Jasper Dancers Title Defense Gets Interrupted by COVID-19

by, Katie Heneghan, C. Garrett Keidel, and Maria Thomas, Web Editor, Social Media Editor, and News Editor 

The Jasper Dancers are an integral part of each and every basketball game at Manhattan College. Unbeknownst to many, their season goes beyond that of your typical winter sports schedule, as the Jasper Dancers compete in the NCA & NDA Collegiate National Championship in Daytona Beach every April. Last year, the Jasper Dancers were national champions in the Division 1 Hip-Hop Category. This time around, the team was preparing to defend their title and to build off that success. But on Mar. 15, just days after the team returned home from this year’s abbreviated MAAC basketball tournament, head coach Kaitlyn Marquette found out via Facebook that the competition — slated for April 8-12 — would not take place due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The Jasper Dancers begin their prep for NDA Nationals and basketball season beginning in August. That’s the beginning of a long journey that spans the entire basketball season and continues into April for their competitive dance season.

Sophomore and first-year Jasper Dancer, Alyssa Ruest, told the Quadrangle via email, “The Jasper Dancer season is pretty crazy right from the start. We start by going to NDA camp in August then our season starts only a few weeks after we get back to school for the fall semester.” 

She continued. 

“During all of this, we are also attending basketball games during the week and on weekends.  Then around November, we start learning our nationals choreography. Then once spring semester hits and we start getting closer to nationals we start adding more weekend practices and the spring semester is solely dedicated to nationals.” 

For a collegiate dance team, NDA Nationals is the biggest event of the season. Coach Kaitlyn Marquette explained the scale of the competition, and how its cancellation was felt all throughout the country.

“Not only are there just dance teams, but there are cheer teams as well. And I would bet on it that there are hundreds of teams between the dance teams and the cheer teams,” Marquette said. “Then you’re looking at thousands of dancers and cheerleaders that were planning on participating in this event from all over the country. Every division, every size school, small or large. Everyone comes together for this one moment.”

The Jasper Dancers pose for a team photo earlier this season. KAITLYN MARQUETTE/COURTESY

Although the Jasper Dancers compete at a Division 1 level, they are considered a spirit squad as opposed to a varsity team, given their club status at the college. The NCAA announced that spring sport Division 1 athletes would receive an additional year of eligibility due to the cancellation of their seasons. This, however, does not apply to the Jasper Dancers, meaning that they don’t qualify for another year of eligibility, and their work in preparing for NDA Nationals will not be compensated for. 

For seniors, this news is especially devastating. Taylor Aloisio is one of the four seniors who has been on the team since the class of 2020 arrived at Manhattan College in August 2016. 

“I was personally heartbroken,” Aloisio said. “I’m a senior this year, so that would have been my last time going to Nationals. So it was really upsetting to hear that my season and my time as a Jasper dancer was just over in a matter of seconds.”

Aloisio continued.

“I’m slowly moving on and realizing that nothing can change, so I just gotta keep going and think about the memories that I do have.”

Part of what contributes to this feeling of unfinished business was the opportunity to defend their title in the Hip-Hop category. The team was looking forward to proving that they could win that title again, and to return home champions for the second year in a row.

“Last year we all had the amazing opportunity of winning nationals and becoming national champions, so we really wanted to go down and kind of show that we weren’t a one hit wonder and that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Aloisio said.

Sedraya Fletcher, four-year Jasper Dancer and social media coordinator for the team, shared similar sentiments to that of Aloisio.

It’s still hard for me to put into words how Nationals being canceled impacted me,” Fletcher said. “It’s hard for me to really wrap my head around. I’m grieving honestly. I go from being sad, to being angry, to being in denial and somehow convincing myself that if all of this ends soon enough maybe it can still happen. But it won’t happen…I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to the team eventually but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye so soon.”

Given their inability to retain eligibility, dance teams do not get the same luxury as varsity athletic teams in that there is no “next year.” The routines they create and practice are tailored to that season’s group of dancers, and can not simply be recycled for next year.

Furthermore, Coach Marquette commented on how this season’s routines told the story of the team in a very personal way.

“The two dances that we did create this year are very special to us, and they’re very special to me as a coach for this specific group of dancers,” Marquette said. “Six of the 15 that I had on the team are seniors, and they’ve been with me for the most part since they were freshmen.”

Marquette continued.

“I kind of wanted to create these dances to send them on their way, in a sense that their journey has finally come full circle, and this is what everything has led to. So can we do the dances next year? I mean, I’m sure we can. But will the passion and emotion and the story that we’re trying to tell be the same? I don’t think so.”

Although the team missed out on a chance to compete to display the fruits of their hard work and months of preparation, they recognize that the season ending early is upsetting from more than just a competitive standpoint. 

“A lot of us will never dance like this ever again,” Aloisio said. “We’ll be able to dance through other means, but in an organized way, we’ll never be able to do it like that again, so it was especially sad for the seniors.”

The circumstances of nationals being canceled has driven the team to build even more personal connections, according to Fletcher.

We all have come to understand that these events and circumstances are out of our control and we must move forward controlling what we can,” Fletcher said. “That includes telling each other how much we mean to one another and not taking any second for granted because nothing is promised. Even though we are still really hurt, we all know that this team will forever have a special bond and the Jasper Dancers that come after us will dance for the girls that didn’t get their one last shot at making finals or defending a national title.”

She continued, “During my time as a Jasper Dancer, it has always been the journey that created an inseparable team and the best memories. There is nothing I would change about this season. I believe it happened the way it did, and with the group of women that it did, for a reason…It wouldn’t be a journey if we knew what was coming next and what an amazing journey being a Jasper Dancer has been for me.”

Through the difficulty and heartbreak, Coach Kaitlyn Marquette has gained a new outlook on what is important to the Jasper Dancers.

“I think this experience has really put a lot into perspective for all of us — that it isn’t all about the competition,” Marquette said. “It isn’t all about the trophies and the National Championships. It really is more about the journey and the time that we have together.”

Regardless of this devastating ending, Marquette is positive that the team will come back even stronger for future seasons.

“We are going to push through this as a team and as a program, and we are not going to let this setback affect our future. We still carry that 2019 hip-hop title, and we are going to continue the fight to keep defending it, but it’s going to come from a different place. It’s not going to come from ‘we just want to win’. It’s going to come from, ‘we want to tell our story and we want to showcase our journey’, and I really want the Manhattan College community to look out for that moving forward,” said Marquette.