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A day in the life of a Whitman pom

Photo by Annabelle Gordon.

Photo by Annabelle Gordon.

Poms line up in anticipation of their competition. The team finished second.

Eva Herscowitz, Walt Whitman High School

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The Whitman poms team has dominated Division III for the last two years. To see how they prepared for their debut in this year’s Division II counties and what a typical day of competition day entails for the squad, I shadowed the poms team from Feb. 2 to Feb. 3.

Friday, February 2, 3:00 p.m.

In the main gym, the members of the Whitman poms team haven’t even finished the first eight counts of their competition dance before coach Kendra Jean calls out over the music, “You’re not turning with your partners!”

50 black jazz shoes stop moving, 50 pom-poms stop bobbing and the 25 members of the Whitman poms team simultaneously turn around to face their coach.

Immediately, captain Sofia Luzuriaga chimes in.

“Try to go faster,” she says.

Junior Alex Herrera follows.

“When we turn,” Herrera says, “stay in line.”

As the four seniors, 11 juniors, six sophomores and four freshmen exit the gym and line up in the hallway to repeat their entrance, Jean yells again—–this time, much louder.

“Stop chatting,” she says. “Counties is tomorrow. Come on, ladies.”

In less than 24 hours, the poms team will perform in front of hundreds of parents, siblings, friends and other teams at the MCPS Division II County Championship at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. For the last two years, Whitman has championed the Division III counties, allowing the squad to move up to Division II this year. And the winning streak hasn’t ceased: this year, the team won both of the county’s individual meets.

For the team, performing in Division II counties is a monumental achievement. In addition to the competition season, the poms team performs at halftime for the football and basketball games, and at Talent Show. They often feel that their hard work goes unrecognized, Luzuriaga said.

“People don’t think we work as hard as we do. Every single year, the guy poms—after they perform or after practice—they’re always like ‘wow, I’ve realized that poms is so much harder than we thought it was,’” she said. “They’re like ‘I have so much respect for you guys now.’ And they’re not even doing half of it.”

The team hopes to continue to perfect their six minute routine before the final competition of the season tomorrow, refining minor sections to ensure all 25 members are in sync. After an outstanding debut in Division II, the squad has one final goal: to win county championships, junior Julia Levine said.

“I want us to do really well and the trends look like we’re going to do really well, but we still need to keep working really hard because a lot of the teams are out to get us because we’re the underdogs,” Levine said. “It’s really hard to keep improving the dance because every team keeps improving between competitions with judges’ comments. So we just have to keep working and make it look even more clean than before.”

After each invitational, the squad receives judges’ comments, which they analyze and apply to their routine. Now, just a day before the final competition of the season, the team hopes to perfect technique, choreography and presentation during the two hour practice.

While coaches Jean and Alexa Ciesinski primarily direct practice, team members also collaborate: juniors Ally Meyers and Sydney Johnson discuss the proper pivot point of a spinning kickline, Johnson reminds the squad to maintain strong facial expressions and captain Nora Marcus instructs sophomore Jilly Brodsky to point her feet.

This collaborative nature allows team members to learn from observation, Johnson said.

“One of the reasons why we’re always so collaborative and always commenting on stuff is because when we’re actually dancing, and we see the person right next to us, you can see mistakes as they’re happening as opposed to having a bunch of people looking at them and trying to figure out what’s wrong,” she said.

Later, Johnson reminds the squad of county rules: no glittery makeup, no painted or long nails and no stepping on a pom during the performance.

After an initial run-through of the dance, the team breaks off into small groups to clean up individual sections. When the team performs the dance again at the end of practice, Jean and Ciesinski take note of the improvement in technique and stamina.

Ciesinski stands on the bleachers, pumping her fist as the squad leaps, jumps and fouettes.

“Let’s go ladies,” she says.

For the last 15 minutes of the final practice of the team’s competition season, the girls form a ‘facial circle,’ practicing their facial expressions as the music plays. Over giggles and embarrassed smiles, Ciesinski reminds the girls to maintain “grit and humility.”

“As long as you were as attentive as you were today and you reproduce that, that will win us counties,” she says. “You deserve to win tomorrow.”

With that, practice ends, and the teammates join in on a pre-competition chant.

“Be fierce!,” the team says in unison. “Full-out, in-sync, every rep counts, aye!”

Saturday, February 3, 8:15 a.m.

Five hours before the team dances through the doors of Blair’s gym and performs their competition routine one last time, the squad gathers at sophomore Ally Mandell’s house to prepare. Sophomores Drew Haas and Julia Clayton mouth the words to Beyonce’s “Love on Top” as Ciesinski frantically hairsprays the team members’ ballet buns.

In the world of competitive dance, appearance is everything, Luzuriaga says. That’s why the 25 girls and two coaches have crowded into Mandell’s basement to do hair and makeup. Luzuriaga and Herrera braid hair, senior Genevieve Meier and Ciesinski put each team member’s hair in buns and Jean and junior Bella Young do makeup for all 25 dancers.

Young began helping with makeup her freshman year. Now, it takes her less than two minutes to apply each team members’ eyeshadow, she said.

“It’s hectic. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing it pretty fast,” Young said. “It’s a lot of people asking if they can go next, so it does get pretty stressful at times, but I also think it’s pretty soothing and I love doing makeup.”

Getting ready together is a bonding experience for the team, Mandel said. When they’re not getting their hair or makeup done, poms dance, eat and sing together.

“I think that we try to have fun with it but also be prepared, so most people are feeling a little stressed but also excited because it is such a build up moment of this season,” Mandel said. “It’s kind of bittersweet, especially at this time when the competition season is wrapping up.”

With their buns secured, their smoky eyeshadow blended and their dark red lipstick applied, the poms leave Mandell’s at 10:15. At 10:45, they arrive at Blair. Whitman will be the first team to perform.

Saturday February 3, 1:00 p.m.

As soon as Luzuriaga signals drumline to start playing, the 50 pom-poms shake and smiles break out on the faces of the 25 dancers. The performance has begun.

The dance is fast-paced and intense, but also well-executed and precise. Members of the guy poms team and the cheerleading team, Principal Alan Goodwin, Spanish teacher Kathleen Bartels and social studies teacher Suzanne Johnson are among those in the crowd.

The team worries that performing first may reduce their chances of winning. Judges award points to teams in several categories, including technique, cohesiveness and overall performance. Judges score teams immediately after a school’s performance, so the squad worries they may receive an average score because the judges won’t be able to compare Whitman’s dance to that of other teams.

Still, performing first allows the squad to watch other teams. The competition is fierce, freshman Lisa Ota says. In fact, to prevent other schools from potentially copying choreography, coaches don’t upload any videos of the routine until counties ends.

“I’ve danced competitively in the past, but this is still kind of new for me,” freshman Neesha Kuntamukkala said. “It’s a whole different level with other schools, and it’s much more competitive. On my other team, we weren’t as close, but I feel like this is so much more tight knit. There’s a lot of support so there’s less pressure, but it’s still pretty nerve wracking.”

Saturday February 3, 3:00 p.m.

Now, after months of long practice hours, grueling corrections and two first-place finishes, the team circles up, hoping to hear their name called for the first place award.

Luzuriaga doesn’t place for her captain’s solo. After Bethesda Chevy-Chase takes third for team sweepstakes, the squad tenses up. Finally, Whitman is called, and the poms team takes second place.

The teams’ cheers are immediately muffled by Albert Einstein, who places first. Einstein finished with a final score of 648, beating the Vikes’ score of 616.

“I’m happy we got second in DII for our first year in DII coming from DIII,” Herrera said. “Honestly, I’m just happy we placed because there was a lot of competition. A lot of the teams worked really hard for it.”

Despite the team’s second place finish, Ciesinski hopes to continue to help the team grow and improve, she said.

“Having shaped for the team as many years as I’ve been here, you’re starting with a different starting material than you would have before, so you’re building on that,” she said. The team gets progressively better each year, so we’re kind of reaching our full potential as a team each year as we grow.”

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