Surviving three practices a week, skipping holiday breaks and missing weeks of school at a time are all consequences of being on the Virginia Dance Team. However, these sacrifices are worth it when dancers get to witness once-in-a-lifetime moments. For team captain and senior Emily Graffeo, dancing for the school she loved in front of over 70,000 people as the men’s basketball team won the 2019 NCAA national championship was an unforgettable experience.
“I could have never imagined being on a dance team and getting to dance in front of that many people,” Graffeo said.
Getting the chance to have those dance opportunities is no easy task, though. Unlike other teams at the University, members of the team are not recruited. Instead, they go through a tryout process that typically takes place in April, meaning prospective dancers have to be aware of the team’s existence before they even step foot on Grounds.
“I had already known about the team,” Graffeo said. “I’d been Googling, stalking things on Instagram.”
Since tryouts are held prior to National Decision Day in May, dancers are not required to commit to the University in order to try out. In fact, for some, making the team ends up being the deciding factor.
Graffeo, for example, was on the waitlist for another school during tryouts, but once she made the Virginia Dance Team, her choice was clear.
“Once I made the team, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m coming to U.Va., I don’t care about the waitlist thing,’” Graffeo said. “[It was the] best decision.”
At tryouts, dancers are evaluated on their ability to pick up choreography, adapt to the “dance team” style and perform at a high level. However, it isn’t just new dancers being judged — returning members are required to try out again too.
“You have to keep up the skills that you already came in with when you were 18,” Graffeo said. “Four years older in dance is like 20 years older in human life. Most dancers retire when they’re like 26.”
Out of about 40 dancers who tried out this past year, six made the squad — five freshmen and one sophomore transfer student. Freshman dancer Bia Sajjad remembers quickly feeling at home thanks to the older girls.
“At the beginning of the year, all the fourth years invited all the first years to their apartments for brunch,” Sajjad said. “We got to know them really well, and they gave us good advice about the year.”
A rite of passage for new dancers is spending their summer memorizing the team’s 50 or so “ditties” — short routines performed on the sideline at football and basketball games. Often, ditties are named after former members or specific moments such as “Sweet,” which was choreographed before the 2019 Sweet Sixteen basketball game, or “Champ,” which was created following the championship win that same year.
As captain, Graffeo’s job is to determine which ditties fit the speed of the music being played, decide which one to choose with her co-captain senior Alexandra Stampfl and communicate that choice to the team — a process that must be carried out in a matter of seconds.
Ditties are categorized into four speeds — slow, medium, slightly fast and fast. Songs played at games also fit those speeds, so the captains use the song’s tempo as a starting point to decide which ditty to select.
“At first I was very intimidated by that,” Graffeo said. “Now I’ll hear the drum beat of the marching band and I’ll know exactly what song they’re going to play, exactly what speed, the ditty, and I’ll look at the other captain and she’ll be thinking the exact same thing.”
Ditties can feel like a lot to commit to memory, especially for new members that just graduated high school and are ready to relax for the summer. Now, however, Graffeo feels confident in her memory of them.
“I can do them in my sleep, I can do them backwards, I can do them to the left and to the right,” Graffeo said.
Because the captains call ditties every time music plays, performing can be more exhausting than new dancers are used to from their days on high school dance teams.
“It was more difficult at the beginning of the year just because we weren’t used to it,” freshman dancer Katelyn Ragland said. “We didn’t have the stamina.”
Basketball games allow the team not only to perform ditties but also execute minute-long routines that showcase technique. They learn a new dance for every game with older members of the team serving as choreographers.
Being on a dance team isn’t always easy — dancers have to smile and remain professional even when they’re exhausted or the team is losing. For Graffeo the men’s basketball team’s loss to UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament was a particularly difficult moment. However, through this hardship, she ended up learning how to remain resilient and not let emotions get in the way — an experience she later used in cover letters for job applications.
“A big part of dance team is being able to go out on the court and smile and perform and look excited [even] when we’re losing to UMBC by 20 points,” Graffeo said.
The squad practices three times a week in addition to games and community appearances, which turns the team into a four-day-per-week commitment. While this might feel like a lot of time for some, it actually has its benefits.
For Sajjad, practice is a blocked period of time during which she doesn’t have to worry about the amount of work she has waiting for her at home and instead can just work out with friends. For Ragland, the demanding team schedule was something she was used to because of her background in the sport.
“I’ve grown up dancing my whole life and being that busy, so I was used to it,” Ragland said. “I like that there is a structure in my life, and there is this thing I can look forward to every day.”
During holiday breaks, dancers must often return to Grounds early when football and men’s basketball have games. For Virginia residents like Sajjad, it’s easy to drive back for the day, but for out-of-state students like Graffeo and Ragland, this often means they can’t return home.
Over Thanksgiving break this year, the seniors decided to stay in Charlottesville and celebrate the holiday with their families. The next day, they cheered on as Virginia football defeated Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years.
The team also sends four dancers to support the men’s basketball team during the NCAA tournament each year, which can be stressful, especially if games happen during midterm season. Last year, Graffeo Facetimed into classes and even wrote an entire paper in a University of South Carolina library to keep up with school work.
Despite the heavy workload, dancing with the Virginia Dance Team ultimately allows members to express their enthusiasm for something they’re passionate about — the University.
“I just love performing,” Ragland said. “I get to do something I love for a place that I love.”
The Virginia Dance Team’s next performance is Jan. 28 at the men’s basketball’s game against Florida State at 7 p.m.