High school dance teams across the area are headed to the U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, for the first state championship in competitive dance sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association.
Preliminaries take place on Friday, with the top 10 teams in each division (Class 1A, 2A and 3A) competing in the championship on Saturday.
After years of lobbying for state recognition as a high school sport, poms teams were granted their wish with the state series.
However, IHSA administrators put their own spin on the sport. Instead of grouping different genres of dance into categories -- traditionally hip hop, jazz, kick, dance and poms -- the new competition debuted with an "open routine" format.
Judges evaluated each performance, no matter what the genre, on the same rubric, with 20 points given equally to technique, synchronization, choreography, formations and overall effect.
"Our open format is unique," said Traci Henry, IHSA assistant executive director. "Given the diversity that encompasses our member schools, ultimately, our committee made the decision to pioneer a format that we felt would best serve our membership and allow all schools to compete."
Driving their decision, Henry said, was the desire to crown one champion in each division.
Henry conceded that like anything that is new, she expected there will be an adjustment period. Since last Saturday's sectionals, her office has gotten feedback from coaches, both for and against the format.
Jane Richards, longtime dance coach at Fremd High School and a former board member of TeamDance Illinois and contest coordinator for the Illinois Drill Team Coaches' Association, expressed concern about the changes.
"Dance is most similar to gymnastics in that teams specialize in different dance areas," Richards said. "IHSA would never have the (balance) beam compete against the floor exercise, or against the bar routine."
Richards wants to form a coaches association to work with IHSA officials on smoothing out the judging process in the open routine format. Meanwhile, teams that prefer the more traditional competition can still compete in the IDTA, TeamDance Illinois and Universal Dance Association championships.
Other coaches found themselves pleasantly surprised after Saturday's first sectionals.
"Overall, we found it to be a very positive atmosphere -- and really entertaining for the audience," said Kelly Clifton-Zajak, St. Viator dance coach. "We felt that the judges really were looking at the rubric and treating each routine separately."
Sue Kawecki, dance coach at Maine East High School, admitted to being nervous about the change and wondering if her squad's traditional kick routine would measure up to more dramatic lyrical and hip hop numbers.
"In all my years of bringing teams to dance competitions, I've never seen anything like it," Kawecki said. "But we found it very exciting, and something different."