Twenty-five years ago, a fledgling dance team out of West Fargo made its debut.
No one could have guessed just how far it would go.
Today, the Packatahnas are considered one of the elite dance teams in the region, if not the nation.
"They've built a name for themselves," said Sonja Butenhoff, a former Packatahnas dancer and assistant coach. "When they go to nationals, everyone knows who West Fargo is."
And rightfully so: the Packatahnas varsity team has made a habit of acquiring trophies like a safari hunter collects African game. For example, West Fargo has taken first place in high kick at the Universal Dance Association regional competition for five years running. At the United Performing Association national competition, the Packatahnas have multiple firsts in jazz (3), pom (3), and high kick (7), and were named Grand Champions in 2003.
West Fargo also was back-to-back UDA national champion in high kick from 2006-07 when they were featured on ESPN, and possesses a plethora of state trophies that include eight high kick firsts in the last 15 years (last year, the Packatahnas did not participate in state, instead choosing to compete in nationals).
The Packatahnas junior varsity team also has been a force, placing first in high kick at the state tournament every year since 2004.
Then there is the lengthy list of local competition wins, as well as all the runner-up trophies, third-place trophies and, well...you get the picture.
To celebrate 25 years of dance, the Packatahnas are hosting a banquet for alumni, coaches and family on Jan. 23, at the Speedway Event Center in West Fargo (registration was due Jan. 15). They'll kick off the banquet with the 8th annual West Fargo Packatahnas Dance Show at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the West Fargo High School gymnasium. Tickets are $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for children 12 and younger.
Commitment to dance
But how did one team from North Dakota become such a presence in the dance world? According to former Packatahnas head coach and current assistant coach Gretchen Stafslien, it all comes down to dedication.
"As a dancer, it takes up your high school career, if that's what you decide to do," she said. "They are involved in other things, obviously, but you need to make a commitment to it."
That commitment isn't the burden of dancers alone; coaches bear the struggle along with the team. "Every moment is with dance," Stafslien said.
Practices for the Packatahnas begin in October. The girls work hard through the season, striving for perfection. Repetition is expected; fine tuning, critical. Every young woman is in sync with the other, doing her best to be the best.
"Every day after school, every weekend; if you're putting that much time into something, you want it to be successful," Stafslien said. "I don't think they join just for the fun of it. These girls on the team are competitors and want to be good - they want to be remembered."
Though grueling and intense, the rewards make every endeavor worthwhile. And not just rewards in the trophy case. West Fargo dancers learn the value of hard work and what it means to come together and strive toward a common goal, Stafslien said.
"I hope they take away from it sort of an attitude that 'you get what you work for,'" she said.
And dancing doesn't end at graduation. Chances are high that Packatahnas who move on will continue to participate in some form or another.
"I never was able to walk away from dance, it gets in your blood," said Sheri Praska, a former Packatahnas choreographer and current owner and head instructor of Halftime By Sheri Dance Studio in West Fargo. Praska currently has nine instructors employed at her studio, of which four are former Packatahnas.
In the past 25 years, dance studios have popped up all around the Fargo-Moorhead area, helping to keep the Packatahnas ranks full of quality talent.
"Dancing, in general, has changed dramatically in our area," Praska said. "They have a lot more opportunities now than ever before."
The West Fargo dance team has some of their biggest events of the year coming up. First, they head to Minot for the North Dakota state competition Jan. 29-30. Then, Feb. 5-7 the Packatahnas will be in Orlando, Fla., for the UDA National competition.
Stiff competition is certain, but Praska can't help but see a bright future for the Packatahnas and success for years to come.
"It's exciting to watch something grow; the foundation started out so small and now, it's so big," she said.
"It's great - it's a community of dance."
Tyler Shoberg is Sports Editor of the Pioneer and can be reached at 701-451-5717 or email@example.com.