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These Moments Changed Everything. My trip to UDA Nationals with the Endicott College Dance Team.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to follow Endicott College's dance team on their annual trip to UDA Nationals in Orlando, Florida. I'm not going to lie, the reason i originally wanted to go was that i wanted to go to Flordia to get out of the cold of the northeast during the winter and go to Disney World. But, what I didn't expect is how much I would love every second of this experience and how emotionally invested I became in a team that has always treated me like I was one of them.

This year, the teams' song of choice for their jazz performance was a song called Change is Everything by Son Lux. In the song, the artist repeats "This moment changes everything" over and over. But for this team, it wasn't just one moment that changed everything for them, it was all of the moments the culminated into this final moment:

"Hell" Week.

Like I said earlier it wasn't one moment it was multiple moments that led to history being made. The first series of moments happen the week before Nationals. It is a week that the dancers like to call hell week. After spending most of this week with them I can see why they refer to it as hell week. During this week the team does nothing except practice their routines over and over for basically 10 hours a day. They work until their performances are as clean and in-sync as possible. They have their choreographers come in and make last-minute changes to the dances and they even have some ECDT alum come back and help as well. And when they're not practicing they are adding last minute touches to their costumes, watching videos of last years performances and doing a bit of team bonding.

It was during these moments that I had realized this team was going to do something special. During all the long hours of practicing the team rarely complained and they stayed positive and focused. I don't think they even knew what they were capable of, but from watching them practice it was obvious that this year was definitely going to be the #bestyearyet, which is a motto they had started before the season had even begun.

Battle of the Northeast.

Each year, as a trial run of the performance, the team takes a 6-hour bus ride to New Jersey to participate in the Battle of the Northeast Dance competition. This is the first time they compete and it's an opportunity for them to get feedback from judges before Nationals. Now, since this was my first year with them I wasn't really sure about the expectations of this competition, whether they were supposed to win it or just compete for feedback. At the end of the day while the competition was a good way to get that feedback the results of it didn't impact nationals. So, we didn't stay for the awards because Coach Nikki thought that the rest would be more important. The team was shocked when they found out via face-timing an ECDT alum during the awards, that they won the whole competition. Which, was the first time they had ever done that. However, this was only a prelude to what they were about to accomplish.

Nationals here we come.

6 AM, on a cold January morning we hopped on a plane and traveled to Orlando.. this was probably one of the least exciting parts of the trip so here are some photos to fill in the time gap:

Mickey Mouse ears are ESSENTIAL to bring to Nationals.

24 Hours to Nationals

With less than 24 hours to nationals, the team rents out a small dance studio: Studio K and they practice all day before going to going to the Disney parks in the evening. For me, this was one of the best parts of the trip and that's all thanks to the studio owner's dog; Bella, which may have just been the cutest dog I've ever seen but ill let you decide on that one:

Other than hanging out with Bella, the team practiced and made some last minute adjustments. Once practice was finished we went to Disney's Hollywood studios and enjoyed some much needed downtime and had a final team dinner before the big day.

I also went on my first rollercoaster that night...10/10 would recommend

Day 1: Semi-Finals

As a sports photographer, I've been to plenty of intense, emotional sports games from high school state tournaments to National Championships. But, to be honest, none of those games even come close to the emotion and intensity of UDA nationals. From the moment you walk through the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports, you can feel it, the energy is incredible. There are teams everywhere circling up going through the motions of their dances and getting in the right mindset before the performance.

Speaking of getting into the right mindset before their performance..this team had a special pre-performance ritual based on the hit Netflix film Birdbox. Coach Nikki would sit in the center of the circle as the music played and "feel the energy" from each of the dancers and point to where she thought needed more energy. We definitely got some weird looks but hey..it worked in New Jersey so why not keep it going.

Before I go into the photos from the performances, I want to go back to the emotion and intensity of Nationals. Before they actually go on stage there is a process. Each team starts by taking a team photo. Then they head to mat time to go through their routine on last time before hitting the stage. Once mat time ends they go backstage and they wait. While they're waiting for 4 or 5 other teams in front of them perform. The team gets in a tight circle and coach gives one final speech before they go out and perform. At this point, most of them are in tears and you can see all the emotion that has built up come out. You could see it in both coaches' eyes and hear it when they talked. They were so proud of their team. I'm not a very emotional person, but I was FIGHTING back tears. Thankfully, I had a camera in front of my face to hide it.

This moment was extra special to these 3 because it was the first of their last performances at Nationals.

The shirt says it all. On to Finals.

Even though the team had just had a very long day and they were proud of what they had accomplished. They knew they still had the biggest performances ahead of them. When we got back to the hotel, instead of going straight to bed they went out in the middle of the hotels and went through and made final adjustments.

Day 2: Finals

At this point, everything this team had done before this point didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was going out on the finals stage one last time, and leaving it all out there. The stage was set, emotions were running high, and they were ready to go.

Pom was first, Jazz second. Same process; mat time, team huddle and then perform.

The Final Performance:

The best way I can describe their final performance is; it was a perfect storm. They walked out to This is Me from The Greatest Showman which set the mood. And from the very beginning of their dance, they hit every move, every turn one after another. At one point in the dance; the peak of the dance, where the music builds up to this one moment you got this feeling like they had done something incredible. The coaches lost it, I even screamed from behind the camera. You could see the dancers fighting back their emotions on stage. This was the moment they worked so hard to get to and they did it. They left it all out there, the rest was up to the judges.

History Made.

History was made. This team scored top 5 in the nation in both pom and jazz. All their hard work paid off. Not only did they make top 5 but, they were less than a single point away from moving into top 3 and even first place. It was bittersweet, but you could see it and feel it. The team was hungry for more, and they began talking about how they were going to medel next year.

Happily Ever After.

The rest of the time in Orland we spent in Disney Parks. Waking up at the crack of dawn to get on the avatar ride, and finishing the day watching the fireworks show at Magic Kingdom, fittingly titled Happily Ever After. At this point, everything had come full circle. It was hard not to get emotional watching the fireworks and listening to the soundtrack that plays. It was at this point I had realized how lucky and grateful I was to have followed such an amazing team on this trip. This team means the absolute world to me. Those 5 days were some of the best days of my life. The team always went out of their way to always make me feel like I was apart of the team. And by the end of it, I was so emotionally invested in this team that I felt like I really was on the team. So ECDT...thank you. You are all amazing dancers & coaches and even better people.

Till next year.

- Nick Grace

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