At the beginning of the fall 2022 semester, the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) DancePak team’s recruitment process was in full swing. They have a table set up on Gould Street for the Orientation Week’s fair intended to advertise various clubs on campus.
“It just depends on who shows up, right? This year, we had a great turnout,” said coach and club supervisor Cristina Sinopoli. “We have a callback session where we bring in the select people that we've…narrowed down [after auditions].”
The experienced coach says there is often an interview process to get to know dancers on a personal level. It is important that candidates approach the team with a positive attitude because the group will be spending a lot of hours together. After this year’s auditions, which assessed nearly 90 applicants, the team welcomed 14 dancers who were not listed on last year’s roster.
“This year, the objective was to grow the team: number-wise and also…grow how much we do,” Sinopoli says. “We've succeeded [in] both of those.”
Helen Melino is a team captain and in her senior year of medical physics. She says having a larger team allows them to have a greater ability to be inclusive—including
having two male dancers this season. It also allows the club to have more variety in its dances. This year’s team will be bringing more routines to competition than ever before, which Melino says, gives them a better chance of finishing closer to the top.
In a sport where connectivity and chemistry are paramount—there is an inherent risk that bringing in a lot of new faces would alter team dynamics. However, Sinopoli said this year’s team has an especially great spirit.
“They were amazing dancers before but because you're dancing with the same group of people—you kind of learn to think the same way and dance the same way,” she said. "It’s just such a great energy that they bring to practice. It's really nice to see.”
Down a set of stairs and into the dimly lit, stuffy underground level of the Recreation and Athletic Centre at TMU is Studio I. Inside the bright room with hardwood floors and mirrors lining the back wall, it feels like a family reunion is taking place—and a rigorous dance practice has broken out.
It's mid-March and the DancePak is training for its upcoming competition schedule. On one side of the Nike-branded studio, Sinopoli runs through a routine with part of the team, while the other dancers break up into various groups. Some are stretching and others are practicing while receiving encouragement and advice from teammates. All of this with smiling faces, laughter and the occasional ovation for one of their teammates.
That upcoming weekend beginning on March 17, the team was scheduled to dance in the second of three consecutive competition weekends. The team is focused but the gym’s energy is light and there is a general feeling of excitement.
This year’s team composed of 23 dancers has seen a significant increase from the 16 members on last year’s roster.
It is the largest group that DancePak has ever brought to competition since the competitive club began in 2004. Despite there being more members than ever, this is a tight-knit group that describes itself as a family and its members say their closeness is one of their competitive advantages.
The idea of "family" runs deep in this year’s DancePak roster. Over the years, the club has adopted a little sibling–big sibling program, where a newcomer to the program will be paired up with a veteran on the team.
Third-year Mhairi Rothery credits this program and being paired with her fourth-year ‘big sister,’ Bianca Campbell, for helping her to transition into the team easily and she found an immediate connection with her teammates. “With dance…it's a bond like no other,” she says. “Dance is so expressive…We've just bonded so amazingly.”
Shane Mahabir said that joining DancePak was important to his adjustment to university after high school. “It's my first year at TMU, I was really looking for a community…I didn't just find a community—I found a family.”
People are filing into the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) home court for the anticipated TMU Bold basketball home-opening game against their rivals, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.
“Give it up for the TMU Bold DancePak!” says the public address announcer at halftime of the November 5, 2023 women’s game. A lively song plays over the in-house speakers and for the first time in nearly three years, the team performs in front of an energized audience.
For Sinopoli—who has been involved with TMU DancePak for 12 years and the team’s supervisor since 2019—the moment felt nostalgic. She said it meant so much to be back and performing in front of an excited crowd.
“I got more and more hyped up for the games,” said Mahabir, who is in his first year with DancePak. “It was really just a great way…to cheer on our school. It was so exciting.”
The first-year creative industries student said performing at varsity games acts as a great bonding experience for the many new faces on the team and is good preparation for the boisterous competition environment. This gives them a bit of an edge over opposing schools who sometimes do not perform in front of fans until the winter semester.
With the most members on its roster in DancePak’s nearly 20-year history, it was important to have these experiences to help build familiarity and camaraderie within the team.
Fellow newcomer to DancePak, Rothery remembers that halftime performance fondly because it was the first time this roster had danced together as a team. The third-year professional communication student said the performances at varsity sports games allowed the team to get to know each other as dancers.
The competitive season for the TMU DancePak ended at the conclusion of a competition held in Niagara Falls from March 24-26. The team has one last show of the season on April 6 at the MAC to show their home school, friends and family the dances they have prepared for competition.
For Melino—a senior on the team—she anticipates this being an emotional moment as she dances for the final time with DancePak. She was unsure whether she would continue to dance competitively after high school.
“It doesn't hit you until the end,” Melino recalls. “We have our final show…at the MAC and I think that's when it's going to hit me…because that's it for us—until our summer classes, of course—but the last time performing. So it's going to be emotional.”
This season will be remembered as a turning point for the TMU DancePak due to the team’s unprecedented growth. The lasting memory of this season, though, might just be the connections that were made and the family that was formed.
After all, family is forever.