The crowd was deafening that April night in Daytona Beach. It sounded more like a reaction to NSYNC than to an anxious, all-girl dance team from Towson University. It looked like it, too. People were waving their arms wildly, jumping up and down, totally losing themselves in the performance.
The girls were losing themselves, too. They were doing their patented “New York, New York” number—featuring a medley of New York-themed songs—and vying for their fourth straight national title. The routines at these competitions are one-third pom, one-third funk or street dancing, and a final third jazz. Perfecting the routine takes an unbelievable amount of hard work and dedication, but—when everything is clicking—it’s supposed to look like fun. And it did.
On stage, the group—dressed in black velvet pants and black-and-silver sports bras—undulated in and out and created synchronized shapes like an Esther Williams dance routine. They did spins and splits and tumbles. And then, just like that, the routine was over. Or at least the team thought so. From the middle of the pack, freshman Samantha Zweben had one last unstoppable burst of energy. She bolted towards the front of the stage and literally took a flying leap, landing triumphantly on her feet.
“It was a release of the pressure,” she explains later with an embarrassed giggle. “I was just glad that everyone had gotten through it. I could feel the energy around me and I just took off. I’m very emotional.”
She became more emotional moments later when the Towson girls found out that they had won it all. They were the 2002 National Dance Alliance champs.
“We go out there and we do our very best,” Zweben says. “It’s almost like an out-of-body experience for us. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
The feeling wasn’t always this good.
Ten years ago, the Towson Dance Team was a ragtag pom-pom squad called the Tigerettes that performed at basketball games and with the school’s marching band. The group was disorganized and poorly managed. The school wanted the see them head in a different direction
Enter Tom Cascella. The assistant chair of the theater department and a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Cascella had plenty of experience with theater, but no experience with dance. Still, the administrators admired Tom for his creativity and his vision. They gently coaxed him into action.
The timing was perfect, in a way. A few years earlier, Tom had lost his three-year-old daughter, Kim, to an inexplicable and sudden illness. Although he had two other healthy daughters whom he loved and cherished greatly, he was still feeling a little empty.
“The team filled a void in my life,” he admits.
But it wasn’t an easy transition. Cascella first met with the Tigerettes in a room in the school’s Center for the Arts.
“Hi, I’m Tom Cascella, and I’m going to be your new coach,” he said plainly.
Several of the girls bristled, visibly angry.
“Why do we even need a coach?” one of them shot back.
Cascella sensed trouble.
“Well, I’m just here to give you guys some direction and focus,” he answered.
That didn’t satisfy them. A few girls simply got up and exited, stage right. Cascella pretended not to notice and plugged away, telling the girls more of his plans. A few minutes later, a few more girls took off.
Cascella thought the second meeting would be better. He told the team of his idea to change the name to the Towson Dance Team. To him, the term “Tigerettes” seemed too sexist, too ’70s. But that bombed, too. Several of the girls had jackets with the name “Tigerettes” emblazoned across the back, and who was he to change that?
“That’s ridiculous,” one answered. “We’ve been the Tigerettes and we want to stay the Tigerettes.”
Moments later, one girl just picked up her books and left in a huff. A few more got up and left right after that. It was getting ridiculous. He had started with over 20 girls. He was down to just a handful.
Cascella went to then-Dean of Students Dorothy Siegle and the school’s director of bands Dana Rothlisberger and basically threw up his hands in sheer frustration.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’m losing this thing.”
Siegle told him to remain patient. Change was tough for some people. He needed to give it some time.
So Cascella decided to hold auditions to replenish the team. Only one girl showed up. She asked Cascella if any one else was coming.
“I don’t think so,” Cascella answered. He paused. “You’re the captain, let’s start.”
Cascella was undeterred. He dove right in—started to learn everything he could about dance performance. He watched videotapes of other teams. He found out about editing music, fund-raising, recruiting. He mastered the different steps and moves.
Cascella began recruiting all over the Towson campus. He was looking for more cheerleading or pom-pom types who could dance a little. (Nowadays, Cascella says they look for the opposite: dancers who can do some cheerleading.) The team eventually worked its way up to 16 members several months later.
The practices were intense. Twice a week, three hours a pop, with the occasional five-hour cram session on Saturdays. The girls did weight-room work, sprinting and conditioning exercises, and spent countless hours going over the specific dance moves and timing. To the untrained eye, their rehearsals looked like one part Broadway musical, one part varsity athletic practice session.
After three years, Cascella felt the team was ready for some national competition. He sent a tape of the girls to try to qualify for the National Dance Alliance tournament. To his surprise, they made the cut and finished a respectable fifth. Three years later, they won their first national championship. They repeated the following three years, also taking the Grand National title last year.
You would think that with all the team’s success, Cascella would be one happy camper. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. Cascella is something of an old-school coach. He expects discipline and accountability. He and girls continued to lock horns, especially during the 2000 season. He would tell the girls to all wear the same color at practice. They’d stroll in wearing every color under the sun. He’d give them a set time to be there. They’d wander in late. During practice, they’d talk a little trash to him and get on his nerves.
And then there were the intrasquad squabbles. The team was talented, to be sure, but Cascella couldn’t stand all the petty bickering, finger-pointing, and selfishness. It was relentless. There were arguments about who would handle the choreography and who would dance what part. There were arguments about where people would stand during the routine. It was a classic team dilemma: Too many people wanted too much of the spotlight. Arguments regularly broke up practices.
“There were times when I just couldn’t take it any more,” Cascella admits.
Indeed, after one particularly grueling practice, he took a page from his players’ book and actually walked out. But one of the team leaders called him that night begging him to return.
“Tom, it’s not as bad as you think,” she said.
He agreed. He hadn’t liked it when his girls had quit on him. He decided to stay.
It was almost a miracle, then, that it all came together at the nationals. The group that had battled much of the year had jelled, right when it counted. They won the national title.
Still, Cascella wasn’t happy. He didn’t want another year like that last one. So he made the bold move of cleaning house, telling 13 of the 18 dancers on the team not to come back.
“It was really hard,” Cascella says of the 2000 purge. “Some of those kids don’t even speak to me anymore. But it’s what I had to do.”
It’s clear that Tom Cascella is not the kind of guy who rests on his laurels. But he is happy now. So much so that he’s planning on stepping down in two years and turning the reigns of the team over to co-coach Lisa Czawlytko, a former dancer who joined his staff in the fall of 2000. He likes the current team’s attitude. He feels like his message of personal responsibility is finally sinking in.
Sedonia Martin, the publicist for the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Towson, has seen it first hand. She remembers a television appearance the school arranged for the team. They were to appear, via live feed, on WJZ’s early-morning show and had to be at the Towson Center by about 4:30 a.m. Martin says the school gave breakfast to the girls and several of them insisted on cleaning up afterwards. One of the dancers even volunteered to take the coffee pump back to the deli from which it had come.
“It’s on my way [home],” the dancer told a stunned Martin.
“The school is very proud of the team,” says Martin. “They give tremendous visibility in the community. We try to use them whenever possible.”
Last year, after winning the Grand National title, the girls all chipped in and each bought $200 rings celebrating the victory. The ring has a heart with a diamond in the middle and says “Grand Champions” on the side.
“I wear mine every day,” senior Kelly Newkirk says with pride.
As for Cascella? He doesn’t wear the ring—he feels it’s for the girls, not for him. Which, of course, is typical Tom.
“He’s done it all without pay and no extra credit,” says theater department chair Ralph Blasting. “He’ll do anything for that team at any time.”
“Tom’s a genius,” says the high-flying Samantha Zweben, now a sophomore. “He’s a driving force. He adds greatness to our team.”
But Cascella says that the team has given him more than they’ll ever know.
“They just kind of filled that empty space in my heart,” he says. “It was like I was doing stuff for Kim in a way and not just for them. I guess we met on this road where we both needed each other.”