Almost Perfect

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By John Herndon

The idea of sending a junior varsity team into action against another program’s varsity is not unheard of at the high school level but chances are that few JV teams have ever had a day like the Anderson County High School dance team had recently at Oldham County.

“It was the first of the year, and we wanted to see where we would stand,” Anderson captain Casey Harlan says with a huge grin.

Think about the Louisville Bats winning the National League Central. That might be the equivalent of what Anderson did as the junior varsity took first place in that Oldham competition, defeating varsity hip hop teams.

It looks like Anderson is standing – make that moving, since these girls are never still in their two-minute routines – at the top of their sport.

The team will be performing Saturday, Dec. 13 in the WinterJam, held in the Lexington Convention Center, adjacent to Rupp Arena.

The win at Oldham was big, but the team’s other captain, Erika Frye, admits there is some overlap as some dancers compete on both the junior varsity and varsity levels, just like the traditional sports.

And to be sure, success has become away of life for the Anderson dancers since the program started five years ago. The program has won the national AmeriCheer hip hop competition twice and is shooting for another championship at the American Challenge, to be held the first weekend in April at the Duke Energy Center in Cincinnati.

The team hopes to recapture the crown it last won two years ago. Last winter, weather and travel difficulties kept the team home from the national competition.

It has been quite a journey for head coach Lisa Winfrey, who headed up the effort to start the program six years ago.

A former point guard at Dawson Springs High School in western Kentucky, Winfrey got a shock when her daughter, Jeriann, shared her athletic intentions.

“She had been a cheerleader and her freshman year in high school, she came home and announced she was going to dance,” Winfrey says.

There was one small problem.

“I told her, ‘The high school does not have a dance team.’

“She said, ‘Make one.’ She instigated it.”

Winfrey petitioned the Anderson County Board of Education, got permission to start the team and they’ve been hip-hopping ever since.

But even with their enormous success, the Dance Cats’ acceptance has been slow in coming. At first there were snickers about the new sport in town but more and more, the team hears comments like “You are good!” or “Someone told me I should watch you.”

Even those who would not know a C-jump from a ski jump have admitted to being amazed at the team’s occasional performances at the Anderson County Burgoo Festival or the school’s Cat Madness to open the basketball season.

“We think that is awesome,” Frye says.

The program consists of two minutes of high-octane twisting, turning and jumps, all coordinated in near-perfect synchronization.

It looks easy, but that might just be because the team is so adept. When the music stops, the team members have to catch their breath, just like a basketball player does during a timeout.

“It’s very strenuous,” Harlan says.

“We get bruises in places you would never think of,” Frye laughs as she shows off a big shiner near her knee.”

Because of the physical demands the sport carries with it, Winfrey is certified in CPR and advanced first aid.

While the team is not technically considered a sport by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association or in regard to Title IX purposes, Winfrey says, “I have read that dance is the No. 1 requested (new) sport.”

At Anderson County, the team falls under the athletic department, meaning dancers must take physicals and the team must follow the rules of the KHSAA-mandated dead period during the summer. However, Winfrey says the team is not recognized in the school handbook.

They also do not have a place to practice on school property. “We practice at First Christian Church,” Winfrey says.

“They gave me a key and a time we could practice. That has been wonderful.”

That lack of a school practice facility does not deter the Anderson team from setting their sights on the big time.

But in some ways, reaching and staying at the top in a sport decided by judges’ decisions can be as difficult as making the Sweet 16.

The nature of dance is that what one person sees as something worthy of So You Think You Can Dance, another is not quite as impressed. “It is hard,” Harlan says of expectations. “It’s hard because there are no set rules.”

During the routine, one hand or one foot must be on the floor during what are called “tricks” in dancing vernacular.  Still, the final result is often a matter of what different judges look for.

That makes the Anderson team’s success so remarkable. The Dance Cats have consistently done extremely well across a wide spectrum of competitions. That shows a bottom line that they are very good at their craft.

Not only have the Dance Cats won numerous competitions, they have been invited to perform at Kentucky State University basketball games on several occasions, reportedly bringing the house down each time.

In addition to the national titles, the team has won the Blue Grass State Games competition, among other titles, while Harlan and Frye, both juniors, have been named Universal Dance Association All-Stars.

The program has grown almost exponentially, from five the first year to 21 now. It has expanded to the point that Winfrey, and her assistant coaches, Chris Jones and Jeriann Winfrey, know the awful feeling that other high school coaches experience. “We are to the point that we have to cut some and that hurts,” Winfrey admits.

“Our goal has been to have two routines and we have that this year.”

But unlike many other schools who compete in several different areas, the Dance Cats want to stick with hip-hop. “We are still a new team and we want to focus on that,” Harlan says.

Even though their’s is one of the newest sports around, the Dance Cats’ success sounds as traditional as Bobby Knight.

“You have to give your all in practice and in your performance,” Frye says. “If you practice bad, you would perform well on competition day.”

From the looks of Anderson County’s performances, hip-hop practice has been at the top.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.