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'Glitter Girls' dance team earns accolades, brings 'honor to Avila'
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Thje Avila Unicersity Glitter Girls.
KANSAS CITY - They're athletes.

Don't believe it? Ask Liz DiGirlamo, captain of the nationally-ranked Avila University Glitter Girls dance team.

"We just ran a mile. Everyone was under nine minutes. The fastest was seven minutes," said DiGirlamo, a graduate of St. Pius X High School in Kansas City, as the team prepared for its usual Friday workout Sept. 13 in a sweltering indoor gym.

The Glitter Girls start three of their five workouts each week with a mile run. On the other two days, they run two miles, DiGirlamo said.

Those are "conditioning days," a grueling workout that would wilt an NFL linebacker. The two-mile run (22 laps around the Mabee Field House indoor track) is just the warm-up to another three hours of aerobics and weight training.

Still don't believe they are athletes? Ask Mike Sharpe, Avila's athletic director who keeps tabs on every student-athlete at the university.

"Absolutely, without a doubt," Sharpe said. "They are not only athletes, they are very good athletes.

"We treat them no differently from any other athlete," he said. "They are held to the same physical conditioning standards, just like any athlete. They are held to the same academic eligibility standards, just like any athlete. They have a budget for equipment and travel, just like any team. They have practices and off-season conditioning programs, just like any athlete."

By the way, they are also students, first and foremost. As a team, the Glitter Girls maintain a 3.3 grade point average on a 4.0 scale in majors such as pre-medicine, psychology, nursing, art, communications, elementary education and radiological sciences.

Not only are they athletes and scholars, but the Glitter Girls are the pride of Avila University.

They grabbed second place in their division in January at the nationally televised Universal Dance Association College Nationals in Orlando, Fla.

Not bad? Consider that was accomplished in only their second national competition and in only their third year in existence as a dance team against 25 other qualifying universities and colleges, some several times the size of Avila.

"Our division was open to everyone through NCAA Division II, so we competed against schools a lot bigger than we are," said their coach, Cindy Freeman.

Nobody has been happier with the Glitter Girls success than Avila University President Thomas F. Gordon.

"The Glitter Girls have added a great deal of excitement to our campus," Gordon said. "Their success at the national dance competitions brought honor to Avila and gave them recognition for their hard work and determination. These talented young ladies have become part of the Avila tradition."

So how did the cream of Avila rise to the top of the nation so quickly?

First of all, DiGirlamo explained, the Glitter Girls take themselves and their role on campus dead seriously. Whether they are dancing in front of a packed house or for a smattering of fans, every move must be precise, every step in sync with everyone else.

Their season begins with practices in July and runs through the fall and winter sports schedules, ending in February.

"We perform at all the sports," she said. "We have five days off around Christmas, then we start right back up, preparing for nationals. We go at it every day for two weeks."

Secondly, the Glitter Girls "get a rush" from performing in front of Avila's enthusiastic home crowds, said co-captain Mandy Freeman, an Archbishop O'Hara High School graduate and daughter of the coach.

"We feel really lucky to be able to do what we are doing at Avila," she said. "A lot of schools don't support dance as much as Avila does."

Thirdly, they respect, support and like each other, DiGirlamo said. That's not easy considering their diverse backgrounds.

Although all team members have long and strong dance experience, the 16-member squad hails from 12 different high schools.

Three members, Donna Jungman, Sarah Mumper and Rebecca Osborn, come from Raymore-Peculiar High School. Two - Ashlee Brown and Erin Gray - hail from Raytown South, and two more - Kristin Cira and Jamie Giudicessi - are graduates of Olathe East.

The rest of the squad, in addition to DiGirlamo and Freeman, comes from different high school dance traditions. They are Whitney Abramson, Blue Springs South; Sherrell Dandy, Paseo Academy of the Arts; Shannon Drummond, Center; Kassie Graziano, Dowling, Iowa; Deanna Herring, Chillicothe; Miriah Pulliam, Larned, Kan.; and Catie Sager, Belton.

Molding athletes with a variety of experience into a single team might be considered an obstacle. To Coach Freeman, it's an asset. Each athlete, she said, is free to express and bring her own unique gifts and experience to the team, and that makes the Glitter Girls even better.

Coach Freeman said she is always scouting high school gyms for more talent.

"They are recruited like other athletes. They are even on scholarship," she said.

The key to this particular team is the leadership of DiGirlamo and Mandy Freeman, the coach said.

"This year has been so easy for me because of those two," Coach Freeman said. "I see things (dance steps) in my head. I'll tell them and they do it."

When a routine doesn't quite work or when a team member has something new to suggest to make it better, each member is not only encouraged, but expected to speak up, Freeman said.

That's the kind of personal validation that prompted one team member to transfer to Avila from Kansas University.

"K.U. is a good school," said Gray, "but I wanted more personal attention. I knew this was going to be a really good dance program, and I wanted to be part of it."

Good? According to the national results, Avila's Glitter Girls are great.

"I had to pick the one reason I do this, it's the rush I feel performing on that stage at nationals," DiGirlamo said.

The first year at Orlando, she said, the Glitter Girls surprised even themselves in making the 11-team finals, then by finishing seventh. "A lot of people there were calling us the Cinderella team," DiGirlamo said.

Early success only whetted their appetites for more in 2002. "That was our goal - beat seventh and finish in the top five," she said.

Last January, in front of a huge audience and ESPN Network cameras, the Glitter Girls nailed their routine once again in the semifinals to earn a berth in the finals. Then they nailed it again and sweat out the judging.

"It's all so subjective," Mandy Freeman said. "So many teams had improved and you don't know who was going to come out of nowhere."

DiGirlamo said the team gathered in a circle, holding each other's hands as the national place-winners were announced in reverse order for all 10 finalists. Each time Avila was not named was a step higher up the ladder.

Tenth place - Columbus State. Ninth place - Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Eighth place - Lindenwood. The Glitter Girls knew they had placed no lower than last year.

"Then they announced a tie for seventh (Pittsburg State and Ithaca) and we weren't there," DiGirlamo said. "We started freaking out. That meant we got our goal."

But the climb wasn't over.

Sixth place - Southern Indiana. Fifth place - St. Cloud State. Fourth place - College of Saint Benedict. Third place - William Jewell.

"When they announced third place, we lost it," DiGirlamo said. "Then they announced us. We were so excited, we didn't even know who got first." For the record, it was Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College.

So what do they do for an encore next January?

"We're thinking first place," said DiGirlamo.

Don't bet against them.

Dance camp offered to girls

KANSAS CITY - The Avila University Glitter Girls are offering girls from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade an opportunity to join the team and perform.

The Glitter Girls, who won second place in their division at the 2002 Universal Dance Association national competition, will conduct a special camp for youngsters from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 5.

Participants will return two weeks later to join the Glitter Girls at a halftime performance during the 1 p.m. Oct 19 football contest between Avila University and Lindenwood College.

Cost of the camp is $40 per participant. Each participant will receive a T-shirt, pompoms, lunch, and a family pass to the Oct. 19 football game and dance performance.

Registrations can be made in advance by calling Glitter Girls Coach Cindy Freeman at (816) 501-3634. A few registrations can be taken on the day of the camp, Coach Freeman said.


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