Towson's dance dynasty

April 20, 2011|By Simon Habtemariam

Most teams — even great ones — rest after competing in a national championship. They take a break. They let their tired muscles and minds rejuvenate. 

Not Towson University’s dance team. Days after winning their 13th straight National Championship, the Tigers’ dancers were back at work — holding auditions for next year’s squad and a chance at their 14th title.

And when Towson’s dance team is in the room, the energy isn’t just seen. It’s heard. 

Every performance, every rehearsal, every count of every routine, Towson Dancers shout at one  another — “You got it!” — while they dance as encouragement and communication.

This doesn’t only give the dancers a sense of unity on the competition floor, but it’s a useful breathing technique.

“It is the reason why we are champions,” says dance coach, Laura King.

But then there’s that other reason. The reason they all gathered Saturday morning  at Stephens Hall.  It’s that axiom drilled into the mind of every serious athlete: Hard work makes champions.

“We work so hard throughout the entire season, we don’t really have a rest period,” Captain Katie Matarazzo said. Matarazzo was among the four juniors conducting the first half of Saturday’s auditions, their first task as next season’s seniors. “I think my mind has just been trained to keep going. It is nice that we’re done our nationals season, but I’m ready to begin the next season already.”

This kind of intensity has been the staple to Tom Cascella’s coaching philosophy. Towson’s head coach for the past 19 years, Cascella holds himself to the same work ethic that he expects of his champion dancers. He also serves as a full-time professor, is co-chair of the theater department and coaches the team out of his own spare time for no extra pay.

Following the death of his daughter Kimberly in 1992, Cascella took over the program with no experience in dance or coaching whatsoever. The Yale grad had plenty of experience in theater art though. 

He knows the preparation it takes to deliver a spectacle to an audience, whether it’s for patrons or competition judges. That, his eye for the perfect performance and seven years of on-the-job training led his team to their first championship in 1999.

“He has the ability to see things that all of us don’t,” King said. “We have the dancer mind; he has the audience mind with, really, an amazing theatrical perspective on what the routines should bring out in our dancers.”

An Iowa native, King moved to Baltimore with her family eight years ago, during her sophomore year of college. Her roommate at the time had been obsessed with the then-five-time national champion squad and urged King to audition for the team. 

After two years as a dancer, King was offered a coaching position. With King choreographing the routines and Cascella turning her moves into a show, they have been able to put together the last six championship performances. The fire-and-ice combo has been able to maintain a program that has been imitated by other teams across the country.

After winning so consistently, Towson dancers have entered several competitions with a bull’s eye on their backs, and other elite teams around the country waiting for them to finally slip. 

During the 2004 championship, Towson came out of the preliminary round in third place. To make up for it, Cascella’s squad rehearsed from 4 p.m. to midnight and then again from 4 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. the following morning. Towson took the stage later that day and left with yet another national championship.

“Everyone associated with the other teams were ecstatic that we weren’t in first place,” Cascella said. “[Towson] went on the floor in third place and came off in first.  That was probably the most memorable championship performance — those members wouldn’t give up.” 

That speaks to a certain drive that has helped Towson create and preserve its champion status. 

“I tell the members that some dance teams dance to get from one side of the stage to the other; some teams dance to go from one eight-count to another; but Towson dances because it’s in our heart and soul. Our performances are a reflection of our spirit,” Cascella said.

With recent pushes for competitive cheerleading to gain national recognition, competitive dance is still too young to gain much more national recognition. Though competitive dancers don’t receive full athletic scholarship, Cascella and King still draw some of the best dancers in the country through Towson’s reputation alone. 

“I came to Towson for the dance team knowing I wasn’t going to get a scholarship” Matarazzo said. “The fact that we keep a tradition alive is worth it to me.” SPECIAL TO B 


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