Jews can dance a mean hora, but when it comes to hip-hop, they aren't known to hold their own -- until now. The Milken Community High School Dance Team swept the open regional Dance Team Competition in Las Vegas and earned a bid to the 2004 National Dance Team Competition of the High School.
When the Milken team qualified to compete in just one category at last year's nationals, they were the first private Jewish school to earn such an honor. By sweeping last month's regionals in the hip-hop, lyrical, medium dance, jazz and officers categories, Milken enters this year's nationals as one of the teams to beat.
"People don't expect a bunch of Jewish girls to be good dancers," said co-captain Tannis Mann.
With hard work, determination and talent, these Jewish dancers have defied expectations.
"When we started out five years ago, no one in the dance community had even heard of Milken. Now everyone knows Milken," dance team coach and choreographer Ralinda Clayborn said.
Clayborn began teaching dance at Milken in 1999 and the team sprang from her desire to continue working with a core group of students.
"Milken had a dance squad, but the girls didn't have a coach, and weren't dancing at a competitive level," Clayborn said. She approached the school's athletic director and together they restructured the dance team.
Today, the Milken dancers take pride in their success, but also in their friendships.
"We are a close-knit group of Jewish teenage girls who share a love of dance," 10th-grader Rachel Ward said. "We're from different grades, and have different friends, but we bond during rehearsals and games and sleepovers. It's great that we have so much fun, because we spend so much time together."
The Milken dance season begins each May with weeklong dance team tryouts. Current squad members reaudition alongside approximately 40 hopefuls, all competing for the 11 highly coveted spots. Over the summer, the team members attend two in-school dance camps led by Clayborn, a weeklong dance camp held at UC Santa Barbara and spend the last two weeks of August rehearsing for eight hours a day.
During the school year, the girls practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30-6:30 p.m., perform at men's and women's basketball games, school open houses, town meetings and special events. The team, which dances to music ranging from Portishead to Missy Elliot to Outkast, has even performed at local bar mitzvahs. Team members must excel at academics as well as dance and maintain a 2.5 GPA.
"This is an amazing group of girls," Clayborn said. "They are extremely tight-knit, talented and dedicated. And these girls can really dance."
Last summer at UC Santa Barbara, the squad consistently won team dance and spirit competitions and, as a result, were asked to perform in this February's NFL Pro Bowl half-time show in Hawaii.
As a sport, high school dance is highly competitive and pressure-filled.
"You can even feel the tension between dance teams from different schools at basketball games," 11th-grader Mann said. "Nationals will be really intense, especially when some teams practice eight, not just seven, days a week," she said, noting that the Milken team doesn't practice on Shabbat.
The All-Star Nationals, to be held March 26-28 at the Anaheim Convention Center, will bring together more than 100 dance teams from schools across the country. Most of the competing schools are public, many are nonreligious private institutions, and a few are religious-affiliated private schools. Milken will be the only Jewish high school in competition.
"Camps and competitions give us a chance to be in the secular world," said Warner, who will also compete at Nationals in the soloist category. "We get to spend time with girls who aren't Jewish but love to dance as much as we do."
"It's a little intimidating, because we aren't just representing Milken," Mann said. "People look at us as representing all Jewish schools. But representing Jewish schools gives us a real sense of pride."