Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 5:11 am | Fair 50º


For San Marcos High’s Marquettes, Dancing is a Kick

The highly competitive high school dance team has made winning routine, bringing home first-place trophies from each of last year's five competitions.

San Marcos High School’s Marquettes dance team took first-place place in each of last year’s five competitions. (Jon Shafer photo)

It used to be that if a girl tried out to be a member of the dancing Marquettes at San Marcos High School, she pretty much made the team.

But sometime around the dawn of the new millennium, the Marquettes started picking up steam. Now, it’s the most difficult sport to qualify for on campus — more so than boys’ basketball and girls’ volleyball, and definitely more so than the school’s most-watched game: football.

The Marquettes perform in two categories: the jazz-based ‘pom’ division and the acrobatic hip-hop division. (Jon Shafer photo)

Back in the day, “we usually got the girls who didn’t make cheer,” coach Marni Cheverez said. “Now it’s the other way around.”

If it’s true that winning isn’t everything, it’s also fair to say that winning doesn’t hurt when it comes to elevating the status of a group. Or so has been the case with the Marquettes. Through the years, the team has earned a reputation for victory that is tough to top, and even more difficult to maintain.

The Marquettes took first-place prizes in each of last year’s five competitions — statewide, Western region, West Coast and two nationals.

Tryouts for next year’s team were last month. Of the 100 or so girls who showed up the first day, 14 made varsity and 12 made junior varsity. By comparison, in boys’ varsity basketball, it’s typical for 15 or so players to be culled from a pack of 35 hopefuls.

“It’s to the level where, if you see your name on the list, there are tears of joy,” said senior Mary Kathryn Marrs, the past captain of this year’s Marquettes.

Some say the enhanced prestige is also the result of a wider cultural phenomenon.

Jon Shafer, the father of Marquette dancer and graduating senior Lena Shafer, says it seems as if competitive dance is cooler than it was when he was in high school.

“It was really conservative, almost kind of nerdy in a way,” he said. “Now it’s the opposite. … I think the hip-hop generation has really changed the perception of it.”

Out of about 100 girls who tried out for the squads, 14 made varsity and 12 made junior varsity. (Jon Shafer photo)

The past season, which ended in March, serves as another example of the team’s tendency to win, win, win. To put the success of the Marquettes in perspective, it helps to know something about the team’s structure.

The Marquettes are made up of varsity and junior varsity squads, each of which performs in two categories. The “pom” division is jazz-based and therefore fluid, and the “hip hop” division is energetic and acrobatic — the kind of dancing on music videos.

In essence, the Marquettes are represented by four teams at every competition. Last year, in every case but two, all four teams took first place. In the two competitions in which the Marquettes didn’t win first place, they took second and fourth. The time they took second place — with the hip-hop routine, in Anaheim — the contest was controversial: The winning team was the only all-male team in what was meant to be an all-female event. After the decision, the team says, many coaches approached the Marquettes and whispered that they disagreed.

Another season highlight was when the team performed for the Western-region title at the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards were held the week before. Here, the hip-hop routine not only won first place in its division — as did the pom routine — but also took home the overall “grand champion” prize, in which the Marquettes beat out even college competitors.

It’s safe to say the Marquettes’ success last year is beyond the equivalent of a basketball team finishing with 16 wins and two losses. For the Marquettes, each competition includes many opponents. Usually, it’s about a dozen; one competition last year had 37.

Cheverez, who was a Marquette until she graduated from San Marcos High in 1988, has coached the team for 16 years. For her, competitive dance is no mere hobby. Cheverez earns her keep as a dance coach not only for the Marquettes, but also the Emeralds dance team at La Colina Junior High.

For the Marquettes, the three-month-long competitive season is preceded by about nine months of practice. After spring tryouts, there are summer rehearsals, fall school performances and, beginning in late January, the main competitions.

During the summer months, Cheverez brings in mentors, such as the Laker Girls, a nutritionist, a yoga instructor and, starting this summer, an acting coach.

Before Cheverez had her 9-year-old daughter, she traveled the country to coach in the big leagues. She has worked as a freelance choreographer for the cheer and dance teams of the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Diego Chargers, the now-relocated Los Angeles Rams and several college teams.

Every year after spring tryouts, Cheverez embarks on a task that is more art than sport: selecting the music.

“The songs I choose depends on the personality of the team — are they more playful, or more serious?” she said. Last year’s team, Cheverez said, was “more sentimental, more dramatic, more emotional.”

As a result, she chose “beautiful” as the main theme for the varsity pom routine. The mix included samples of the songs “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell, “Beautiful Girls” by Van Halen and “Beautiful Liar” by Beyonce. Each routine lasts about two minutes.

The collective personality of the team is never the same. One year it was perkier than usual, so Cheverez decided to go with a bouncy theme, with more leaps and jumps, featuring a roll theme (think “Rollin’ on the River”). Another year it was intensely competitive, inspiring Cheverez to select the song “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.

The dance team is the most difficult sport to qualify for on campus — more so than football, boys’ basketball and girls’ volleyball. (Jon Shafer photo)

Sometimes, Cheverez will change the theme if the girls don’t like the main song. One year, the team quietly conferred in the locker room about their dislike of the song “Stand” by R.E.M. The team chose someone to tell Cheverez the news. They replaced the song with “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band.

But Cheverez isn’t one to knuckle under if she believes that a selection is right despite her girls’ objections. She stayed the course in one such instance last year, when the team had snickered about a Cheverez-selected orchestration, “Kung Fu Fighting”. It was a tongue-in-cheek routine, but to the dancers’ great surprise, their fellow students at San Marcos roared when they heard it. It was by far their favorite.

The San Marcos audience tends to be the toughest of all crowds, teammates say.

“Sometimes, they don’t cheer,” sophomore Maddy Dawson said

“They are very spoiled,” Cheverez added, “because they have the Marquettes.”

Despite their success, it’s rare to find any of the girls strutting around campus like divas. To do so would be to flout one of the team’s most sacred creeds: Be humble. “Marni tells us to cherish the spot, because there are girls who would kill for it, but at the same time, we shouldn’t let it get to our heads,” Marrs said.

As for the teammates, their personalities are quite varied. Some are more reserved and cerebral, others more rambunctious. Sometimes, strong wills collide and grudges form, which can have a toxic effect on the delicate nature of a stellar group performance. That’s what happened just before the varsity pom division embarked on its fourth-place finish, in Irvine.

Cheverez could tell something was up during her pre-performance pep talk, when no one made eye contact with her. Then came a relatively lackluster performance. “When my team goes out there and they perform well, you can feel their energy,” she said. When something is amiss, “the showmanship ends up looking false.”

Afterward, they held a rehearsal, sat in a circle on the school’s hardwood dance floor and vented. Cheverez also made a point to leave the premises during a couple of the rehearsals, forcing the girls to coordinate themselves. The next time out, at the Kodak Theatre, they blew away the competition.

Now that the season is over, the seniors are moving on. Some will continue to dance, and others aren’t sure.

Lena Shafer is heading to UCLA in the fall, where she may study English or business. “I’ll probably be pretty busy,” she said.

Marrs will go to Santa Barbara City College, where she plans to start a possible career working with children. But she says she also wants to find a way to dance.

“I’m just so used to having it be a huge part of my life,” she said, recalling how some of her earliest memories involve sitting by her aunt on the hardwood dance floor while she stretched. “I would be kind of lost without it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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