Annalise Stacey chuckles knowingly when asked about how far the Ozark Catholic Academy dance program has come in just three years, years coinciding with the junior’s time at the school. From pandemic restrictions in her freshman year to lack of experience in her sophomore and junior seasons, the team has seen its share of challenges.
“Last year, I was the only person who had ever danced competitively. That was definitely crazy. It was a test of my patience,” Stacey said. “This year we got two or three more girls who had danced competitively. That helped a lot.”
Dance is serious business for Stacey and, as recent competitive outcomes attest, for the OCA program as well. In November, the Sapphires squad brought home its second consecutive 1A-4A state dance title in as many years, topping a field that included schools several times OCA’s size. Stacey, the team captain, has likewise earned all-state dance honors in back to back years.
Stacey’s accomplishments with her school team just scratch the surface; she also dances with a squad based in Fayetteville that travels the country to compete. Through that, Stacey has earned All-American Dancer designation by the National Dance Association the past three years running.
Despite such accolades, it’s difficult for the team to get the same respect as other athletes in other sports, Stacey said.
“A lot of the things I’ve heard is that we don’t train or [that dance] is just easy to do,” she said. “What they don’t understand is that we get barely any practice time but with that practice time, we use every single second of it. We would do, like, seven-hour intensives on Saturdays just to get ready for state, because we don’t have enough practice time.
“Also, dance is physically demanding of all of your body, every single second. Your back is hurting one day, your ankle’s hurting one day and you just have to push through it. It’s just hard when people don’t think we work hard or we don’t practice. We do a lot more than people know.”
The drive to earn respect has not only inspired the team to dominate competitions, it’s also led Stacey to take her leadership role as team captain very seriously. She admits to being the one to do the yelling when it was called for but said the amount of drama she’s had to quell on the 10-member all-girls squad isn’t nearly what people would expect.
“It’s hard because I have a lot of friends on the team, and there are times I have to not be the friend and be the captain,” she said. “But I also think our team’s been pretty good at leaving drama out of the dance team. We’ve spent so much time together and we’re pretty much all friends. Because our school is so small, we all know each other.”
It’s hard to imagine any team member not getting in line with Stacey’s leadership given the example she sets for everyone else to follow. A competitor since her sixth-grade year at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville, where she and her family are also parishioners, she’s been trained in multiple dance styles from ballet to hip-hop, her personal favorite. She’s also graduated to designing routines for the Sapphires’ performances at OCA Griffin sporting events.
“One thing I’ve done this year is choreograph our dances for the boys’ basketball halftime,” she said. “We don’t perform our state routine, generally, we perform other routines. I’ve choreographed a few routines for us, and I taught them to our team.”
Getting to the level of winning multiple state championships has taken an incredible amount of work and dedication, both individually and collectively. OCA doesn’t even have its own gym, leaving the Sapphire coaches to rent studio space or a gym to prepare for state competition. Rehearsals are intense, squeezing everything they can into about 90 minutes of practice, two days a week.
That doesn’t count what dancers do on their own, plus cross-training, homework and any other extracurricular activities. Stacey, for example, serves as team manager for the girls’ basketball team and played on this year’s state runner-up golf team in addition to rehearsing for her two dance squads.
“Mondays are the craziest, because I go to school and right after school, go to the girls’ basketball practice,” she said. “Then I go do training for dance. Then I drive all the way back to Fayetteville to go to studio dance until like, 9:30 p.m., and then I go home.
“It’s definitely hard because it’s a lot of hours. For me, it’s just mostly about having a positive attitude about everything. Just saying, ‘It’s OK, you’re almost done with the day. You’ll be fine. Then you can go home, do homework and go to bed.’ Once I start getting in my head about everything it makes everything harder.”
As for the future, Stacey said she’s undecided what her dance career will look like following high school, so she’s focused on chasing a third state title and enjoying the ride in her senior year.
“Mostly, I just want to have fun with my team, keep improving,” she said. “I have a lot I can work on and hopefully, I can help grow the dance program to new heights.”
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