Inspired by 13-year-old, Avila's Glitter Girls dance to national title
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Maybe it's not so surprising that the Avila University Glitter Girls dance team came back from Florida as a national champion.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Co-captains Mandy Freeman and Sarah Mumper and the national champion Avila University Glitter Girls dance team show off the hardware they won in national competition.
The dance team has been a fixture at the Universal Dance Association's College National Championships in Orlando, Fla., since the team began in 2000. They are also no stranger to sky-high finishes against competition that includes teams from every college and university in the nation, from community colleges to NCAA Division II.
But this year was the first time that the Glitter Girls took home a first-place trophy, winning the Hip-Hop Division, and third place in Open Dance. They drew their inspiration from a dancer who wasn't there, and wasn't even old enough to begin high school, let alone college, when she died of cancer last year.
In fact, only one of the Glitter Girls knew 13-year-old Sara Pitts at all. But they all agreed to wear purple wristbands - coincidentally, Avila's primary school color - in Sara's memory.
"I taught her dance when she was 4 years old," said Glitter Girls co-captain Mandy Freeman. "She wanted to be a triple threat. She wanted to dance, sing and act well."
Freeman hadn't taught Sara for several years, but she would frequently see her at Monica's School of Dance, where Freeman continues to teach. Even when her cancer left her too weak to perform, Sara would come just to be around other dancers, Freeman said.
"The last time I saw her, she could barely open her eyes," Freeman said.
When her cancer finally claimed Sara in November, her friends at Summit Lakes Middle School in Lee's Summit began selling wristbands with Sara's name for $1 each to raise money for a scholarship to be given in 2008 to a member of Sara's high school graduating class to pursue a college degree in performing arts.
Not long before the Glitter Girls were to leave for Orlando and the Jan. 13-18 national competition, Freeman spent $20 of her own, scarce, college-student money to buy each of her teammates a Sara Pitts wristband.
She handed them out at the airport, and the team quickly agreed to add a new member in spirit.
"She was a dancer," said co-captain Sarah Mumper. "There is a special connection between dancers - the passion, the love of performing."
"We danced for Sara because she was our inspiration," said Donna Jungman. "It's another way to be connected as a team, and to respect the art of dance. We were where she wanted to be."
"We're all family," said Ilex Baxter. "Anything that affects any of us affects us all."
The gesture touched Dr. Olevia Pitts, Sara's mother and a member of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Lee's Summit.
"It was very kind and very noble. It was absolutely, overwhelmingly wonderful. It filled my heart," she said. "At the same time it was bittersweet. I just lost my child, and I wish they wouldn't have had to do it, because Sara would be here."
The Glitter Girls wore their Sara Pitts wristbands everywhere in Orlando, fielding questions about the Sara Pitts Memorial Fund for anyone who asked. Sharp-eyed viewers who might catch the Glitter Girls' routine on the ESPN cable network might even see the bands on each of the girls' wrists.
Team coach Cindy Freeman, who is Mandy's mother, said that all editions of the Glitter Girls have been special. This particular team, however, is extra special.
"The best part for me is the team chemistry," the coach said. "I told them that if they danced with the energy and passion I had seen them dance with, they would do great."
Coach Freeman said the Glitter Girls are like two-sport athletes. Their season runs from practices beginning in August, through the football and basketball seasons, and ends in March. They perform at all home football and basketball games - men's and women's - and never do the same routine twice.
In addition to daily rehearsals, the Glitter Girls also spend hours in the gym on physical conditioning. Nearly all of them hold down part-time jobs to support their educations, and not one member of the 20-member team is carrying less than a 3.0 grade point average.
The funky hip-hop routine that won them a national title was choreographed by assistant coach Raquel Lathan to a rap written and performed by Tech 9, a Kansas City area band.
At nationals, they nailed it. Every hand gesture, every movement was perfectly in sync with the team, giving the Glitter Girls hope for the third-place finish they prized, following their third-place finish in Open Dance.
Guaranteed no worse than a 10th place finish by reaching the competition's final round, the Glitter Girls huddled as the top 10 was announced. As each of the finalists were named off before them, team members grew more excited.
When Orange Coast College, a California community college with an enrollment of 27,000 and winners of open dance, was announced in third place in hip-hop, the Glitter Girls nearly exploded with excitement.
Then the final call: "In second place, the University of St. Thomas." Avila University's Glitter girls had won the school's first national title, and the tears began to flow - for themselves and their accomplishment, and for Sara Pitts.
"It really wouldn't have mattered if we had won or not," said Mandy Freeman. "We were dancing for her."
Wristbands to support the Sara Pitts Memorial Fund may be purchased at ProCorp Images, 1330 NW Main St., Lee's Summit, MO 64086. For information, contact Mark Stanke at (816) 524-0316, or e-mail email@example.com.