Helena Magazine

School Q&A: Jennifer Russell

Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2024

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Jennifer Russell, Helena High School English teacher and dance coach, talks dance team and the team becoming the Alabama State High Kick champions.

Becoming the Alabama State High Kick Champions, runner ups in Game Day and winners of most crowd appeal are significant achievements, can you share what that success felt like to you and the team in the moment?

That was the first time that we were the Alabama State High Kick Champions since the school opened in 2015. It genuinely felt like we had come full circle. Over the years we had been close. In dance, the difference between first¬† and second place is sometimes less than one tenth of a point. Seeing the girl’s faces and seeing how proud they were of themselves was definitely a cherished memory. We have been competing in Game Day for a few years and are still trying to find our own style. It was very validating that we are on the right track when we won 2nd and Most Crowd Appeal. The Most Crowd Appeal can also be attributed to the support we had from our parents, alumni, and HHS Band members who were there supporting us. They definitely helped with crowd engagement. It was extremely humbling to have that much support for our girls when usually we do not have that many people come watch our competitions.


What strategies does your team employ to captivate the judges and audiences alike? Are there any particular strategies that have been developed over this year?

We work on our performance and how to engage the crowd all year. The purpose of dance is to tell your story. We talk about the meaning of the songs we are dancing to and what story we are trying to tell. We even choreograph specific faces to go with specific moves so that our performance is cohesive. Performance quality is one of the most important parts of dance.


How do you foster teamwork and camaraderie among team members in this competitive environment?

Something that a lot of people do not realize about dance team is how much of a team sport it is. Yes, there is competition within the team like any other sport, but at its core dance team is completely reliant on your team and dancing with each other, not against each other. We work together to get the dances clean and together, and I try to help the girls understand that we are only strong together, not individuals. The goal of dance team is to look like one dancer dancing. There is no way you can achieve that when you are competing against your own teammates. I try to promote bonding and teamwork throughout the year with social events and traditions we have within our team. The team genuinely loves each other and dances for each other.


Can you share a memorable moment from this season that stands out to you?

The most memorable moment for me this season is watching the playbacks of our Semi-Final and Finals kick routine. In that moment we all knew that we had done it. We had put something on the floor that was beautiful, moving, and had excellent technique. Seeing the girls be so proud of themselves and openly showing emotion about their routine and each other was so beautiful. For the Final routine we all just held other, watched, and cried. They were so proud and so sad that it was the last time we would all be dancing together. Moments like that are what make dance so beautiful.


How do you balance pushing the team to excel in the ways that they have while also ensuring they maintain a love for the sport?

In order to be successful in dance you have to love dancing. There are times when I will notice that a practice is becoming more challenging or people are becoming discouraged and I will switch up what we are doing so that it does not get worse. I remind the girls before every single performance to have fun and show the world their passion for dance. We always remind ourselves why we started dance in the first place and that is what we want to show to the audience. There is nothing like performing for an audience and that helps the girls to keep their love and passion alive.


Can you describe the process that goes into selecting the music and choreography that the team puts into its routines?

We usually start the process immediately after Nationals. We look at the type of routine and style that the girls are best at performing and choose from there. We try to choose different styles, but stick with the types that the girls will excel in the most. We have worked with the same choreographer, Maya Johnson from The Pointe Dance Studio, for many years. She knows the girls, knows what they are capable of, and is able to create routines that work to their strengths and that will appeal to the judges.


How do you feel the team has evolved over the course of this year and under your coaching? Have you seen any positive change in any team members over the course of the year?

I have been the only coach that Helena Dance Team has ever had. I think that my coaching has evolved as I have more experience and see more of the dance world. Going to Nationals and seeing teams from across the country is an amazing learning experience for the girls and myself. We grow and learn so much by seeing other teams and learning how to become even better each year. I see positive changes in all my girls every year. The girls on my team are without a doubt some of the best teenagers and kids. The freshmen and new girls every single year rise to the challenge of dancing with seniors and grow exponentially in their dance ability.


This season, the dance team achieved a school record by placing seventh in national competition for the Large Varsity High Kick, what are your thoughts on the achievement?

 My favorite moment from this weekend was when the girls found out they made finals. Half of us were too nervous to go into the baseball stadium for the announcement and the other half went in. When they made the announcement the girls ran to each other and hugged and were screaming. Our goal was to get back into finals and we achieved that! After getting into finals we wanted to either stay the same or go up from our semi-finals placement. The girls went up one place from semi-finals, so they accomplished another goal. Of course I am biased, but these girls work so hard and push themselves daily to be better. I am so proud and honored that their hard work is being rewarded and noticed. This is only the beginning for Helena Dance Team. These girls are going to use this achievement to keep pushing themselves to be better and grow as dancers.


Could you describe the past record of the Helena Dance Team going into this successful season?

Helena Dance Team has placed at Nationals one other time in 2022. They made finals and placed 8th that year. They consistently place in the Top 3 at Regional Competitions and have won Best Costume several times.


Looking forward, what elements of the team do you wish to build on and improve for next year?

We will have 14 girls out of 19 returning and will have other girls trying out as well. We hope to keep improving our technique and performance quality. Our goal is to one day win a National Championship and we will continue to work toward that goal by pushing ourselves and our technique to get better and better.