Poms, flag teams and dancers from more than 100 high schools throughout Illinois are converging on the Peoria Civic Center today for one of prep sports' most colorful state championships.
But if you think "best in poms" means a traditional halftime routine, think again. Just the name of the sanctioning organization -- TeamDance Illinois -- reflects the trend.
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"The routines continue to get harder, almost to the level of college dance teams, with more students coming in with extensive dance training," says Jane Richards, the Fremd High School poms coach and a former director with TeamDance Illinois.
In all, more than 2,000 students will be competing, as they showcase the best dance, flag and poms routines from throughout the state.
Joni May, TDI executive director, said TeamDance made it tougher for teams to qualify for the state championships this year, expecting that while fewer teams would qualify, those teams would be even better.
Instead, May said, TDI saw an overall rise in the level of growth and development, and this year's state championship is the same size as last year's.
"We attribute part of this to the tremendous effort our students have put into developing themselves," May said, "and also the time our coaches have spent coming to coaching classes and developing themselves as coaches over the past five years."
The championship goes from morning til night, moving between hip hop, kick, lyrical, open dance, and poms, in divisions determined by the size of the school. The costumes are colorful and elaborate, and the music is loud and fun.
The competition also takes in the flag championships, with teams competing in tall, short and lyrical flag categories.
The Lake Park High School Lancettes are on a mission to return to the medal podium, since they won the Lyrical title in 2009, but failed to place last year. They advanced in both the AAA Lyrical and Open Dance categories this year, after earning the highest technical marks in both qualifying competitions.
"This year, we made a change in our training," says coach Stephanie Hageman. "The girls took team ballet classes to not only improve their technique as individuals, but to elevate the technical standard of the whole team."
Fremd High School also has placed first all season with its poms routine, and they enter today's championships as top contenders. Part of the appeal of their routine is their music. They dance to the Broadway recording of "Defying Gravity" from the hit musical, "Wicked."
"We look for music that keeps them interested -- and energized," Richards says.
Hip hop may be the most hotly contested category, with 37 teams qualifying, the most of any division.
"The hip-hop number is all about intensity," said Wheaton North senior Gianna Bianco. "It's got an intimidating sound, and we have to show that intensity on our faces."
Flag teams, including short, tall and lyrical divisions, let their creativity show with the design of their flags and their costumes, while carrying out difficult choreography and dance moves.
Palatine High School's varsity flag team decorated their silks themselves, cutting out hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs, to match their routine built around Lady Gaga's, "Poker Face."
Rolling Meadows High School's Lyrical routine features the song, "Glitter in the Air" by Pink, while its short flag routine showcases "Your Call," by Secondhand Serenade.
Rolling Meadows Coach Christopher Buti expects the flags competitions to be tight. There are not as many teams involved as in dance and poms, but those that make it are highly skilled, he says.
"They all work in tandem with the complex drill maneuvers, intricate flag choreography and dance," Buti says. "It should be a great competition."