Editor's Note: The Towson University Dance Team won its 15th consecutive title at the 2013 national championships on April 12. Read more in TU News.
None are dance majors, though most have danced since childhood. Once they’ve graduated with degrees in business, education or exercise science, they’ll probably do most of their dancing at wedding receptions.
But right now these Towson University undergraduates comprise the nation’s best college dance team—national champions for 14 straight years—and they’re aiming for a 15th title at the National Dance Alliance Collegiate National Championship, to be held April 8-14 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Tom Cascella, the team’s longtime coach, says a 16-member team will perform at nationals, with three alternates on the sidelines. Six additional dancers will make the trip to lend a hand where needed and to cheer on their teammates.
Staying on top can be daunting in a field that gets more competitive every year. In addition to talent, dancers must also have the physical and mental stamina needed to hone a routine to perfection. The team’s practice schedule, which morphs from intense to grueling in the weeks leading up to nationals, requires a huge commitment in time and energy.
Their coach insists that it takes much more than talent and practice to take home a trophy: it takes a team.
Cascella, assistant to the chair of Towson’s Department of Theatre Arts, took on the fledgling team in 1992, not long after his daughter Kim died. The novice coach and his ambitious dancers endured plenty of disappointments en route to their first title—but they learned from them.
Cascella experienced his aha! moment before the team won its first of 14 consecutive national championships. That earlier team went to nationals to win, but came home empty-handed. “I realized then that we focused so much on winning that we weren’t ourselves,” he explains.
“It wasn’t about having the best dancers,” he continues. “We had to have the best team in order to win.” Once Cascella put that insight into practice, the dancers coalesced into what he dubs “the hardest-working dance team in the country.”
It’s almost an understatement: The team practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as three weekends per month. Dancers maintain full-time course schedules, and their coach is a stickler for academics. “First and foremost, they’re here to get an education,” he insists.
Cascella and team alumna Laura King ’05 recruit, audition, choreograph, coach, and perform dozens of other tasks associated with running Towson’s dance team. And, although the university supports the team in many ways, Cascella and King are volunteers. “I’m paid in smiles and applause,” Cascella says. “My paycheck is seeing dancers from different walks of life succeed, and when their parents tell me how happy they are that their daughters are with Laura and me.
“If it weren’t for the dance team, most of these students wouldn’t have come to Towson,” he adds. “I have an obligation to do the best I can for them, whether that involves coaching or just being there to talk about personal issues.
“I do this in Kim’s memory. I lost her, but every year I get 25 new daughters.”
Although his teams have achieved an enviable record, Cascella downplays the importance of winning. “I tell them that they have to set the standard for future teams, and to perform for each other. We never compare ourselves to other teams or worry about what the competition is doing.
“Winning is great, but we don’t need another national championship to validate who we are,” he adds.
“What defines a champion is how you respond to adversity.”
By Jan Lucas. Photos by Kanji Takeno.