Under visionary artistic director Jodi Maxfield, the Brigham Young University dance team opens doors for career-minded dancers.
When Jodi Maxfield first took the field alongside her fellow Brigham Young University Cougarettes in the late 1970s, their style exemplified that of many dance teams during the era. (Think drill team meets vintage Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.) “Lots of jump splits, and military style was really big. Our routines weren’t very technical, but were instead comprised of lots of kicks and simple dance moves,” says Maxfield. “The program was in its infancy compared to where it is right now.”
That may very well be an understatement, judging by the team’s accomplishments in the last 30 years. Under Maxfield’s direction, the Cougarettes have taken home no less than 10 coveted National Dance Alliance National Champion titles and a slew of other top-five berths at the same competition. Along with perennial powers like University of Minnesota and University of Memphis, the BYU Cougarettes have played a pivotal role in bringing artistry and legitimacy to the collegiate dance team world. Fluency in jazz, contemporary, lyrical, Broadway, hip hop, tap and even pointe is not uncommon for these versatile dancers, who receive college credit for their participation.
“We try to be really proficient in all styles of dance,” says Maxfield. “I don’t think we’re a traditional pom school.”
Born to Lead
Like many longtime dance educators, Maxfield believes teaching is in her blood. “I knew I wanted to be a dance teacher when I was a little girl,” Maxfield says. “I’d spend hours in my basement teaching dance to pretend students.”
Utah born and bred, Maxfield trained at two different studios throughout her childhood. It was basically a no-brainer that she would go on to dance in college, yet she couldn’t have anticipated that her stint with the BYU Cougarettes would become much bigger than she’d dreamed. “During that time, our coach was going through some difficulties, so I ended up directing, choreographing and running the team for a couple years,” she says. “I credit that experience with preparing me for where I am right now.”
After getting married just before her senior year, Maxfield took a paid position coaching the drill team at her alma mater, Hillcrest High School, in Midvale, UT. During this time, she began to hone her signature style, eschewing the simple choreography then preferred by the BYU Cougarettes for more technically challenging fare. After seven years at Hillcrest, she opened a dance studio with fellow former Cougarette Lausanne Jensen.
In 1991, Maxfield was tapped to interview for her current job with the Cougarettes, a prospect that would have been promising if she and her husband hadn’t planned to move more than an hour away from the school. “We’d barely begun building our home,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if I could do the commute. I decided I would do it for a year, and here I am 22 years later.”
Art or Athletics?
While dance teams at some schools serve as decoration or strictly as spirit boosters, the Cougarettes are the polar opposite. For the first 18 years of Maxfield’s tenure as artistic director, the team was part of the university dance department, which translated into class credit for team members and an annual large-scale concert. “I loved being in the dance department because I felt strongly that they were true dancers who were credible and deserved to be there,” says Maxfield.
Four years ago, the dance department was absorbed into the school’s fine arts division, and the Cougarettes became part of athletics. Maxfield took on a bigger role as spirit coordinator, overseeing the cheerleading squad and mascot program, as well as the dance team. “It was a unique situation because we were in the dance department, but almost everything we did was in support of our athletics department,” she says. “Now, with me overseeing everything, it’s a more cohesive unit.”
One of her conditions for the move was that the Cougarettes maintain their identity as dancers. That meant continuing their traditional annual concert, the driving force behind the program. Held every February, the concert features 16 to 18 numbers (often choreographed by visiting artists like Nappytabs or Justin Giles). The team then culls the best from its concert to put together a competition routine for NDA Nationals in April.
Visiting artist Jaci Royal has choreographed two Cougarette concert numbers. She was struck by the discipline and drive that Maxfield has instilled. “It’s a completely professional atmosphere. The dancers are very focused and their work ethic is amazing,” she says. “Jodi is an excellent leader and you can tell how much the girls respect her.”
Team practices double as classes for the dancers and are held every weekday for a total of 12 hours per week. Maxfield starts with a 20-minute warm-up and then moves into technique drills and choreography review. “We work on everything from our homecoming variety show to football sidelines and basketball timeouts,” she says. “Some days are set aside exclusively to work on numbers for our concert.” Dancers are encouraged to supplement this with additional classes in ballet, modern and jazz through the university or at prestigious nearby studios, like The Dance Club and Center Stage Performing Arts Studio.
Maxfield herself often puts in a 12- to 15-hour day. “And then when you add a game to that…” she says, pausing. “I never anticipated how time-consuming it would be.” The week of this interview, for instance, she had traveled with the team to San Jose State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. “I feel very grateful that BYU has had the confidence in me to allow me to take the team where I’ve dreamed.”
A Winning Tradition
A big part of the Cougarettes’ rise to national prominence has been its consistent domination at NDA Nationals. The team has won 10 total championship titles between the overall and hip-hop divisions. It’s been a challenge for Maxfield, who says the clean, crisp choreography favored by the Universal Dance Association actually more closely resembles her team’s style, but that logistics dictate their participation in NDA. “Part of our religion as Mormons is that we don’t participate in things on Sunday, and NDA is the only competition that isn’t held on Sunday,” she says.
Conforming to NDA’s format has also been a tall order. Each routine must contain three 30-second sections of jazz, pom and hip hop. “We’re not a pom squad,” says Maxfield, “so we’ve had to adapt in order to come up with something that reads favorably to the judges.”
Last year, she took the Cougarettes to the New Prague Dance Festival, where they won Grand Prix Overall along with “Most Friendly” kudos. “It was the trip of a lifetime going abroad to compete and having that cultural experience,” says Maxfield, noting that it was support from the athletic department that made such a trip possible. “It never would have happened if we were still in the dance department.”
The team’s accomplishments and stringent standards are evident in its alumni, who’ve gone on to join the Rockettes and NFL/NBA dance teams, dance on Broadway and assist major choreographers, including Justin Giles and Nappytabs. “It can work in such a positive way for them, especially if they want to go into teaching,” Maxfield says. “Not only does it give you a really broad dance perspective, but here in Utah, drill team is really big. So many girls come back and tell me it has helped them secure a job.” Of course, the dance team pedigree isn’t beneficial 100 percent of the time—some former Cougarettes have come close to making the Top 20 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” but were told they were “too clean, too polished” for the show’s raw contemporary style.
No matter what her dancers go on to do, Maxfield knows they will make their mark. “I love dance team and everything it teaches them,” she says proudly. “Success is in their blood. I never have to encourage my dancers to go above and beyond. They want to be challenged, and as a coach and choreographer, that’s the dream.” DT
Jen Jones Donatelli recently tried out for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. She contributes regularly to Dance Teacher.
Photos of Jodi Maxfield by Amber Bauerle of Frosted Productions; performance photo courtesy BYU