Enjoying the journey: Helena High School dance team reflects on success
Published 10:43 am Wednesday, July 12, 2023
Written by Stephen Dawkins
Whether it is football games in the fall, basketball in the winter, or excelling in their own competitions, the Helena High School Dance Team is a critical part of the school’s spirit and experience—and adds significantly to its trophy case.
Jenni Russell came to HHS at its opening in 2014, started the team and is its coach.
“It was a long journey to getting to where we are because starting a team from scratch is difficult because you have to build culture and build expectations to where you want,” said Russell. “The past two years, we have seen a lot of growth. It’s a credit to the seniors in 2022; they really bought in and changed the overall attitude of the entire team. Now our team is hungry and they work so hard and they want to be successful.”
Russell danced from a young age in the studio and was on the dance team at Chelsea High School and a member of the color guard at Auburn. She teaches ninth grade Honors English at Helena High School.
That 2022 dance team made the national finals in High Kick, finishing eighth in the nation among other achievements. Seniors Ava Carson, Kate Hawes, Natalie Sestili and Abigail Viola were fundamental to the program’s growth. Sestili danced for UAB and in the USFL, while Hawes is a Universal Dance Association staff member and previously danced at Auburn University.
The 2023 team built upon the foundation laid the previous year. At UDA camp at Auburn in June 2022, they earned the “Team Full Out Award”—which is based on the team learning a routine then developing choreography to make it their own—and all Superior Ratings. Along with the performance came a bid to Nationals.
The fall brings performances with the Helena High School band every Friday for Huskies football games and also band competitions, one of which at Hewitt-Trussville High School saw the Dance Team win “Best in Class” and score the highest among all teams in the competition.
At the first UDA competition of the season, on Nov. 19, 2022, in Brandon, Mississippi, the HHS Dance Team was the regional division winner, first place in High Kick and second place in the Game Day category.
High Kick performances also feature a kick line, with the dancers performing a jazz or contemporary routine. There are typically rules about how many kicks must be included, the routine involves storytelling elements. Game Day performances, meanwhile, include three elements related to individual schools: fight song, a spirit raising routine (the Helena team uses a band song with chants designed to hype up the crowd), and a performance routine, such as a routine that would be performed at a pep rally.
In January, the team traveled to Dutchtown, Louisiana, for a UDA competition that saw them take second place in High Kick and second place in Game Day. Then came the Alabama Regional in January at Thompson High School, where the HHS Dance Team was second in High Kick and fourth in Game Day.
The competition season concluded with Nationals in Orlando, Florida, where the team missed making finals for High Kick by 0.2 points. They finished 11th in the Nation and tallied their best score of the season in Game Day (97.5).
The team also had the opportunity to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City on March 17.
An important part of the team’s success is choreographer Maya Johnson of Point Dance Studio.
“She’s been doing it for us since 2017 or 2018 or so, and she’s been great for our evolution,” Russell said.
As the program continues to grow, so does interest among the student body. Russell said that during the team’s beginnings, it would include 10-14 girls. The last few years have seen between 18-22 dancers. Competitions feature different categories for the number of team members, and Helena now competes in the large varsity category.
Tryouts were held in April, and next year’s team has been chosen. It will start with camp in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on June 12-15. Anyone interested in learning more about the team, including sponsorship opportunities or future tryouts, should contact Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I just want the community to know what these girls do,” Russell said. “They work year-round.”
Allie Rae Anderson (Captain)
Anna Kate Sellers (Captain)
Mary Grace Ratley
Anna Cruce Johnson