[Motivational Intro Music]
Chelsea: If you’re a part of the dance world, you probably saw the University of Minnesota's jazz dance routine at UDA Nationals with the passion and technique and the now-viral turn section. But how do they pull off two incredible routines year after year? Well, I invited the University of Minnesota's coach, Amanda Gaines, to the podcast to tell me all about it.
Hi, I'm Dr. Chelsea. You're listening to Passion for Dance, the show for passionate dance teachers and coaches. My mission is to change the dance industry by creating happier, more successful dancers through positive mental skills training. Today's episode covers all four pillars of the podcast. Coach Gaines shares how she motivates her athletes, her mindset, and personal coaching philosophy, how her dancers learn to be resilient after mistakes, and the value of having a solid community around you.
In case you have not had a chance to get to know Amanda yet, Coach Gaines is in her 12th season coaching the University of Minnesota dance team and her 16th total season with the program. Coach Gaines has been an integral member of the Golden Gophers, winning 17 different national championships between 2006 and now, and she's graciously agreed to come on the show and tell us all about it, including whose crazy idea it was to turn, do an aerial, and keep turning.
But, before we get into the episode, I want to pause and say if you're a fan of the show, or you're looking for more resources on mindset, motivation, and resilience in dancers, take a quick second to follow the show. Go to www.followthepodcast.com/passionfordance. You can easily follow wherever you get your podcasts, and the next episode will always be ready for you. That's www.followthepodcast.com/passionfordance. Then come right back to listen in and hear all the great coaching advice and behind-the-scenes stories from the University of Minnesota Dance Team Coach, Amanda Gaines.
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
Dr. Chelsea: Thank you so much for being here, Amanda, to pull back the curtain a little bit and talk to us about your team and your nationals journey. Thank you!
Amanda Gaines: Yes! So excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Chelsea: Of course! The University of Minnesota dance team is no stranger to championships and to having routines shared widely and celebrated. This one felt like a bigger response than maybe you've had before?
Amanda Gaines: Yes, the last couple of weeks post-nationals have been wild. Some kind of surreal moments, like seeing Aerosmith post about the routine, or getting a text message from my mom being like, “I just saw you on the Today Show!” And I'm like, “What?” Those things are crazy. But it's amazing. It's cool to see our sport gaining fans real time. I think this kind of recognition is long overdue for not only the athletes at Minnesota, but for all of these dance teams. So if this is the conduit to get some of that recognition, we'll take it!
So, yeah, I came back from nationals, and usually that first week after is like — I work a full-time job outside of coaching, as I know many coaches do, right? That week back, that week after nationals, a lot of times I come back, and I take two weeks off from the team and I just get back into my real job (the job that pays the bills). And this year I was like, “Oh, so I'm, like, a media manager. I’m coordinating interviews for the team,” and yeah, it's been crazy, but it's —
Dr. Chelsea: It’s so exciting, and it's so well deserved, and thank you for taking some of your time to do the media stuff with us. I know my audience is so excited to hear from you.
I put up a little question box after we had talked and I said, “Coach Amanda's going to come talk to me. What do you want to know?” And it was a flood of so many curious coaches who want to get to know what you do.
So the big things that we want to talk about, definitely how you do your practices and how you train, people want to know how you prepare to show up as you do on the stage. And then I, of course, want to talk about your approach to coaching, more like your attitude and philosophies and such, and then of course we'll chat about that turn section because everybody wants to hear about that too.
How Coach Gaines Prepared for UDA Nationals – 4:41
On Instagram, shortly after UDA Nationals, just as you said, a few short weeks ago, you said, “People see the end result of our performance on the nationals floor, but they don't see the hours of work behind the scenes, the sacrifice, the obstacles that came before the triumphs,” and that resonated so much with me, and I think all the coaches out there. It's not just those two minutes on stage. So let's talk about that kind of preparation and what it took for your 22nd national title. What do your practices look like? How do you use that time to be prepared?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah. So I lump the season, pre-nationals, into three different timelines. So we have summer, we've got fall before nationals, and then we've got those couple of weeks right before the peak nationals season. I think when we are in the summer and fall portions of the season, we're spending a lot of time just building strong foundations. I know there were a lot of questions around, “How much do you focus on technique?” I will be the first to admit, I wish we did more technique, but time is such a finite resource for all of us as coaches. We make an intentional effort to do across-the-floor combos, to do technique training in the center. We do a pretty robust, dynamic warmup and stretch routine at the start of each practice. But we spend a lot of time in the summer and fall just focusing on those foundations.
So, obviously, I'm really fortunate that my team comes in with really phenomenal technique already. So what we're really doing is just like fine tuning and working on how do they dance together while they're doing those things. When you're going across the floor, it's not just about how many pirouettes can you do, it's how can you do your pirouettes with the two people going across the floor with you, in addition to thinking about pressing your shoulders down, finding a high relevé, keeping that passé connected.
So we try to blend those things in addition to, I know in the fall, we are all feeling the pressures of having to get material ready, right? Like we've got end-zone performances. We need another sideline. You've got another appearance. You've got another community event. You've got nationals choreography that somebody's coming in to teach. There are so many priorities that you're balancing, so we try to be intentional with taking time in that beginning part of the year focusing on that.
And then, as we get closer into the national season, again, both myself and my assistant coach work full time jobs. So during the school year, we typically practice two to three times a week in addition to game days, and our practices are usually a little longer. So we'll do three to three and a half hours versus shorter practices every day just because it's easier on us outside of coaching to manage fewer days. And then as we get into that nationals season, we're so fortunate in college — so fortunate might not be the right phrase, but they finish finals prior to winter break, and then when they come back post-holidays with their family, they're not in school, so all we have to do is focus on nationals.
So that's when we'll start to ramp up with practices every day, two-a-days. And really we, at that point, are breaking our practices down, and so, morning practice would be focused on jazz and afternoon practice would be focused on pom, and that's a blend of working on conditioning. So drilling small sections, running the dance full out, working technique, doing skills, breaking skills down, continuing to fine tune that, cleaning and drilling sections, going count by count, angle by angle, head to toe building that repetition, building that consistency, layering in the performance piece.
We watch a ton of film, so I think when people first join the team, they maybe feel a little overwhelmed when they see the practice schedule because they're like, “Oh wow. Three and a half, four hours. That's a long time to be dancing,” but we really do try to be intentional with how we pace it and making sure that we are taking those breaks to really watch and learn. I think so many dancers are visual learners. So being able to see what we're working on, see the things that we're talking about as coaches helps a lot of them have that click a little bit faster. And then it also gives them a sense of accountability and collaboration with it too, because then they get to take ownership of, “Hey, another thing I'm seeing that I think we can do better is XYZ.” And it's great when you get to that later part in the season as a coach where you just get to be like, “Okay, what do you see?” And they're listing off all the things that were on your list. And you're like, “Great. Okay, let's go,” because then they get that hunger to want to fix those things because they're the ones that are identifying it versus coaches being like, “Ah, this still isn't where we want it to be.” The addition of technology to our practice has been a huge win in terms of helping us make that progress faster as we start to get further into the season.
Dr. Chelsea: Okay, there are so many good things in there. Thank you. I love that you talk about across the floor together, because I think a missed opportunity of, like you said, you have very talented dancers, but cleaning isn't just about cleaning a routine. So if you can clean in a progression, that is gonna help you with cleaning your routines later on. That makes so much sense to spend the time on it now.
Amanda Gaines: For sure. Across-the-floor technique moments, even just learning combos, like in the summer, it's such a great time to build body awareness for dancers. I think especially in this day and age where so often they see a skill on social media, and the skill isn't necessarily being broken down, but they're like, “Oh, that's a cool skill. Let me try it,” and so, they just, for lack of a better way, they just learn how to throw their bodies into some of these skills, which is a great way to develop new skills, but then how do you peel back the onion and then start to polish those skills a little bit?
And so, incorporating those moments where they have to think about their body awareness — so even if we're just doing a basic like run, run, jeté, we're really intentional with, “Where are your arms? What's the pathway that your arm is taking from first to this position,” and really getting them to start thinking about that, even when they're doing the basics, because, again, then when you start cleaning, it makes it so much easier because they're building that body awareness, they're dancing with the people around them, and they're thinking about those things and building strong habits. So then when you are doing your dance and they're exhausted, we always talk about having strong defaults, like their defaults are strong.
Dr. Chelsea: I like that a lot, have strong defaults, which you only do through a lot of repetition and, yeah, making sure you’re at full effort every time. I love that.
Amanda Gaines: Yes.
Coach Gaines’ Cleaning Process – 11:22
Dr. Chelsea: Let's keep going with cleaning because people have so many questions because both of your routines are just stunningly clean and so precise. So will you talk a little bit about your cleaning process?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I wish there were a silver bullet that I can share.
Dr. Chelsea: And we know there's not, but I think it helps to hear from the best and best that there is no silver bullet.
Amanda Gaines: It truly is. It is repetition, and it is consistency. So, in that kind of early phase of cleaning, I like to break the dance out into six or eight chunks, and we'll pick a practice and we're focusing exclusively on that section. We'll start at the top, and we just go eight count by eight count, and we'll start head to toe. “Okay, where's your focus? Where are your arms? Let's talk placement. Let's talk pathways. Let's talk start. Let's talk finish,” and then you do it slow, and you do it faster. Then you add on the part before it, you add on the part after it, and you do it again.
And I would say we do multiple rounds of cleaning throughout the process. I think, again, the benefit of college is that we're working on these routines for a really long time before they're ever put out there. So we're able to do multiple rounds of cleaning and get deeper and deeper into the details every time. But it's about building that consistency. So we do it slow, we do it fast, and then we just do sections over and over again. And, again, we watch film, and we identify “Hey, this still is not happening. Okay, go try that on your own. Find a buddy, watch each other. Are they doing it? Are they not?” But it's repetition.
It's hard to balance that cleaning with the conditioning piece, but I also think you can have them work hand in hand. Cross-training is so beneficial, but the only way to condition for a pom dance is to do the pom dance. You could run a four-minute mile and doing a two-minute pom dance is still gonna kick your butt. Unfortunately, that is the only way to build conditioning, but you can also do conditioning with smaller sections and quicker back-to-backs where they're able to stay really focused in on those details, but then they do another section while they're gassed and while they're feeling it in their legs and their heart and their lungs are burning, but you still force them to stay mentally in that cleaning. So you can do some of those things hand in hand and learn, again, in those moments when you're tired, what defaults are we losing where we need to really put extra focus in? So it's like how do you work smarter not harder with that cleaning as you get further along in the process.
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, that's great advice to think about. “Okay, when you're tired, which default isn't there?” Because that's the problem. That's the one to spend the time on. That's a great way to look at that. Thank you. And I think you hit on it, the other thing is people either assume or will just assume that you have all this extra cross-training or ballet or weight training and other things, especially as a big college program, but sounds like your team is just, “You’ve got to do the pom dance. You’ve got to do that,” but they’re kind of training in things that are a part of your program.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, so we have two amazing strength coaches, (Coach Eric and Coach Brett) who are critical in the success of our team. We've been really fortunate over the years to have strength coaches that really take the time to learn about dance as a sport, right? It's rare that in a collegiate athletic department you're going to find strength coaches that maybe have a dance background, but they have really taken the time to understand what our needs are and how do they create a program that aligns with our needs and that aligns with the demands of our season. And so, that strength training has been huge.
It's also huge for just injury prevention. I think as these dancers get older, you start to feel it in your bones. So I think strength training has been huge just in terms of injury prevention and longevity with their bodies. But it adds a lot of, I think, also just adding maturity to their movement, the explosiveness with their jumps and skills, amplitude, just the strength and attack behind their movement. It's been a huge benefit.
Dr. Chelsea: That makes sense. How often are they able to strength train?
Amanda Gaines: So we do two times a week during the school year, and then, as we get into those weeks post-Christmas break where we're really focusing on nationals, they peel back since we're practicing so much more.
Dr. Chelsea: Sure. That makes sense.
Amanda Gaines: It's usually two times a week, yeah.
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, the consistency over the semester. And then those two weeks before nationals, the conditioning is doing the routine, right?
Amanda Gaines: Yes. Exactly.
Coach Gaines’ Coaching Values and Coaching Philosophy – 15:58
Dr. Chelsea: That makes total sense. Thank you for sharing. So I really want to dive into you as the coach, the person behind this, and I know you have a wonderful team around you, with assistants and strength training, and I appreciate you always acknowledging them. But I want to know more about your values. What has helped you take this great program and continue to see its growth and success? So do you have specific coaching values or coaching philosophy that guides you?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I think for me it's always been about the relationships and creating those relationships so that way every push, every challenge comes from like a place of love and support. I really try to create an environment where everyone feels valued and feels heard and seen. I think, especially on a team like mine. I am so fortunate to be getting dancers that are like the best of the best where they're coming from. But then they come to my team, and they're surrounded by people that played the same role as them growing up. And so, suddenly they come to a team, and they're asked to play a different role. They're maybe not in the front. They're maybe not in a routine, and that is like a really big shift for basically any athlete coming into college, right? If you're competing at that next level, you obviously were excelling where you were coming from.
Dr. Chelsea: Sure.
Amanda Gaines: And so, to then have to play this different role, I think like there can be a sense of losing your identity within your sport and how do you feel valued, how do you feel appreciated if you're not doing what you always did?
And so, I think in general our team culture is really about service, and the last couple of years we've done a more interesting leadership structure where we haven't necessarily had captains. We've relied on our entire senior class to create committees for some of the needs of the team.
Dr. Chelsea: Mm-hmm.
Amanda Gaines: But what that does is really create space for anyone on the team to step up and have a voice in those moments where it makes sense. So, at the end of the day, the seniors are the ones responsible for delegating and making sure things are done, but there is space for everyone to find a voice and find where they fit in, and if there's something somebody’s really passionate about, they now have room for that, for their voice to come out and to grow.
I have a conversation with my seniors at the start of every season that their role, then, is less about leading the team and more about how are they setting up the juniors and the underclassmen to lead when they're gone. And so, they play a role in helping develop the freshmen through the juniors. And so, part of that, they're able to do that because they have been part of that development process from when they joined the team. And so, I really try to take this approach of, less about relying on only seniors to have a voice, lead the team, but more how do you help leave the team better than when you came by helping develop the rest of your teammates along with you?
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, that's wonderful. And you can see the legacy. There are people who are so proud to have been a part of this program, and decades later and talk about it, and I can imagine it would be that culture when you're there that you’d belong, no matter how old you are, no matter your experience. You can see that philosophy is coming through for sure.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah.
How Coach Gaines Motivates Her Team to Stay Dedicated – 19:35
Dr. Chelsea: So as part of that culture where everyone has a role, everyone has a voice, which is wonderful, I would imagine that kind of leads into the motivation side of things. But can you talk some about motivating them to put in the amount of hours and dedication that these kinds of routines take?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I think we talk a lot about kind of that “team before self” mentality, and I think one of the big things that we focus on is we're never striving for perfection; we are striving for progress. And when you can remove that pressure of perfection, it opens up so many doors.
I think the second piece is removing that fear of failure. There are moments where you have to take that approach, right? But I think, in general, I try not to approach things like, “Well, if you don't hit this, I'm going to cut you from the routine.” “If you don't hit this, I'm going to pull you from the game.” And more, they are motivated to work hard and give their all because they want to do it for each other, less about for the benefit it has for themselves.
And so, how do they put in the effort? And again, it's not about letting your teammates down. We always say, “The only way you're going to let anyone in the circle down is by just not giving your all.” If there's one thing I can promise them — I tell them this every year: “If there's one thing I can promise you, something will happen on the nationals floor.” Something did! Things did happen on the nationals floor, right? You will not have a perfect performance. The team will not have a perfect performance. You may, but the team will not. And it isn't about individuals having a perfect performance. It is about how does the team come together to have the performance that they need to have in that moment. And so, how do you fight through those moments? How do you recover? How do you support each other through those moments? That is what's motivating them versus, “I have to hit this, so I don't get cut, so I don't lose my spot, so I don't let people down.”
Dr. Chelsea: Oh, that makes so much — you are speaking my language! I always talk about how we don't want to coach from a place of fear, right, because then you're never going to get everyone's full effort. But coaching from a place of working together and celebrating each other and lifting up, you end up with so much better of an outcome.
Amanda Gaines: Yes.
Dr. Chelsea: And you started to go there a little bit, if you're willing, about this resilience because, to my understandably-critical, dance-team eye, prelims wasn't what I think your team probably wanted it to be, especially in jazz. It wasn't a perfect routine, like you said. So taking that experience and then being able to turn it around to what happened in finals and what that mental process was like for you and the team. And it was still amazing, but when you know your program, it's like it wasn't probably what they wanted it to be.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I think for semis for both routines, there were fluke things that happened — that aerial turn. In the hundreds of times we drilled that turn as a team, the hundreds of times that dancer had done that skill on her own, she'd never fallen ever. It was a fluke, right? And, what we talk about, though, is how are you training yourself for if and when something happens, how do you fight to finish stronger? What I'm really proud of — I'm so proud of her for how she recovered from that, but what I'm really proud of is there were two teammates who made really smart choices in that moment and right after that moment, too, to make little adjustments to formations. One dancer kind of stayed up and gave herself a little feature reach moment because the spacing was off and she wasn't going to have space and would have kicked somebody in the head. And so, I was so proud of how they made smart choices and reacted and were in that moment together.
And then, when you get off the floor, I'll admit that I had a moment as a coach with my assistant coach where we were like, “What is happening? This is not our team,” but you have that moment internally, you have your feelings, and then you turn it on, and you tell the team what you need. And what I loved was the team themselves — so that was for jazz. We had a really strong prelims performance. The semis performance she fell. We said, in that moment, prelims was new for division IA jazz this year. We haven't had prelims, and we said, “How lucky are we that we get to do this dance three times this year?” It all happens the way it's supposed to happen.
What I told that dancer specifically was, “You are being so hard on yourself, but you need to look at the kindness your teammates are showing you. That's the kind of kindness you need to show yourself. The kindness you show your teammates, the grace you give your teammates when they make a mistake because you know it wasn't intentional, that's the kind of grace you need to give yourself.” And it was one of those moments where I was like, “Okay, you're gonna go take a shower, you're gonna feel your feelings, and you're gonna come out of that shower, and you're going to show your teammates that you're ready to come back fighting tomorrow.” And whether she was truly feeling that or not in that moment, it was one of those you fake it ‘til you make it things, and everyone had her back, and I think that kind of allowed her to then trust herself enough to hit that when it counted as well.
But, like I said, something will happen, it will never be perfect, but the only way you're going to let people down is by not finishing and fighting through. And so I told her, I was like, “The only way you would have let anybody down is if you stayed on the floor, and you didn't. You got back up, and you finished strong. So what more could we ask of you as a coach or as a teammate?”
There's a quote from Miracle: “It's not about the name on the back. It's about the name on the front.” It's really not about the name on the back and what we do. Nobody has a name on the back, right? It's not about individual dancers. As much as, yes, coaches feature soloists or you put people in certain spots to set yourself up for success on the score sheet, at the end of the day, if your back row’s not doing what they need to be doing, the whole team is scored based on that. So it truly is about what every single person on the floor is putting out. It's not about what any one individual is doing, good or bad. And we just had to allow her to feel her feelings and then click back into, “This is what we work for all season: how to recover, how to fight. And you've proven to yourself and your teammates numerous times what you're capable of. So just go do that again.”
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, it's great advice. I love the, “Take a moment to feel it. If you just stuff it down and ignore it, it's going to come back.”
Amanda Gaines: Yep.
Dr. Chelsea: So take a minute and be there. But yeah, you're not going to bounce back in a moment like that if you haven't been doing it always. So, if your teammates weren't treating you with respect and love all year, it wasn't going to work in that moment. If you didn't trust your training, as you said, if you hadn't hit it 100 times, then it would have been really scary to go try to hit it in finals. But knowing, “Yep, you're right. Weird fluke thing,” and I do love the overall message of we're not going for perfection. And I think it might, even for people listening to think like the University of Minnesota is not going for perfection. And when we look at it, we might think that, but if that's the goal that puts so much pressure. That can really harm the dancers. So just being able to go for, like you said, progress and picking it up when there's a mistake. So beautiful. I love it.
What Makes Coach Gaines’ Pom Routine Special in Her Eyes – 27:18
Let's talk a little bit about pom because it’s so clean, so good, and your program's 22nd title. Is there something that makes that routine special in your eyes?
Amanda Gaines: What I loved so much about this pom routine was we got to showcase so many different sides and personalities within the team. There was the sassy, girly part. There were more grimy, gritty, hip-hop sections, if you will. There were the traditional, pom, energetic. So we got to play so many different parts, and it just made it so fun for the team to perform. But I think it made it really fun to watch too.
And so, I think teams — and I say this because Minnesota has been in this boat — I think, sometimes it can be a struggle to feel like, “How can we innovate in pom? How can we push boundaries, try something new?” Because pom is traditional, especially in the college world, is rewarded is very collegiate. If you're doing all-star pom, you have the sky as the limit with themes and costumes but that doesn't always translate well into a collegiate pom competition, so I think it can be hard to feel like you can do something new and fresh every year. And so, I think that was just what was really fun about this for the team was getting to play, put on some different characters and different hats within a one two-minute routine and kind of show the journey that you can take on a pop routine.
Dr. Chelsea: It was absolutely fun to watch. It looked like it was genuinely fun to do, which for a lot of dancers, there are definitely some who love pom, but it's more like, “I have to put this face on,” where they looked like they were genuinely enjoying it. And it seems maybe the little of that mental reset of like, “New character. New dance. Start over,” and you get that refresh.
Amanda Gaines: 100%. Yeah.
“Dream On” Jazz Routine – 29:12
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, that's awesome. Let's talk jazz a little bit. Will you share a little about the choreo and kind of the inspiration of that? There are some maybe OG dance-team-world people who remember “Dream On” from 2004, and I will age myself and say I'm 100% one of them and knew it and loved it then. So will you speak a little to the choreography and the concept for “Dream On” this year?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I'll age myself right there with you. This dance is why I came to Minnesota. I was a junior in high school when “Dream On” 1.0 was competed, and I saw that routine prior to that. I was like, “I'm not staying in Minnesota,” I was from Minnesota.
It was, “I'm going to go to New York. I'm going to go to LA. I'm leaving home,” and I saw that dance and I was like, “Mm, nope. That's where I want to go.” And so, that dance is why, half a lifetime later, I am still at the University of Minnesota.
After our jazz routine last year, which was very different for us and obviously a very successful season, we just had a lot of conversations about what direction do we want to go, and we had known actually for a while, I think since last spring, that we wanted to have the team do the choreography that had been our game plan all along. We knew the team had it in them. We knew they were capable. And it was a challenge that we were excited to take on.
I think even when you bring in choreographers, it can be tough, right? You can bring in outside choreographers who maybe are new to the dance team space, and they give you amazing movement, and then you have to figure out, “Okay, how do I add layers? How do I add formations?” Or you bring in somebody who's really brilliant with staging and layering, but you feel like, “Okay, I need to adjust this movement quality to fit my team a little better.” There's always give and take with some of that process. And so, let's do it ourselves. Let's put that challenge. Let's take that on.
And so, we knew that and were debating what style, what direction we wanted to go, and I was having a conversation with my assistant coach, and I was like, “Ugh, I have this idea. Am I crazy?” I was like, “I realize it's been 20 years since the original “Dream On.” What if we bring it back?”
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah.
Amanda Gaines: And it was one of those when we talked about it we instantly got chills, and we were like, “Okay.” It's like that moment when you just know, you're like, “All right.” And it's crazy because, a lot of the team — again, aging ourselves — a good portion of my team was not alive in 2004 when the original was competed. And so, that lore, that history, we had to bring them along. They're more familiar from the 2010s on, of Minnesota's legacy. But, this was back at the beginning of YouTube, and the video quality isn't always as great, and we had to do some education, and I think it was really cool seeing how having ownership of this routine in terms of doing the choreography, what the song meant to the program then, and then what it means to the program now, it was just really cool to see them take ownership of that story and get to share that with like a new generation of dancers.
And it was really cool, as we started to get to share this with the people that were a part of the original “Dream On,” the dancers, the coaches, the choreographers, getting to share that with them was just a really special part of the nationals journey this year.
Dr. Chelsea: That is amazing. And I love how you said they took ownership. So I would imagine that would also have a lot of pressure on a team to say, “We're going to do this ourselves.” Did they see it as pressure? How did they handle that pressure? And even just like the nationals pressure in general, there's so much expectation on the team.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, they did see it as pressure. I think there were a few moments where Tia, my assistant coach, and I looked at each other and were like, “What have we done? Did we make the right choice?” Because it's a process, and I think it's tough too, because you've got a team of 24, and they all maybe have a slightly different vision or idea. And so, that was the role that Tia and I played was how do we help guide them? “Okay, what are we feeling in this moment? What are we feeling in this moment? How do we make this feel cohesive beginning to end? What's the journey that we're taking?”
And so, it was a different process than we've done in the past, but I think where it ended was satisfying and they felt so much pride and accomplishment in it. Again, these are going to be the future choreographers of the next generation of dance team and studio, and it's cool to get to help cultivate that talent and help them think about, “Okay, you're not just choreographing a combo. You're choreographing a routine. How do you think about this holistically from beginning to end, from staging, from layering? Where does the music call for this? What does the music call for here? What are you missing in this part?”
So it was cool to get to help them work through that and, again, see and hear different voices step up and take parts for themselves and be like, “I feel really passionate about this part. Let me work on this.” So it was cool to see them all.
Dr. Chelsea: What an incredible mentorship opportunity to be able to, like you said, cultivate something new in these dancers that they haven't had that challenge before. That's such a pure coaching kind of moment. Let's truly mentor this new side of them. That's beautiful.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, absolutely.
The Aerial Turn Set – 34:30
Dr. Chelsea: Okay, what was the conversation around this aerial turn set? Did they believe it from the get-go or were they like, “Coach, you're nuts,” or how did this happen?
Amanda Gaines: A little bit of both, I would say. We spend a lot of time, even in the spring semester, already starting to brainstorm for future years, and this was one that I think it was pretty early on in the summer or September where we started playing around with some ideas, and I was like, “Hey, what if we did an aerial and kept turning?” And we played with a couple of different variations.
I will admit that I was actually the one when we first started working on it that said, “I think this is probably just going to be like a small team feature, a small group feature. I don't know that this is a full-team skill,” and they were the ones that were adamant like, “Coach, this has to be everyone on the team. How cool would that be?” And I said, “If you are willing to put in the work for this, we'll make it happen.”
And so they were the ones that were like, “We all have to do this,” and I was like, “Okay.” And I will admit that I think a lot of times as coaches, you watch skills, you watch moments in the dance, you have, “Here's my backup plan of A, B, C, D, and E for that.” I will admit that we never really had a backup plan for this. If it didn't happen, I don't know. There wasn't necessarily a solve, but it was one of those things that once it did click — and we really broke it down piece by piece. It was like, “Okay, first, let's just work the aerial into the hip-flip.” You have to take it piece by piece, but once it clicked for them it was, “All right, we're gonna make it happen.”
I will say what I appreciate so much about my team is they would be the ones — after we'd do a full out of the dance, they're the ones that are immediately like, “Can we run the turn section on tired legs?” And what they loved about this aerial turn, what they love to do is they love to do it on pom legs. So they would do a pom full out, and they did then they'd ask, “Can we do the aerial turn?” And I was like, “Okay.”
So they were putting themselves into all these situations like, “How tired can I be? How gassed can I be? How much can my legs be ready to give out?” And I want to do this turn to build that consistency, build that confidence. So I was like, “Yeah.” There were actually a couple of times where I was like, “No, you cannot do that turn. I'm going to make you physically stop dancing and catch your breath.” Yeah, they bought in and wanted to put in the work to make it happen.
Dr. Chelsea: That’s amazing, and I love pom legs.
Amanda Gaines: I think everyone who coaches pom knows pom legs are a real thing, yeah.
Dr. Chelsea: That's a real thing. That totally makes sense. I love that this was a team thing, and like you said, I think I would have had a more conservative coach hat as well and been like, “This is a really cool feature,” or “Let's make sure it's going to be excellent on stage.”
Amanda Gaines: Yeah.
Dr. Chelsea: It says so much about the culture as well that they were like, “Nope, coach, we got this,” and I'm sure there were many days when it was not hitting.
Amanda Gaines: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Chelsea: The drive to not give up on it is amazing.
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I think it was one of those things where we would have people come in to work with the team on things, and we'd show them sections, and we'd get to that part and we’d be like, “So that's going to be a turn into an aerial into more turns. I don't know if you could quite see that happening right now,” and people will look at us like, “Okay we'll see if that lasts past December 15th.”
But, yeah, they put in the work, and they were committed and really passionate about being able to put that on the floor at the level that they knew it needed to be. And so, when that hit in finals, that was the moment where the tears just started flowing, and I was like, “I don’t even know what happened in the dance after that,” because I was just crying and I was like, “Okay.”
Dr. Chelsea: Oh, amazing. It's such a beautiful moment to put that much discipline in and then see it come to fruition, and I think it also says a lot to people listening to that, yes, as you said, you have dancers who come to the team very talented, but that doesn't mean that they don't want to be pushed or that they aren’t looking for that next level or that it's going to just be “easy.” “Oh yeah, we thought of some cool hard turn section,” and then this caliber of dancer can do it, and even if they could individually, it's like the team part.
Amanda Gaines: Oh, yeah. If you see some of those skills, like the first time we do it all together, and you're like, “Oh, oh, oh, okay. I'm not quite sure what's happening there,” yeah, it's about that progress.
Amanda’s Post After Nationals – 38:45
Dr. Chelsea: Okay, I want to ask you about one other thing you said that you posted after nationals, because I liked the sentiment a lot where you said:
“To those who have had negative things to say about my team or other teams, just know kindness is always the right path. There will always be room for lots of greatness at my table.”
Will you share a little more about why you said that right after nationals?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, social media terrifies me, if I'm being perfectly honest. I deleted TikTok before nationals because I was just like, I know for my own personal mental health it was not healthy. I think our industry as a whole is really on this precipice of we're gaining so much traction and it's been happening for years, right? This isn't just coming off of, “Oh, this nationals we went viral.” I think we've like slowly been inching towards gaining traction as an industry, and I just think there's so much more power in us doing it together.
And what scares me a little bit about social media — and I'm probably going to talk out of both sides of my mouth a little bit with this, but I think it's great, right? I am all for people having their own opinions. I'm all for there being healthy debate and dialogue and education in the comment sections, in videos. What I struggle with is, I think oftentimes people create narratives around things, like when I see comments of, “Oh, they lost because XYZ on the score sheet,” and it's like, “Did you actually see our score sheets? Because I know you actually didn't see our score sheets, so why are you saying that?”
And I think we are in this world right now where things are black and white, or people feel like they have to be black and white.
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah.
Amanda Gaines: So, “I liked routine A, so for me to do routine A, routine B had to be awful, and here are all the things that were so bad about it.” And it's, “No, actually routine A and routine B can both have been amazing. Both can have had amazing passion, amazing technical elements, amazing choreography.” The margin of victory in all of these categories at nationals is so slim. And so, we're doing everybody a disservice by trying to tear down a routine just to justify why you think another routine scored better than somebody else, and I just think there's room for everybody to be amazing. We're all better if everybody's amazing. That's better for all of us. We all gain more traction with our administration, with our universities, with our communities if we are all bringing greatness to the table, and I think when we have to try to justify why one routine scored higher than the other by tearing down another routine, you're not doing anybody any favors.
And that's not to say — yes, I get mama bear if somebody doesn't like my team. I'm like, “What do you mean you don't like my team? Did you not see –.” We're all passionate about that. But even a team that did win, you're discrediting them by tearing down the teams that they beat, and that's not to say, like I said, you can absolutely have opinions and conversations and disagree. You can agree or disagree with the judges, absolutely. That's healthy, but you have to do it from a place of being educated on it as well.
I think that's another area that I really struggled with this nationals season. Obviously, our jazz routine went viral, and it went viral for a four eight-count section that was a turn, right? And people using the word trick, “Oh they just did tricks.” Okay, you are discrediting all the technical training that's gone into that, and also that is ten seconds of a two-minute routine that had a lot of different elements. Every team that took the jazz floor had really impressive technical elements because that's a part of our score sheet. There are 20 points on a score sheet, out of 100, dedicated exclusively to technical skills for jazz. So it's like you're discrediting everybody by trying to tear down, “All they did was tricks.” No, actually, we did a lot more than tricks. Yes, the ten-second clip went viral. That was a technical element, but if you piece it apart, there's a lot of dancing in there and a lot of passion, and that doesn't take away from anybody else's passion or technical elements either.
So I think that's where I struggle a little bit when I see people of influence, or even worse, people on burner accounts like “User 793217.” I'm like, this generation, whether we like it or not, does get a lot of validation from what they see on social media. And so, I feel like, partially, it's my responsibility as a coach to make sure that what I am preaching is kindness. And I've been fortunate to be given this platform to have people sometimes listen to what I have to say, and so, if that's something that I can share, I will keep sharing that.
Dr. Chelsea: Yeah, that is such a beautiful message, Amanda. Thank you. There's absolutely room for a lot of greatness at the top. And there's no reason to take down somebody else. Thank you. And I think this is going there.
Amanda’s Hope for the Future of Collegiate Dance – 43:55
My last question, the last thing I wanted to talk about, was to say that you talk about your commitment to keep pushing the industry forward for everyone, and obviously this attention that you're talking about this year has helped push it forward, and there's been attention on past years on other teams, and there’s this collective shift that's happened over the last few years.
So what is that message that you're advocating for that you hope for that future of collegiate dance and what you're trying to push for?
Amanda Gaines: Yeah, I think the list is limitless, right? I think we'd all love for our athletes to be scholarship athletes and to get banners hanging in the basketball gyms and for us to have dedicated facilities, and I'm not naive enough to know that there are a lot of steps and roadblocks and money that come with those things. So I think, at a bare minimum, what I'm really hoping for is just equity in resourcing for teams for things as simple — and it truly feels so simple, but teams are fighting tooth and nail for this — things like athletic trainers, things like academic services, nutrition support, mental health support, even those things that are considered just baseline resources for other athletes at universities, dance teams, cheer teams, spirit squads in general are oftentimes begging, pleading, fighting for those same resources.
And I say all that as somebody who's really fortunate. We get athletic training support. We get academic support. We get nutrition support. We get those things. We get strength training, but I know not everybody does, and I, just at a bare minimum, want consistency in the resources that are available for that, and I want dance coaches to be able to have a seat at the table with their administration and with other coaches to advocate for their teams.
I get that, okay, outside of football and basketball, right, a tennis coach, a lacrosse coach, a soccer coach, they're probably pushing and fighting for more support from their administration too. Everybody's budgets are getting cut. Everybody is being tasked to do more with less. Everybody wants new facilities, new resources, right? Everybody, outside of kind of those big-revenue sports, are fighting for those things. But dance coaches so rarely even get a seat at the table to advocate for those things the way other coaches do.
And so, I hope that universities and administrations start to take notice that there actually is a really big community behind these athletes. And while we do spend a good portion of our season supporting the universities and supporting other athletic endeavors, we are recruiting dancers, we're getting dancers on our teams because of our competitive efforts, and so, how do you support us in that in an equal way that we support the university and other sports?
So I think that is really my big push in the short term, knowing that some of those bigger asks and just consistency around all those other things, there's a lot that goes into that. But I think in the short term, consistency in those types of support services is something that I'm really passionate about.
Dr. Chelsea: Thank you, and I'm with you. I don't think they see the community behind it and how much there is, and for you to be someone who has the resources but still be advocating, that says a lot too. “Okay, yes, I have them, but that doesn't mean it's equal. It doesn't mean it's enough,” and let's keep sharing across so that all university athletes are treated that way. So thank you for your advocacy and for using your platform, as you said, I appreciate it.
Just thank you for being here and being so open and willing to talk to me. That really means a lot. I know my community is going to be so happy to hear from you. So we appreciate you. Thank you so much, Amanda.
Amanda Gaines: Absolutely. Thank you. I'm a huge fan of the podcast, and, like I said, I think there's power in numbers, and we're all so much better when we do things together. And so, I'm just excited to get to share even just a little bit of what I've learned over the years. The sky is the limit for what dance coaches are capable of. Name a more passionate, feisty group of people. So I'm just excited for where our industry is going and can't wait to see what happens now!
Dr. Chelsea: Me too! So, we so appreciate you. Thank you, Amanda!
Amanda Gaines: Yes. Thank you!
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Thank you for listening to Passion for Dance! You can find all episode resources at www.chelseapierotti.com/podcast, and be sure to follow me on Instagram for more high-performance tips at @dr.chelsea.pierotti. This podcast is for passionate dance teachers and coaches who are ready to change the dance industry by creating happier, more successful dancers. I'm Dr. Chelsea and keep sharing your passion for dance with the world.
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