Road to State: The Starliners

First formation.

There is a power behind certain words, and strong emotions tied to different phrases. To me, there is not a more soul crushing or blood chilling pair of words in the English language than these.

It’s been almost six years to the day since my last Starliner practice, but even writing them down gives me a little bit of a chill. These were the words that we heard five, six, seven, eight — or more — times everyday at dance practice. These were the words that silenced us, and spiked our heart rates as we shuffled into our places, taking deep breathes and trying remain calm. These were the words that meant in three and a half minutes we would be reduced to gasping desperately for air, and would take every ounce of our rapidly dwindling stamina not to collapse on the mildew-scented floor in an asthmatic fit, but instead gulp down as much water as our stomachs could handle, and hope to God we could catch our breath before they said it again.

In short, “first formation” was how our coaches told us we were going to run our high kick routine full out in its entirety. It was my least favorite part of practice, even worse than The Box, or running because someone was late, or getting yelled at by our coaches.

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We usually deserved it.

During my time as a Starliner, I expressed my fear and/or hatred of the phrase many times, which often led my non-dance friends and family members to question why I continued. Why did I practice for over 15 hours a week in crappy practice spaces that were full of mildew and asbestos warnings? Why did I turn until I couldn’t see straight, and stretch until I pulled both hamstrings, and kick until I had shin splints? Why did I let my GPA suffer and never see my non-dance friends outside of school during winter season?

The obvious answer is because I love to dance, and I firmly believe that the good things in life are worth the extra effort. Most of my best memories of high school happened at dance competitions, and the hard learned lessons of being a Starliner are still ingrained into my everyday life. Three of my closest friends, whom I speak to every single day, are all former Starliners, and I can’t watch more than one kick routine without my chin navigating towards the ceiling.

And, of course, State.

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That’s what everything was really for, after all. State was our Super Bowl, our Olympics, our light at the end of the competition tunnel. State was everything that we worked for at every single practice, and what we gritted our teeth and thought about through all our social sacrifices. We knew it was all for State, but we also always knew we were going to State. My senior year was the 25th anniversary of the Starliners, and the 24th year we went to State. We always went to State. It wasn’t a question of who was in our sections that year, or how many seniors we had lost, it didn’t matter. We always worked hard, we always did well, and we always went to State.

Two years after I graduated, Starliners got second in kick, medaling at State for the first time in over a decade. The next year they got third in kick. Then the next two years, they didn’t go to State. There were several factors at play, a new section full of formerly-AAA teams, the loss of nearly a dozen seniors, and a complete overhaul in the coaching regime, twice. A two year absence doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but of their current varsity team, only two members have ever been to State. Two years in the dance team world is an entire generation, and in those two years, people have forgotten about them. The Starliners aren’t on the mental list of spectators for the six teams that will move on to finals, or the three that will medal. Why should they be?

Well for one thing, they’re back.

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The Starliners are finally going back to State, and they’re going in both dances. Said current Starliner Rose Mikhail, “It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed about. I’ve never wanted something this much before and now it’s real. I’ve [watched] State every year since I was ten, so it’s weird to finally be the one performing. I feel like this whole year has just been a dream.” The senior reflected on the team’s experience at sections with some emotion, saying, “After we got our section medals, my grade gathered in a circle and just kind of stared at each other…after we weren’t announced for State my junior year, we gathered in a circle and made a pact that our senior year was going to be the year that we would make it, and we did!”

Many things came together in order to make this comeback happen, but the return of Starliner alumni Nina DeNio and Annie Halloran as coaches has made perhaps the biggest impact. “Everyone this year had a new motivation because I think the coaching staff is a better fit for our team,” said sophomore Emily Keis. “Nina and Annie are both amazing coaches. They really understand the Starliner program and have pushed us to be the best dancers we can be…I couldn’t ask for much more!” Mikhail added, “My sophomore and junior year I would dread going to practice, but this year there hasn’t been a day where I didn’t want to go…they are both the most motivational people I have ever met.”

All of that is why I respect this team so much, and will be yelling my head off for them this weekend. Don’t get me wrong, when I was a Starliner we worked hard enough that we passed ibuprofen and inhalers around practice like candy, but we also¬†knew that we were going to State. Working towards an inevitability isn’t motivation, it’s an inevitability. These girls, on the other hand, worked just as hard for the last two years…for nothing.

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Well, nothing but the pure motivation to get to where they are now. For Mikhail, it’s the sweetest of bittersweet moments, knowing that her last high school competition will be the one she’s spent years trying to get to. “[I hope] we perform our absolute best,” she said. “I don’t want to set any limits as to how far we will make it because all year we’ve been saying, ‘Why not us?'”

Both Starliners I talked with had words of encouragement to all the teams who didn’t make it to State this year. “Let next year be a fresh new start,” said Mikhail. “Just because you were the underdogs this year doesn’t mean you will be next season.”

“Don’t let anything stop you from not getting to State next year!” added Keis.

Looking back at my seasons on dance team, I have a lot of different memories. Some good, some terrifying, and some sad, but the only ones that are absolutely fantastic are my memories of going to State. I’m so happy another generation of Starliners now gets to make those memories.

Good luck, girls!

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