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Dance and Cheer: The Odd Couple

St. Ambrose swept both the 2023 Dance and Cheer National Championships held in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It was the first championship earned by the Cheer team and the third in six years for the Dance team. Each team broke NAIA records for overall performance scores. Thirteen All-American honors were awarded between the 2 teams, and Head Coach Danelle Langeneckert was named NAIA Cheer Coach of the Year. 

The dominant performance at the national competition was nothing new for the Bees. The teams have become fan favorites for their continuous appearances and high-level performances. Freshman Cheer team member, Sydnee Hortsman, described the crowd “going nuts” after the announcement that St. Ambrose had won both the Cheer and Dance championships. This kind of dominance is rare for any school, but even more surprising than their performance, was the unity between both teams. 

At most universities, the Dance and Cheer teams function as completely separate entities. This, mixed with the similarities of the two sports, often leads to rivalries and jealousy between each squad at other schools. At St. Ambrose though, the two programs work in harmony with each other thanks to the sharing of Head Coach Danelle Langeneckert. Langeneckert has worked to unify each program to create an environment of encouragement and comradery in the programs. “It creates such great comradery and makes it that much more fun for both teams,” commented Langeneckert. She also described the positive energy that each team radiates for each other at competitions. “Each team acts as an extra cheering section for each other.” Senior Cheer team member CJ Busch described the relationship between the two teams as a “family” and that the two teams provide great support for each other, especially when there is no one else to do so. “There are times when a Dance or a Cheer team have no one but their coach to cheer them on. When we come to competitions it is very assuring to know we have our own cheer section,” commented Busch. Freshman Cheer team member Savannah Schumacher described the emotion that they felt when each team found out they had won a national championship, and also how great it was to share that moment with the Dance team. “When Dance was performing I had tears in my eyes, and when they won we ran down (on the floor) with them. It was so cool to share that special moment with them,” commented Schumacher.

Cheer team members get emotional after finding out they won the National Championship. (Courtesy of saubees.com)

But the harmony doesn’t end on the mat. Each program also travels and eats meals together, in addition to having an hour of overlap between practices. “Cheer is just finishing up their practice when Dance starts warming up,” commented Horstman, “Dance will be cheering for us as we do our routine (in practice), and we do the same for them.” 

Team members also say the mental health sessions for each team are crucial to the success of the programs. Each member of the team regularly speaks with a mental health professional. Coach Langeneckert has built this into each program to provide an outlet for Dance and Cheer team members to express their concerns amidst the stress of balancing school, sports, and other responsibilities. Langeneckert also views the management of her teams’ mental health as beneficial when performing. Langeneckert commented that it is natural for performers to be nervous about making mistakes during a routine, but the mental health sessions provide the team with an alternative state of mind when doing a routine. “Instead of worrying about what could go wrong, we try to reframe that and get them thinking about what could go right.” 

For Coach Langeneckert, success is a matter of both focusing on the smallest details and having depth to choose from for a performance. “While good performers worry about getting a routine down, great athletes are focused on the small details that they need to execute to get things done,” commented Langeneckert. This attention to detail is something that has resonated with her entire team. Hortsman described how Langeneckert pushes the teams to do every stunt, flip, and tumble at a high level in practice for it to translate onto the mat. 

In preparation for regionals, the team struggled to prepare a routine that was one of the most difficult performed in the competition. “We started doing (full run-throughs) of the routine and it was an absolute wreck. This year for Cheer and Dance, we did the most difficult routine the school or any NAIA team had ever produced. So the level of difficulty was so high that we started doing (full run-throughs) of the routine and you would want to run to the trash can because it was so difficult.” describes Horstman. 

Coach Langeneckert pushed the team to try and get every detail as perfect as possible despite the level of difficulty of the routine. “We hit our performance for the first time during our (preliminary) performance. We won regionals, and every single (full run-through) we did from when we came back from regionals all the way to nationals we hit,” stated Horstman. The team credits the drive and attention to detail coach Langeneckert demands from her team for their success. “As frustrating and draining as that was, we would have never won a regional title or national championship without her pushing us till we hit it perfectly,” stated freshman Cheer team member Savannah Schumacher. 

St. Ambrose Cheer team lifts up their banner and awards after winning a national championship. (Courtesy of saubees.com)

Also crucial to the success of the team is the depth. Langeneckert stated that when needed, the team “had alternates step up and perform at a really high level.” The ability of coach Langeneckert to reduce the number of performers or replace them creates a competitive environment and forces everyone to step up their performance.  “She will call us over and tell us, ‘Look, we have 19 people on the mat right now, if I have to knock it down to 15 in order to hit this routine, I will,’” Hortsman commented. 

While this competition and demand would seemingly add a lot of pressure, members of the team enjoy her respect. “She treats us like adults. It’s not like something you’d see on TV where the coach is just screaming at you. It’s so calming but also scary. That’s the way she demands respect,” stated Horstman.

The success of the team has been taken notice across campus. Athletic Director Mike Holmes says, “It was pretty evident when I first took this position that Cheer and Dance were strong programs.  We were hosting the National Championships and also hosted Regionals.  We were consistently near the top of the judges’ scorecards.” Holmes also commented on the unity between the dance and cheer programs, “Our teams are bursting with motivated, intelligent, caring, and talented athletes. I have always enjoyed the interaction between cheer and dance members.  There are other universities where the two groups don’t get along, but not here.  There is pervasive support for each other, and I enjoy watching both groups of student-athletes support the other’s efforts to rise to a level of fulfilled expectations.”

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