New coach, new challenges for Iron dance team

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Photo Courtesy of: Mr. Jeff Christopherson

The Iron dance team performs during halftime of a home basketball game. This season the team add performances during Community’s home football games to their schedule for the first time.

A coaching change means new challenges for the Iron dance team as they attempt to sustain last season’s success

After placing 26th in the 3A IHSA State Dance Competition in January 2021–the team’s best finish in school history–Mrs. Mindy Ewalt announced she was stepping down after 17 years as the program’s head coach.

Miss Eva Newland, a Special Education major at Illinois State University, was hired as Ewalt’s replacement in June after serving as Kingsley Junior High’s assistant dance coach for two seasons.

Being named Head Coach of Community’s competitive dance team, Newland said, was “literally the best day of [her] life.” 

“It’s been my dream ever since I was on my high school team to be a head coach,” Newland said. 

Newland, who has been dancing for a decade, competed at the varsity level in high school, giving her first-hand knowledge of the sport the IHSA adopted in 2012.

“At the high school level,” Newland said, dance “is extremely competitive.” 

To succeed amidst that competition, Newland said, takes knowledge of “dance and the sport itself.”

“I grew up competing [at] the same level,” Newland said. “I’ve studied [dance], I’ve worked for companies that do social media coverage for… dance.” 

That experience, Newland said, has helped her understand what success requires: “It’s knowing your stuff. It’s doing visuals. It’s knowing how to make changes and be fast on the spot.”

The rookie head coach’s biggest challenge, she said, has been balancing her vision for the team with what is “actually best for” them.

“My biggest worry on the daily is, ‘am I doing what’s best for everyone?'” Newland said. “Is this decision… going to benefit them–with their scores, as people… in the long run?” 

Collaborating with the team’s veterans has helped Newland find a balance between her wants and the team’s needs. 

Trinity Pate and Abby Ruebush, the program’s captains, have been “absolutely phenomenal” in that role, Newland said. 

Pate and Ruebush, Newland said, are both “very strong dancers” who “have played a huge role in choreography,” but their selection as captains was based on other qualities. 

“Leadership is never based [on] skill or talent,” Newland said. 

“It is always based on what you can bring to the team that’s going to benefit… everyone on the team.”

The pair’s “knowledge for dance” and “creativity for dance” allow the coach to focus on other aspects of her role, she said.

Beyond Pate and Ruebush’s knowledge and skill, Newland said, “They… take initiative… They set the best example for every athlete on my team.” 

“I’m usually quiet,” Pate, a senior, said, “so I have to step out of my comfort zone.”

That step, Pate said, is helping teach her how to be “a leader.”

While Newland tries to consider the team’s veterans in every decision she makes, she said, she has made some changes to the program. 

“I [have] a vision for how I want things run,” Newland said. 

For the first time, the dance team performed during halftime of home football games, a way for Newland and the girls to connect before the competitive season. 

“[The team] never did a football season,” Newland said, “and that was one of my favorite parts [of dancing in high school that] I want to share that with them.”

Pate said that the halftime performances were a change for the returning team members.

“I think at the beginning it was challenging,” Pate said, but over the course of the football season, the halftime performances became more fun and less serious than the competitive season.

Dancing at halftime also allowed the team to bond before competition began in December, Pate said. 

“I feel like we’re closer,” Pate said. “Last year, there was kind of a separation” between some team members.

In years past, the team’s dances were choreographed by the team’s seniors and juniors.

Upperclassmen, Pate said, who didn’t get selected to choreograph dances sometimes felt “left out,” separated from their peers who were spending time together planning the performances.

With an outside choreographer developing the team’s dances, Pate said, the team is more united. 

The change, Pate said, has the Iron Dance team feeling “more like a family again.” 

The choreography change also poses a challenge–a different style than the veterans were accustomed to.

The style, Newland said, “is more like what the suburb teams do, so it might be more competitive” than in years past–allowing Community to challenge larger 3A schools like Minooka, who hosted Iron Dance’s first competition Dec. 8. 

Iron Dance placed 21st of 31 3A teams at the Minooka Invite, a competition stacked with historically high-performing IHSA teams, and scored within a point of the Sectionals performance that secured the team a place at State last January.

The team has been practicing the new choreography since June, aiming to perfect their performances before this January’s State competition. 

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much goes into making a dance look the way it does,” Newland said, “it requires so much perfection.”

Newland believes the team can return to State despite the changes this season–and their youth, as nearly half the team are underclassmen. 

“[The] freshmen have done an amazing job of keeping up with a lot of [the seniors],” Newland said. “I worked with them when I was at Kingsley, and [I’ve seen] them grow.” 

The team’s two freshmen–Riley Books and Madeline Newberry–Newland said, are ready to compete at the varsity level.

“They’re ready to be there,” the coach said. “They’re hungry… It’s really great to see freshmen fighting for this.”

While ready, the underclassmen lack the competitive experience of some of the teams they will face this season.

Competition, Newland said, is something the freshman dancers will only fully understand once they experience it. 

“You don’t know [what it is like] until you’re there,” the rookie coach said. “You can’t share it with them any other way.”

Newland is proud of how the team has responded to the changes and challenges this season and has high hopes for the roster.

“[The] team is killing it right now,” Newland said. “They are working so hard [and] they are hungry. They want to see themselves go to State badly.” 

“I think 3A Illinois dance better watch out this season,” Newland said. 

The Iron dance team next competes at the Palatine Invite Saturday, Jan. 14.