The Ohio State University Dance Team strives to honor the past, maximize the present, and impact the future!
In our February/March issue of Inside Dance magazine we went behind the scenes and under the lights with Head Coach Melissa McGhee. Enjoy this special bonus edition including features of the interview not included in the magazine!
Photography by Dean Burns Photography @deanburnsphotography
Tell us about The Dream Job. When did you decide that coaching, and ultimately becoming a head coach was a journey you wanted to pursue?
My journey to be a head coach was quite unconventional. After being on the team for four years, I had grown very passionate about the experience and life lessons being on a dance team can bring and the way it enhances your college education. I grew deeply connected to our team and the University. During my four years on the team, it transitioned immensely: we went from a sports club to beginning the initial transition into the Department of Athletics. We went from competing at the NDA circuit to the UDA circuit and evolved our role within the University. That said, I had secured a full time role in corporate America and very much was focused on transitioning out of college and into the professional world.
After my senior season, the Head Coach role became vacant and I was working closely with the Spirit Program Director at the time to ensure that it was filled with the right candidate. She continued to keep me updated on the situation and was persistent I throw my name in the hat. I laughed out loud at first! I had zero coaching experience and had not even graduated from college yet! As a favor, I ended up applying just in case she didn’t have the candidates she needed. My interest started to peak a bit so I went through the interview process and was offered the role. I should have known that was her plan, but I was a naive 22 year-old that was just staying involved to help ensure the program would continue on the path it needed to… or so I thought!
Was it easy to accept the role once it was offered?
Because of my passion for the program, I felt compelled to think about it. My family is very important to me and they were very split on whether I could handle it while beginning a corporate career or not. My parents were very influential and supported me in taking the leap. They were both successful coaches, so coaching was in my blood and I knew their guidance and support would help me immensely. Ultimately, I decided to take the job and agreed that we’d continue to look for the right coach for the program for the long term, but that I could help in the short term. 10 years later… I’m still here!
What does coaching mean to you? What drives you?
Coaching for me is all about making an impact in people’s lives. Yes, we strive to be the best dance team in the country, but ultimately, I measure my coaching success on if the kids that spent four years of their lives with us are better human beings at the end of their experience. The job is very difficult. It challenges you mentally and emotionally almost on a daily basis. I feel a strong sense of duty and responsibility to the families who send their kids to us to ensure that we are taking care of them, supporting them and being their home away from home. Ultimately, the people are what make the team special — not just the dancers, but also their families, our alumni, choreographers, and support staff. The people involved are the heartbeat of our team – really good humans that happen to be exceptionally talented dancers, too!
What are your favorite traditions with this team?
The Ohio State University is a very traditional school. Our dancers are lucky enough to be on the sidelines of football games and the tradition associated with an Ohio State Football Game is off the charts! We perform pre-game with our cheerleaders and mascot, Brutus Buckeye, on a performance space called “Grassy Knoll.” I always tell our team that it is a privilege to wear a Block O on your chest and it is moments like these that you will remember for a lifetime!
What do you love most about working in the university environment?
The Department of Athletics at The Ohio State University stands for excellence. Their tagline: “The People. The Tradition. The Excellence” sums it up perfectly. There are 36 Varsity Sports at Ohio State and every single one is demanded to be excellent and perform at an elite level. Being involved with a massive Athletic Department has taught me many things that I did not get from my studio training growing up. It has exposed me to some of the best minds in the sports performance space and made me an advocate for holistic training and development for our student-athletes.
Our dancers have access to a dedicated strength and conditioning coach (Coach D is a beast and the best in the business), athletic trainers, a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, and an academic counselor. Collectively, these individuals make up our Athletic Performance Team (APT) whose singular mission is to ensure that our student-athletes have the best training, development and resources possible to make them as successful as possible in the classroom and on stage.
Have you altered the goals for the program during COVID? Has this made you rethink any of the methods you use to coach or select team members?
The goals and mission of the program remain unchanged during COVID. If anything, our mission of maximizing the present has become more important than ever. In the crazy world of ups and downs that every team has gone through, we’ve had to remain focused on what CAN we do and ensuring that when we do get opportunities, we are ready and we never take them for granted.
Selecting team members during COVID has been challenging. We operate off of a recruiting-only model for team selection, mirroring how the other athletic teams at our University operate. This model requires a lot of interaction between the prospective dancer and their family with the team and coaching staff. Typically, we hold on-campus clinics and the coaching staff is able to travel to competitions to meet in person with prospective dancers. We have had to shift this to be completely digital which was challenging, but we made it work.
Talk about the philosophy of the program and what you believe makes it so successful year after year!
Our mission as a team is to honor the past, maximize the present, and impact the future. This team had decades and decades of iterations before we were finally able to break into the Athletic Department and be recognized as the “official” dance team of the University. We work really hard to create meaningful connections to our alumni. After all, their foundation paved the way for the current team’s opportunities and it is important that we never lose sight of what a privilege that is.
When you work with college kids, you know you are going to have them for a finite period of time – four years. We demand energy and effort no matter the circumstances and always want our student-athletes to “show up.” Show up for yourself, of course, but equally important to show up for your teammates. And finally, impacting the future. This part of the phrase is definitely near and dear to my heart and something that helped us turn a corner as a program. Trying to find our own team identity within the dance team space took some time, but we’ve taken great pride in making decisions that feel right for our team. We try to stay on the forefront of what’s next and push ourselves to innovate where it is appropriate.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fantastic partner in crime and a couple alumni that have also served as assistant coaches for us. They have helped to uphold this philosophy and mission of this team and keep it focused on producing great quality products but even more importantly, better people. Patrick Carmichael, has been with our team since 2010, and is part of the heart and soul of our program. He innately brings humor and energy to our team, but most importantly, cares for our athletes as though they are family and understands the importance of developing them not only as dancers, but humans, too. Together we are the definition of ying and yang personality wise, but that has been a blessing; he’s been a rock and an integral part of the team’s development. Lauren Burns and Katie Devine, both alumni of the program, have stepped into the coaching realm, too, over the years. They are so special and care so deeply for the program. It is definitely a full circle moment to have someone that has come through the team and knows the program so intimately as a part of the coaching staff. I believe a large part of the team’s success (and my sanity, ha!) is owed to those individuals.
Outside of the elite dance, technical and performance skills required, what are you looking for most in your student-athletes?
We look for student-athletes that are passionate about Ohio State and understand the gravity of the commitment that is required to be a D1 Athlete. Our team culture demands a team-oriented individual able to see the bigger picture. We appreciate people that are humble, down to earth, responsible … and it is a huge bonus if they are down to laugh and can handle my sarcasm! We, of course, work really hard but try never to take ourselves too seriously… there is rarely a practice that goes by where someone isn’t cracking a joke or telling a funny story. We very much rely on our dancers to have a point of view, stand up for what they believe in and have a voice.
We love to give them opportunities to choreograph, lead community service or team bonding events, and explore what their passions are through the lens of the team. It is always a great day in my book when a dancer comes to me with an idea to make the team better. 9 times out of 10, I will be all for it and try my best to let them lead it and grow in that experience. It is my hope and belief that it makes them more prepared adults as they head into the workforce.
In April 2021, OSUDT will be competing at UDA College Nationals to defend their national title once again. This victory could mark a very special achievement for your Seniors. Walk us through their journey from 2018 to now!
We have a small, but mighty senior class and each one of them is very different from the next. Their journey has been an exciting one from the start! Their freshmen season was the first time we decided to compete in the Home Routine competition at UDA College Camp. That is essentially a pre-season competition that is optional and prior to their freshmen year, we had not participated. The dance we competed was choreographed by Doug Burkhardt and really pushed the boundaries of a traditional dance team routine. The hallmark of the routine was the artistry and was absent of a “turn section” which was unthinkable at the time, a big risk for sure. People responded well to this approach and we placed first! That same season, we won our first two National Championships at the UDA Collegiate National Championship in Jazz (Choreographed by Doug Burkhard) and Pom (Choreographed by Tribe 99). After years of knocking on the door, this was a massive turning point for our program!
The past two years we have traded placements in each of the divisions. In 2019, we won the Pom Division and took second in Jazz and in 2020 we won the Jazz division and took second in Pom. As we approach April, we are hopeful for the opportunity to be able to compete once again. In the era of COVID, just being able to step on the stage is a privilege and long awaited opportunity for our team, but especially our seniors. They will certainly be focused on achieving a bookend for their journey on the team!
Each year your team picks a theme or motto. Tell us about this year’s “LOCKED IN” choice.
[We knew] the year was going to be unconventional. The Big Ten decided not to have fans, bands, cheer or dance at their games which was a big shift for us. We knew that with COVID still looming there would be plenty of distractions and interruptions that we would not typically experience. Nothing was guaranteed as no one could predict how the virus would affect tomorrow. This led the conversation to be focused on the fact that we needed to be “Locked In” on what we could control and challenge ourselves to minimize the inevitable distractions of the circumstances.
Now that you are in your tenth season as Head Coach, what would you like YOUR legacy to be for the program? Or, are you just getting started?!
I can confidently say it has been the biggest blessing for me, personally. I have learned so much about myself and am so grateful for the opportunity. It really changed my life and has given me so much purpose. It is not like me to do anything less than 120% and this was no exception. I’ve failed… a lot and there were (and still are) many challenging points where it would be easier to give up, but this team is so special. So, my legacy for the program really has nothing to do with me, but rather I hope when people think about The Ohio State University Dance Team that it is clear what we stand for. I hope it is clear that we aim to be excellent in all that we do, become better people as a result of the team and have some fun while doing it!
Scroll Down to hear from freshman Brenna Bocik, sophomore Natalie Quinn, junior Abby Takahashi, and senior Kendall Kropp!