UK’s dance team takes its moves to world championship competition

The University of Kentucky pom squad will compete as the U.S. national team at the world championships.
The University of Kentucky pom squad will compete as the U.S. national team at the world championships.

Dawn Walters didn’t make the first cheer squad she tried out for at what is now Leestown Middle School.

But Walters, 51, later made the team at Leestown and then Bryan Station High School, and was a dancer and cheerleader at the University of Kentucky.

Walters has run a cheer-centered gym, coaxed UK women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell to do a split for one of his Big Blue Madness dance routines, and worked with the dancers known as the “Thoroughbabes,” when Lexington had a hockey team known as the Thoroughblades. She also helped start the “Dugout Dancers” for the Lexington Legends.

Walters is in her seventh year and eighth season as head coach of the UK dance team. And she’s shooting for a UK world title at the upcoming International Cheer Union World Championships on April 26 in Orlando, Fla. The ICU is the international governing body for cheer and includes 110 member nations.

The UK squad is competing as the U.S. national team in both hip-hop and pom categories.

At the Universal Dance Association College Nationals in January, UK finished fourth in Division 1A pom and a close second to the University of Cincinnati in Division 1A hip-hop. Their choreography was by Julie Johnson and Kristen Unger; the song was “Rather Be,” by the Pentatonix.

For Walters and her team, which includes assistant coach Erin Acevedo, the upcoming event is comparable to going to an Olympic competition as the American team, except that dance and cheer, while exceptionally athletic and precise, are not Olympic events. (Ballroom dancing has made a spirited, but unsuccessful, effort to become an Olympic sport.)

For UK senior Jordan Shellhaas, it may be her last hurrah as a competitive dancer. Shellhaas is scheduled to graduate shortly after the competition, with a degree in integrated strategic communications.

UK stole my heart, and the dance team kept it.

University of Kentucky senior Jordan Shellhaas, of Louisville

Shellhaas, from Louisville, has danced since she was 3 years old and began competing while in middle school, continuing in high school.

When she began looking at colleges, “I knew a few girls who were on the team, and they talked about how much they loved it, and UK’s campus was beautiful,” Shellhaas said. “UK stole my heart, and the dance team kept it.”

Ashley Wood, 21, a junior dance team member from Dayton, said that she started dancing at age 2. The 5:30 a.m. practices can be grueling, she said, and “we start out every single time with running.”

UK dancers also have to work constantly on flexibility, stretches, turns and jumps, Wood said. In a 2 1/2 -minute routine, “You have to show all of your athletic ability,” she said.

Aside from competitions, UK’s dance squad performs during basketball and football games, “pumping up the crowds and keeping them excited, during halftime and during the games,” Walters said.

Said Walters: “They work so hard and train so hard, and by the time competition comes around, they’re in such good shape.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman