Entering this season, the Branford dance program had already established itself as a dynasty, having won six consecutive state titles in the Small Varsity Hip-Hop Division and two straight in the Jazz Division. But things were a little different this time around as the Hornets featured a new head coach in Jacqui Montano and were competing in the more elite Large Varsity Division at last weekend's State Championship.
Despite the differences, Branford again yielded the same great results, adding another chapter to its legacy by placing first in the Hip-Hop Division and second in Jazz at Newtown High School on Feb. 23.
"It's a proud moment and I feel a great sense of accomplishment in helping to keep this team at this level," said Montano, who was an assistant coach last year after having captained the dance squad at Hofstra. "This team challenges itself every year and I feel lucky to be surrounded by such great girls who do well in school and have wonderful parents. I like leading this team where it wants to go and having the girls know that they've achieved something."
Montano makes no mistake in saying she wanted Branford to maintain its win streak at states this winter, but she first stressed the importance of her dancers developing camaraderie by competing in several meets prior to the championship. That proved a good move seeing as the Hornets' hip-hop team took first in all of its local competitions with the jazz squad placing in the top four of each. Both teams also finished in the top half of the Large Varsity Division at last month's National Championship.
Erica Celentano, who captains Branford with fellow senior Kelly Parker, said that Montano put her team in prime position to turn in some crowd-pleasing performances at the state meet.
"Coach Montano is a great coach who's dedicated and motivates us well," said Celentano. "We worked hard together as a team at three-hour practices four times a week and it means a lot that we came up with the win. As a senior captain, I wanted this so bad."
Branford's championship afternoon began with the hip-hop team taking the floor and besting its dozen competitors, including runner-up Fairfield Warde by just a few points. Montano said she "upped the ante" by having her athletes add some new trick sections to their two-minute diva-themed routine, including a full team headstand that gave her Hornets those few extra points needed to prevail. Montano also said her squad conveyed the right attitude to wow the crowd and the judges while dressed in pink jackets with the likes of Beyoncé, J-Lo, and Christina Aguilera blaring in the background.
"Our team practiced that headstand all year and hit it right in the middle of their routine, which was big," said Montano, who's assisted by program founder Jackie Dunn, Megan Palluzzi, Stefanie Clark, and Alyssa Rafter. "They also had that sassy attitude during a performance which was fast paced and high energy."
The dancers who pulled off this sassy showing were senior captains Celentano and Parker, fellow senior Nicole Luzzi, juniors Heather Beedle, Rebecca Withington, Gina Marino, Tina Torello, and Angela Pascale; sophomores Holly Parker, Gabrielle Pantani, Erika Cellupica, Jess Massey, and Casey Raczkowski; plus freshmen Sophie Angelo, Madeline Vitale, Jessica Pantani, Tess Palluzzi, and Michaela Gavigan. The routine was choreographed by Toya Ambrose, who was also choreographer for Hofstra's two national champion squads.
Branford then saw its same 18 girls compete in the Jazz Division and place second behind Shelton, performing a routine that featured an Asian theme with the team dressed in white kimonos. The choreographer for that routine was Keri Olsen.
Although the Hornets didn't come away from the meet winning both competitions like the last two seasons, the only tears cried were ones of joy after it was announced that Branford dance had again won the state title for Hip-Hop, only this time going one better by taking charge of the Large Division.
"Nobody could control their emotions after we won. None of us could hold back the tears," Kelly Parker said. "The pressure was on us after the team had won six years in a row and it was an amazing feeling to get title number seven in a tougher division."