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Murray, Alma dance coaches relish school’s fifth state title 11/17/22

Murray, Alma dance coaches relish school’s fifth state title 

By Kevin Taylor

Alma Schools 


To be the best requires a lot of dedication. 


But for Alma dance coaches Sara Murray, Emilie Westra, and Ashlyn Hill, winning is more about helping to make their dancers better people... 


“We coaches are always pushing each other and our team members to be the best versions of themselves — that’s our ultimate goal over any wins,” Murray said. 


Alma coaches and team members could hardly contain their enthusiasm at last week’s 5A state dance competition. Having heard the runner-up team announced, Murray and Co. knew what was about to happen. 


“I’m convinced there is nothing else in the world like it,” Murray said. “So much adrenaline and nerves have built up by that point that you feel like you might explode, then listening to the announcer say, ‘In the 5A division, your state runner-up is …’ — and preparing yourself to hear "Alma" (just so you're ready for anything) and then him not starting the next word with an “A” is absolutely unreal. 


“As soon as the “P” came off of his lips, we all lost it.”


Remarkably, Alma has placed within the top three overall at the state dance competition for 15 years in a row — five first-place finishes, seven runner-ups, and three third-place finishes. 


But it was the first state title for Murray — and the first for Alma since 2017. 


“We always strive to be the best versions of ourselves every year - as coaches, athletes, and the team as a whole,” Westra said. “Sometimes, that’ ‘best version’ is better or worse than other years, depending on outside factors and self-motivation and drive on the team.”


“Something we focused on this year was setting personal and team goals that were not focused on winning, but instead focused on attributes that, if implemented, could lead us to a win,” Murray said. 


Murray and Westra came up with this year’s theme last spring. 


“The themes (ideas) for our competition routines are often inspired at UDA Nationals in February,” Murray said. “We start searching for music and setting dates with our choreographers as soon as we get back from Nationals.”


Murray and Westra’s squad includes a lot of long hours and sharing athletes with other coaches. Football standout Cash Farris is among a handful of multisport athletes, including fellow football standout Ashton Chanhnouvong.


In all, this year’s state title group included just six seniors — Taylor Greer, Emalie Griffin, Jocelyn Harless, Katie Major, Emma Moore-Odell, and Abigail Smith.


Laney Bush is the team’s lone junior. 


“This is the first state championship title for all of the kids on the team,” Westra said. “Seniors Taylor Greer and Katie Major are the only team members who were on the team in 2020 when we son state runner-up, and also placed fifth in small varsity Hip Hop at the UDA Virtual Nationals. All the kids have had the privilege of winning multiple first-place titles and judges choice awards at Invitations (pre-state competitions) throughout the years.”


“My sophomore year, we were extremely close to winning,” Major said. “It really hurt when we didn’t. Last year we got third. This year, knowing how close we’ve been, it’s a surreal feeling, knowing we’ve worked so hard. It’s an awesome feeling.”


“I remember my freshman when we went on the spirit bus, we got to watch them at state and it was sad for me to watch them not win,” Greer said. “Then my sophomore year came and we got runner-up, which I was very sad about, but it’s still amazing. My junior year was a little harder, but this year I’m so happy we won, especially competing against a private school (Pulaski Academy).”


In addition to the six seniors, there are a large number of sophomores — the aforementioned Chanhnouvong and Farris, Lilah Battles, Vivian Beneux, Madison Couch, Kenadie Farris, Taryn Greer, Haylei Moses, Daimya Parker, Slade Sargent, Leah Tally, and Kensington Wadkins.


The program's two managers include senior Emma Bullard and sophomore Landen Coursey. 


Alma’s dance squad isn’t seasonal, the coaches will tell you. Early morning workouts, scheduling around other sporting activities, and getting everyone to buy in doesn’t happen with just a few practices. 


“There is a lot of work behind the scenes with our choreographers to get the music and routines to where they need to be for the kids to learn them in June and July,” Murray said. “The team starts summer practices about one or two weeks after tryouts, and they practice four times a week for the entire summer, minus the AAA (Arkansas Activities Association) two-week dead weeks.”


Murray said “it took about 56 hours of choreography” to learn all three routines for the state competition. 


“Then, on the second of school in August, we begin 6 a.m. practices three times a week through September, and have both morning and afternoon practices on competition weeks in October and November,” she said. “They also have ballet and skills practices on Tuesday afternoons throughout the year.”


The state title victory is a culmination of all that work. The giant team framed photographs that adorn the walls in Charles B. Dyer Area speak volumes. 


“We have a legacy of success to uphold and that’s something all of the coaches and team members take seriously and want to live up to,” Westra said. “Alma Dance is a family, a competitive one for sure, but a family nonetheless and we support each other through thick and thin and want to see each other succeed.”


Murray said a number of sophomores were members of last year’s first-ever freshman squad. 


“This group has been self-motivated and driven since before tryouts last May,” she said. “Also all of the sophomores on the team (besides the two who were on varsity last year) came from our very first freshman team last year, so they have been training with and watching varsity for some time now. 


“Coach Hill and Coach Westra did a wonderful job training the sophomores last year to be prepared to not only make the varsity team but to push Varsity to be better than years before.”