Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

At last: Gwynn Park dance team goes to nationals

Dancers overcome financial burden to finish in top 20

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Raphael Talisman⁄The Gazette
Members of the Gwynn Park High School Dance Team (from left) Amber Anderson, 15, of Accokeek, Ashley Johnson, 17, of Clinton, team captain Jasmine Clark, 17, of Bowie, Tiffanny Parks, 17, of Upper Marlboro and Gabrielle Brown, 17, of Clinton practice their pompom routine.
For 10 years, the Gwynn Park High School Dance team has qualified to compete in the Universal Dance Association National Championships in Orlando, Fla.

But this was the first time they actually were able to attend.

‘‘Most of the teams that go there have come from money,” said coach Renee Hawkins, who is at the end of an 11-year coaching tenure at GPHS. ‘‘But for us it’s always been tough raising the money.”

GPHS placed 16th of 38 teams in the pompom competition and 12th of 34 teams in the hip-hop competition at the event, which was held Saturday and Sunday at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex.

‘‘The kids felt like superstars,” Hawkins said. ‘‘We couldn’t have asked for a better finish. The kids aren’t disappointed at all.”

Hawkins said when they found out they had qualified for the national competition by winning the UDA regional tournament in Ocean City, they immediately got to work raising the $22,000 needed to send the team to Florida.

‘‘We’ve always wanted to go,” said Jasmine Clark, a senior and captain of the team. ‘‘I pushed to get the team to fundraise so we could go. And I hope this encourages future teams.”

Clark said the team danced at a retirement home where they solicited donations. They also sold $10 tickets for a breakfast they served to patrons at Applebee’s Restaurant in Waldorf and sold food after school.

Tiffany Parks, a senior and co-captain of the team, said fundraising was an amazing experience.

‘‘It just felt excellent,” she said. ‘‘And it showed that the community really cares about us. We had an opportunity to go, and they supported us.”

According to Hawkins, the biggest donation was $7,000 from the Arthur W. Wilmer Foundation in Brandywine.

‘‘But most of the donations were small,” she said. ‘‘There were a lot of $20 and $50 donations that added up.”

The financial road to nationals proved much more difficult than the competition the team faced along the way.

Gwynn Park beat 12 teams from New York to North Carolina in a regional competition to qualify and have since gone undefeated.

The team also placed first in three area competitions this school year, and have three more competitions left on the schedule.

The team also was invited to the Final Destination tournament in Virginia Beach, Va. but would have to raise even more money to get there.

But after such a successful trip to Florida this past weekend, the team is not ready to think about any additional trips. The dancers are just happy to have been able to send their coach off with such a lasting memory.

Hawkins has coached throughout Prince George’s County for the past 30 years.

‘‘This is like a goodbye present for our coach,” Parks said.

And Hawkins was appreciative.

‘‘The emotions have been running high,” Hawkins said. ‘‘This is so special.”