GVSU endured several travel hardships before finally arriving in Daytona Beach, Florida
By Jacob Arvidson | 4/12/17 10:33pm
It was 6 p.m. on the eve of the National Dance Alliance National Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. Grand Valley State was supposed to be on stage practicing and marking their spots for competition the following day.
Instead, the Laker dance team was practicing in the Detroit Metro Airport.
The GVSU team fought through multiple flight delays, lost luggage, unplanned bus trips and lack of sleep, but still managed to finish as the Division II national runner-up in both the hip hop and jazz categories.
"It was quite the experience," said senior captain Kimberly Pecoraro.
Coaches Rael Orao and Kathryn Allen-Nyenbrink flew out of Grand Rapids, Michigan to Atlanta where they were supposed to meet their dancers who were flying out of Detroit. Both parties were flying out of their respective locations early in the morning Wednesday April 5, with the rendezvous in Atlanta expected somewhere around noon.
But the coaches wouldn't see the girls until 3:30 a.m. Thursday, April 6, in Daytona Beach.
After weather forced a mid-flight landing in Tennessee, Orao and Allen-Nyenbrink eventually made it to Atlanta, only to find out the weather wouldn't permit them to fly to Florida. So, the two coaches rented a car and began the six-hour journey to Daytona Beach.
"It was a bit of a nightmare," Orao said.
Meanwhile, the weather delay Orao and Allen-Nyenbrink were experiencing first-hand in Atlanta was causing a corresponding delay in Detroit. But, unlike the coaches, the GVSU dancers' flight never left the ground.
"We sat on the plane for almost two hours before they let us off," said senior captain Kaylin Walters. "Then, as soon as they let us off the plane they re-boarded us because they thought they had clearance for takeoff. As we were on the runway for the second time, Delta received another delay announcement. After sitting on the plane for another hour they let us get off the plane again."
Scrambling, the team booked the only flight into Florida they could find: an 8 p.m. flight to Tampa.
With the chance at a practice run on the performance stage in Daytona Beach gone, the team elected to practice in the only space available: the Detroit Metro Airport.
"We went from gate to gate and found this big area with a fountain and this big, empty space," said sophomore captain Domonique Chambers. "For the most part, traffic was going around because of this big fountain, so we just condensed ourselves in the corner of that area."
Even though they weren't in anyone's way, people began to take notice. It's not often a dance team decides to hold practice in an airport.
"People were actually really interested," Chambers said. "They were taking videos, taking pictures of us and coming up and talking to us. At one point there was this young kid that saw us dancing and he came and tried to dance with us, which was really cute."
The flight to Tampa, Florida went smoothly, but the Laker dance team was still about three hours across the state from where they needed to be. The girls worked out a way to take a bus to Daytona Beach. They would finally arrive at their destination, not long after their coaches, at 3:30 a.m., just 12 hours before their first performance.
"Between hours of delayed flights, lost luggage, and anxiously waiting to arrive to Daytona for the NDA Nationals competition, the team was very patient and did a fantastic job keeping our spirits high," Walters said. "I was impressed with the team's determination to stay mentally focused even in the midst of traveling chaos."
The lost luggage topped the entire experience off.
The team arrived with only the clothes they were wearing and whatever they had in their backpacks. Thanks to the brilliant advice of Pecoraro, the dancers had all stored the costumes they needed for their first performance in their backpacks.
Once the GVSU team took the stage, the horror story that encompassed the trip down to the NDA Nationals Championships disappeared. The team nailed their preliminary routines and cruised into both the jazz and hip hop finals as the second highest scoring team. The Lakers posted a 9.621 score heading into the finals, the highest in program history.
"The girls were great," Allen-Nyenbrink said. "We as coaches felt they did a great job. We were pretty proud, especially after all that we went through. We definitely did the job that we had come to do and that was good."
Praise from a coach is one thing, but when the audience starts showing appreciation for a performance, that's a completely different level of validation.
"When the girls went out, they had the largest crowd out of all the Division I and I-A schools," Allen-Nyenbrink said. "Some of the coaches whose teams didn't make it to finals had our shirts on, had Grand Valley shirts on. That was really cool. It really lifted us up that all these other schools were supporting us."
The entire NDA Nationals crowd loved the Laker dance team.
"I had never heard such a roar from a crowd before and it sent a chill down my spine," Walters said. "I could feel the energy electrify between my teammates and I as the crowd kept getting louder."
Even after the Lakers were done dancing, the audience was still buzzing with excitement.
"As soon as we came off the stage, I had at least four people that I didn't know come up to me and ask for my name and if I wanted to talk to them and be their friend and take pictures with them," Chambers said. "It was really exciting to see that, even though we did get second place, we made an impact on the crowd and became an inspiration."
After months of preparation and fine-tuning of every detail in each routine, GVSU produced nearly flawless performances in the jazz and hip hop finals, Allen-Nyenbrink said. They left Daytona Beach as the national runners-up to Valdosta State in the hip hop competition and Lindenwood in the jazz competition.
"I felt the girls did a really good job," Orao said. "But it was definitely disappointing. When we practice, we're not practicing for second place, we're practicing for first place. We have three seniors that are graduating and I would have loved for them to experience another national championship win before they graduate. We all agreed that we loved the choreography this year, so it would have been nice to see them get rewarded for that and their hard work and everything they've put in."
The Laker dance team has won three national titles and been national runner-up twice now under co-coaches Orao and Allen-Nyenbrink. Both coaches recognize the 2016-17 team as not just the most tightly-knit unit they've ever coached, but the most talented one as well.
"This is our best season yet," Orao said. "This has been, by far, my most rewarding season coaching them. This team was our most cohesive team we've ever experienced."