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Dancing with the Devils

The air of the small gym is heavy with Bath and Body Works body-spray, sickeningly sweet, cut only by the tang of sweat and musty odor of yoga mats. A gust of air rushes over the shiny, fake oak floor as the heavy metal doors of the gym creak open. The cluster of girls, all barefoot and decked in form-fitting athletic gear, do not bother turning around to see who has entered. Instead, from the floor they glance momentarily up at the mirror-wall inches from their outstretched fingers and toes.

“Oh heyyyy,” a singsong voice calls out, breaking the heart beat pause in chatter and warm-up music. Alicia Gonzales, a sophomore at Arizona State University, waves back in greeting; her dancer’s gait carries her quickly yet gracefully toward her fellow members of the ASU Dancing Devil’s dance team, and settling amidst them, she bows her head silently while raucous talk swells once more.

“Oh good, we’re all here,” murmurs Anna Martin, the team’s president, untangling her legs from a complicated stretch. Raising her voice, she calls out, “SO! Ladies, is anyone available November 4th for like a 10 minute performance?”

The entire team responds at once, babbling over each other in similar intonations. “Honestly,” a girl calls, standing to entwine waist-length red hair into a braid, “I’ve skipped class so many times, like, y’all have no idea. I shouldn’t skip anymore. But like, if you’re really strapped for people, it’s my dad’s birthday and I’m already getting off work…so last minute, I can be like, ‘Screw it’ and be there.” Appreciative grins meet her words and Martin scribbles the girl’s name on a list.

The ASU Dancing Devils team is a unique organization. Comprised of a “tight” group of girls with ranging years of experience in dance, the team makes it their goal to be a community service-based group. “I just joined in September,” says Gonzales, the team’s only member not from Tempe. “I wanted to keep dancing consistently somehow and I thought it was great how this group not only focuses on dance, but we try our best to be great community members. We volunteer and bond as often as we can.”

Gonzales, who has been dancing for 10 years, says she was formally trained at Leap of Faith Dance Plus in Peoria, Ariz. She started attending when she was 9 years old, learning hip-hop and jazz style and after a year, plunged into everything—tap, tumbling, contemporary, ballet and pointe.

“It was a lot of work, but I loved it,” Gonzales said, her face glowing while recounting memories. “We had company classes for those who made the competitive team [Elite], which I did.”

Dance was a motivator for Gonzales, who in high school carved time out to captain different dance groups while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and donning a barista cap part-time at Starbucks for over a year-and-a-half. “I am very familiar with juggling student life and work life with dance,” Gonzales explains, tightening the straps of her well-worn dance-shoes. “I knew that dance would always stay a part of my life, and I think it will even after college.”

Gonzales’ story is similar to many of her Dancing Devils teammates. “See, I started with gymnastics but switched to dance when I was 8,” says Maddie Hager, the 20-year-old vice-president of the group. She is short and slight, the ideal frame for a gymnast, but surveys the team with a large smile indicative of energy ten times her size. “I’m a studio baby. I always danced in a studio; I never did high school pom or anything. I always just did straight technique. And a year after I started dance, I joined the competitive team.”

“Me too!” exclaims Hallie Pettit, overhearing Hager’s conversation. “I’ve been dancing for 10 years and I’m trained in basically everything—pointe, ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop…but I like modern and jazz the most and that’s basically what we’re doing here, so.”

“I did jazz, ballet, contemporary, tap, hip-hop—no wait, I’m trying to think of one I didn’t do,” Hager responds, pausing with furrowed brow. “No, I take that back, I didn’t do hip-hop, I’m not very good at hip-hop!”

Her final syllable crescendos into an exuberant laugh, chiming with those of the girls eavesdropping on the conversation, but the air is detectably chillier. Furtive glances are cast at Hager as she sprawls on the ground in a perfect Chinese split pose before her laptop. She is sitting out of the rehearsal due to an intense performance a few days prior, and while nobody comments aloud, expressions make it clear that while the team is a unit, its members maintain a competitive nature.

As The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” plays, the girls pair up and begin high kicks across the floor, each half-beat punctuated not only by the finger snaps of the musician, but by the precise, sharp movement of limbs in the air. While the overall atmosphere is seemingly joking and carefree, the scrupulous observing of one another’s every effort is unavoidable, what with the mirrored walls and long waits in between turns. Eyes follow each twitch of muscle, each arch of back or turn of foot.

“Okay, ladies,” Martin calls, “I know this is sorta one of our lazier practices, but you all can be jumping higher than that. I’ve seen you do it. Let’s go!” She steps back as Gonzales and her partner leap upwards, a good few feet off the ground, before twisting in midair looking momentarily like dolls being plucked by a giant, invisible hand. From the sideline a girl nursing a turned ankle rolls her eyes, turning her back on her incoming teammates.

“Some of us are jumping high,” she mutters, not loud enough for Martin to hear. “I thought this practice was going to be way shorter.” Her comment is met with silence, but a quick exchange of glances between three or four girls indicates agreement.

Outside of the rehearsal room, sophomore Megan Bonesteel leans against the wall and chuckles a little sheepishly. Originally from Minnesota and with over 17 years of dance experience, Bonesteel is not a stranger to the dynamics among dancers. “I guess it depends. There are some groups, but honestly mostly everyone’s kinda friends with everyone, but I guess more on a deeper level with certain people, you know?”

Her friend, Danielle Carruth, nods in agreement gesturing to herself, Bonesteel and two others, saying, “We’re all really close. Personally, I love it, everyone’s really nice.” Hesitating, she glances to the ground for a split second before continuing, “I mean, some people are like a little bit more distant because they’re a little bit more shy, but I’m sure as the year goes on we’ll all get really close and it’s usually what a dance team is like, so…”

During a water break, the girls bop from side to side, scrolling through social media and pausing to take Snapchats together. “It’s basically how it would be anywhere,” Pettit shrugs. “I want to say there are like fourteen of us but I think it’s better that way. It makes it easier for choreography and I think we’re definitely close, but sure, there are some who are closer.”

Nothing interrupts the ASU Dancing Devils ability to perform together well, though. While only having performed as a group twice in the 2015-2016 school year—once for “Devil’s on Mill” and the second time at Oktoberfest—Hager says it’s the best part.

The team is uniform at events like Oktoberfest; despite varying heights and builds, the girls all wear the same, black sleeveless crop tops with high-waist black leggings and thin black dance slippers. Only hair color differentiates them, as the style appears identical: pin-straight with the front sections pulled back to reveal the same shade of bright lipstick, blush and glittery eye shadow perfectly applied on every face. With just a tinge of jazzy steps, pirouettes across the stage and plenty of hair flips, the choreography is usually in sync and yields a smattering of applause and cheers from audiences.

“We do a lot of community events,” Hager says in a business-like manner. “We volunteer our services, so any kind of thing that revolves around donations or community service, we try to get involved in. It’s fun!”

By ten o’clock in the evening, the practice is winding down. The exhausted team has been twirling, jumping, cartwheeling, and control-falling for over three hours. In a circle, they throw their hands together before chanting “Dancing Devils,” lifting their arms as one to the sky. Minor exchanges and smiles occur, but the girls are evidently are set on leaving.

“Wait, guys before you go!” Martin calls, as Hager pulls a stack of pink tee shirts from her gym bag. “You all already paid, so here we go!” Holding the shirts that read, ‘I Heart DD’s’ in black font, a squeal of delight and laughter unifies the group as everyone reaches for their shirt, the tinge of passive aggressive behavior expunged. The shirts—with a message playing on the “Dancing Devils” acronym being a breast size—were created to sell in order for the proceeds to go the American Cancer Society. Walking out of the gym, Gonzales comments, “This is why I love being a member. Dancing makes me happy and it serves as a nice escape from my crazy school and work life, but it’s these extra things that are really great.”

On Saturday, October 24, 2015 the ASU Dancing Devils posted a group photo on Facebook from the Making Strides against Breast Cancer Walk in Tempe, Ariz. They are crowded together, clutching Starbucks, wearing their pink tees, giant sunglasses, and smiles, not a trace of competitiveness or rivalry to be seen.

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