exactly get a ton of recognition from the upper ranks of the school. But after that got cleared up, the dance team at WWS started getting the support it needed and deserved. “We have great support from our current AD, who was also in charge back in 2010” when the dance team had to score a championship to possibly get more status. Another sign of the turnaround? Their principal came to watch them compete at the Rolling Meadows competition (a few days before my visit). Administrators at many schools usually wait until IHSA state to watch their dance teams compete.

Wheaton Warrenville South has a tight sports community, something that I honestly attribute back to those early days when Wheaton Warrenville absorbed the powerhouse Wheaton Central football program to become…even more powerhouse-y, as Wheaton Warrenville South. Really—google Wheaton South football and it’s pretty intimidating.

With such a big focus on football, it’s pretty cool that the dance program gets lots of support, according to Coach Marconi. She’s a choreography specialist and is quite proud that her dance team designs their choreo in-house. Personally, Coach Marconi prefers dance music (what we’ve called “EDM” since about 2010 and what people erroneously called “techno” in the 2000s). I remember a music meeting we had maybe around 2009 when she revealed her team didn’t care for too much “techno” music in their pom mixes—“It’s a constant battle,” she jokingly admitted.

The mirror’s available, but Coach Marconi discourages her team from relying too much on it

With no JV team this season, the Wheaton Warrenville South dancers get feedback and guidance from two additional assistant coaches. The Tiger Dance program hopes to bring back JV for the 2017-18 season, according to Coach Marconi.

The WWS Dance Team hosts their own home camp in June where “the main focus is technique, technique, technique.” They also spend this time “setting ourselves up in a good position so when we have game after game and performance after performance, we don’t feel overwhelmed.” The program might hit the road this summer to a UDA camp, something they usually don’t do.

The dancers have the usual team bonding events like sleepovers and also team dinners before each football and basketball game. They also got to stay at one of their teammates’ lake houses.

Marconi tells me that this year’s team, like other years, has a little trouble with confidence. So she shares motivational quotes and messages on Instagram and Twitter, a way to increase her team’s “savage” factor (one of her fave words, either as an adjective or…somehow…as a verb). I already mentioned that she sees that annoying pillar in the middle of her dance room as just an excuse. But Marconi also tells me that maybe part of the confidence thing is just the Wheaton vibe. As a Glen Ellyn kid, I get it. In the middle of (630), we all grow up looking for those extra pats on the back whether we realize it or not.

The Wheaton Warrenville South dancers huddle up just before their consultant arrives, reviewing all that feedback they’ve gotten in the past few days, ranging from the judges on Saturday to their coach’s comments this afternoon. There’s the energy issue, yeah, but also they don’t want to start compensating any lack of power by going early on movements that aren’t on-beat. “You don’t want to look ‘ants-in-your-pants,’” their coach cautions them. “Wait for it. The music will tell you when to dance.”

The vocalist gets really strong at a certain point of the song, “so match it,” the WWS dancers are told. And there’s also the power of contrasts—like accentuating a curved back at some points of the routine, and a flat back at other points. This trick shows judges that you’ve got a sense of both musicality and deliberate control. And even though they’re not wearing them at today’s practice, the dancers promise to really make the skirts in their costumes an active part of the choreo.

Lots of dances have depth to their formations, but Wheaton Warrenville South also added some height to theirs 

The team runs through another section since they’ve got some extra time. At first it’s without the music, so the dancers focus on really hitting each movement. “No flailing arms!” Marconi reminds them, along with the usual call for more facials (probably heard a hundred times at practices around the state this afternoon). Next up is a run-through with the lyrics said out loud instead of the counts, more evidence of the team’s musicality smarts.

WWS Dance: state accomplishments

As Wheaton-Warrenville High School:

1980 IDTA: superior ratings in Pom and Kick

As Wheaton-Warrenville South High School:

TDI 2008: 13th in AAA Hip Hop

TDI 2008: 7th in AAA Open Dance

TDI 2009: 5th in AAA Lyrical

TDI 2009: 10th in AAA Hip Hop

TDI 2010: Champions in AAA Pom

TDI 2011: 3rd in AAA Pom

TDI 2012: 5th in 4A Open Dance

TDI 2012: 6th in 4A Pom

TDI 2013: 9th in 3A Open Dance

TDI 2014: Champions in 3A Pom

TDI 2014: 3rd in 3A Open Dance

2016 IHSA: 9th (Day 2) in 3A

2017 IHSA: 21st in 3A

Their consultant Kari walks in and I’m glad to see her familiar face. I joke with her about the flu epidemic tearing through her own school building. It triggers a memory for Coach Marconi and her varsity girls, who vividly remember two dancers throwing up about three minutes before sectionals last year. During this mini-storytime it’s the team’s captains who naturally take over cleaning up the team.

While some coaches drift away or even leave the room when consultants come in, Coach Marconi stays active and vocal. “We don’t have a team diva. We need one. I’m the one,” she proudly announces to me and her dancers. She’s fond of using the word “savage” in creative ways, and it kind of works since it’s the WWS Tigers. For example, she encourages the girls (at the appropriate time) to “savage your partner with corrections.”

While Marconi takes a small group off to the side to clean their part, Kari announces that her group will be working on the performance aspect. She, too, likes those tiny details that really make musicality pop out of the floor. “The ding needs to be acknowledged,” she concludes after hearing a bit of the music and watching a portion of a combo. And on the lift, everyone’s head needs to do more than just come up. Sharpness calls for a little snap of the head, and it’s got to be on the rhythm of the singer. In just a few minutes, this lift sequence suddenly isn’t just cleaner; it’s got a newfound flair.

In the background, I see and hear the other group being urged to clean up all the typical aspects (the feet placement, head facings, spotting, and body angles). “This should be repetitive—we’ve cleaned this before,” comments Coach Marconi. But she’s always open to collaboration and tweaking. One girl offers a tiny change but isn’t sure if it’ll work. “Hold on, let’s ask the music!” says Marconi as she turns and heads to her iPhone / bluetooth setup to find the right spot in the song.

Kari preaches one of the golden truths of this time of the season. In January, across all divisions, teams with clean, crisp, and strong performances are scoring the highest. “You already have the artistry,” she tells the WWS Tiger Dance Team. The implication is clear: take your artistic flair, add the power and emotion that Coach Marconi wants, and good things will happen.

WWS Dance got through an interestingly-scored 3A field at their Geneva sectional to earn a trip downstate

The team comes back together to try out all the new details they just came up with. New ideas keep popping up. Kari sees an opportunity with a soloist who’s prepping her movement by-the-book. “Can you prep not so predictably or traditionally?” she asks. If you want to stand out, there’s no need to match everyone else out there in 3A. It’s up to that dancer and her teammates to come up with a tiny tweak. Marconi likes what they come up with: “Feelin’ it? You go, girl!”

Off to the side, the coach, the expert, and myself all agree that the main ingredients in today’s dance recipe are technique, synchronization, and power. Coach Marconi keeps reminding her dancers about the confidence thing. For one moment in the choreo, she asks, “Flip your hair a little bit.” Kari joins in: “Nothing huge has been drastically changed recently…so just do it.” And just to put the corrections in the right light, Marconi adds, “It’s love-savage!”

The WWS dancers are thrilled that I somehow drove from the Huntley sectional to the Geneva sectional in time for awards

And it’s not all corrections this afternoon. The girls get a verbal high-five from their coach when she commends them for bringing her to tears at practice a couple days ago. “We’re peaking at the right time. Believe in yourself and in your teammates.”

I was only there for an hour, and I leave pumped up, not just about this team’s prospects, but about dance in general. It’s just the side effect of hanging out with a team that’s eager to learn and excited to pull it all together to bring their best to the competition floor, along with a charismatic, veteran coach, and one of of the wisest consultants anywhere. I can’t help it when, as I ease toward the door, I tell ‘em the truth. “Hey, Wheaton South—don’t leave any points on the table at sectionals!”

The dancers eased into the state field by placing 6th at sectionals. By next Friday night in Bloomington, the Wheaton South Dance Team had earned a 21st on Day 1 of IHSA state. “We feel fortunate to dance with the other schools in Illinois,” writes Coach Marconi. “Everyone is so talented and raise the bar year after year.”

The Tiger Dance Team wants to raise their own bar for the coming season. “We look forward to staying true to our style and who we are as a team but hope to ‘upgrade’ for the next season. Great things are coming from WWS dance…” warns the veteran coach.

I’m impressed with just how smoothly functioning this Wheaton South Dance Team is, and the mental flexibility they showed in practice. Collaboration, comical dialogue, openness to feedback, all accompanied by a fascinating commitment to musicality. It’s an interesting program where the dancers enjoy steady, long-term leadership, plus a legacy that includes a not-too-long-ago championship. And these Tigers seem to always be in the mood to bring a little savage to their performances.

Senior interview

While the rest of the team stretches, I get a short sesh with WWS dancers (from my right to left) Maddie, Olivia, and Carly.

Do you guys have experience dancing at a studio?

Maddie: I’ve been dancing at the Academy of Dance Arts since I was 2, and I’m on the competitive team there. My studio’s really ballet-centered, so we have to take, like, 3 ballet classes a week. We had to take tap and hip hop before, but once you get to be in high school, you kind of get to pick and choose what you want.

Olivia: I dance with DeForest Dance Academy, Steppin’ Up Dance Company. I’ve been dancing there since I was 3, and I dance competitively with them. My studio’s really well-rounded, so I do tap, jazz, lyrical, contemporary, hip hop, ballet…we do it all.

Carly: I have a studio background, but I mostly take classes with just different choreographers and teachers. I’ve done tap—I did tap for awhile, actually—and then jazz, and lyrical.

Favorite style of dance?

Maddie: Mine’s contemporary.

Olivia: Mine’s hip hop.

Carly: I really like jazz.

What would you say has been the highlight of your season so far?

Maddie: Team bonding’s my favorite thing. And the football games are really fun for us. And competition season, for sure…just figuring out scores and everything.

Olivia: The team is just…we get along so well this year, and we’re so close this year. I liked doing the homecoming assembly. We got to choreograph that and do it with our team. Then competition season’s always so much fun.

Carly: We’re so close, we’re kind of like a family unit. We work together, we solve all of our problems.

Do you guys choreograph your halftime dances?

Maddie: For halftime for basketball, we do our competition dances. And for football…

Olivia: …we choreographed the dances this year…

Maddie: Seniors always do homecoming assembly…

Olivia: …it’s our hip hop dance.

Are there other teams you admire?

Maddie: For sure, South Elgin. They have so much energy.

Olivia: Definitely Lake Park—they always just go out there and own it. Their emotion is always there, no matter what style they’re doing. They’re just out there and they dominate the floor.

Carly: I think the exact same thing. I get chills when I watch those teams.

Do you guys have any team traditions or sayings?

Maddie: We have [the saying], “R2-D2,” which is, “Return to Day 2.” We made it last year, so that’s our goal this year.

Olivia: We do this thing called, “how are the kicks.” So basically we get in a big circle and the seniors go in the middle, and we just go, “How are the kicks? Kicks alright. How are the smiles? Smiles alright. How are the poms? The poms alright, alright, alright, alright, oooh.” Then we say, “Can we get a…” and we shout something, so it gets us pumped up.