Lessons loom in dance competitions

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 25, 2001

Suzi Russ admitted she misses the thrill of competition. The jittery nerves, the adrenaline rush, the thrill of performing – she knew them all well during her 30-year career as coach and instructor of award-winning high school dance teams. The teams she coached and directed danced across the country and around the world, with squads and individuals winning recognition and awards for skills and showmanship. In 1989, one of Russ’ squads even placed third in the nation, earning a spot in the televised competition on ESPN.

But since retiring from the Natchez Public Schools in 1997, the thrill of competition has been a bit absent in Russ’ life.

Until now. This weekend, Russ is in Orlando, Fla., judging the United States Dance and Drill Team Championship. And in this prestigious three-day event, the competition just doesn’t get any stiffer.

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&uot;I’m really thrilled about the opportunity to do this,&uot; Russ said earlier this week. &uot;I’ve done several state competitions, but this is my first national.&uot;

No doubt, Russ will train a selective eye on the competitors. She’ll watch the young dancers as they move through their routines – watching for precision, synchronization and timing in the military routines; seeking creativity, personality and showmanship in the novelty routines – and she’ll hold them to the same exacting standards she set for her own dancers on the South Natchez Colonel’s Ladies and, later, the Natchez High Lady Blues.

Of course, those standards – organization, commitment, dedication, leadership, teamwork, tireless stamina, self-discipline – are no less than she sets for herself. And they are standards born from the life of a dancer.

Russ began training with studio dance at the age of 4. In junior high, she joined the dance team at her Bogalusa, La., school and danced with the high school team, as well. At the University of Southern Mississippi, she was a member of the renowned Dixie Darlings. She’s danced with squads at the Sugar Bowl and on an aircraft carrier; for a governor’s inaugural ball and at the senior bowl. And, as a teacher in the Natchez public school system, she jumped at the opportunity to coach the drill team when approached in 1968.

&uot;It’s probably taught me more than I taught them,&uot; Russ said of her career as a coach, instructor, mentor, surrogate mother, and friend. &uot;It’s taught me that I have to give and take; I can’t just preach.&uot;

And, in a career that saw the integration – and in 1989 the reintegration – of public schools in Natchez, Russ learned a few valuable lessons about human nature, as well. &uot;It strengthened my own values and respect for people in general,&uot; she said. &uot;And it really, truly, has made me a believer in community and people working together.&uot;

Of course, Russ is also a believer in the value of dance – of its demanding discipline and the value it imparts to young girls. &uot;It organizes their life skills,&uot; she said, &uot;Once you’ve been on something like this (a dance squad) you learn to sell how to get along, how to be a leader, even how to be a follower.&uot;

And, it teaches them the value of setting a goal – whether it be mastering a new dance step for Friday night’s performance or making the cut at the national competition – and working toward it.

Given the value of those lessons, winning competitions is simply a bonus.

Graning, democrat editor, can be reached at 445-3539 or via e-mail, stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com