There was a moment at the 2019 Tournament of Champions when the lights went out, during the championship game halftime performance by the Dodge City High School Drill Team.
The crowd went wild.
Seniors Caroline Stephenson and Aria Knedler continued to sing their lines from the song “Hallelujah,” and one by one, lights came on. But they weren’t the overhead stadium lights — they were lights embedded in the shapeless white wings worn by the members of the drill team performing on the basketball court.
One by one, the wings filled with light in the darkness as the drill team performed.
“It got so loud, and we were trying to listen to our captains count out the counts for us to turn on our wings, and it was just so loud and my mind just kind of blanked,” senior Payton Magouirk said. “I just remember like I was very serious for the senior part, just kind of serious in that lyrical moment, but as soon as everyone started cheering, I just got a big smile and it kind of stayed 'til the very end.”
The performance opens with the stadium’s lights on and the 34-member drill team at the center of the basketball court. In the front row are Stephenson and Knedler.
As the crowd went wild that night at the TOC during the performance and at its end, the audience’s reaction did more than surprise some members of the drill team.
“In that moment, I knew it was going to turn into something great,” senior Maddie Kalscheur said.
Local radio host Sean Boston, the "voice of the Red Demons," took a video of the team’s TOC performance and shared it with the online sports website Sports In Kansas, which posted the video on its Facebook page.
As of March 17, the video had 1.3 million views and 4,100 shares.
It didn’t reach only southwest Kansas audiences. Commenters left such notes as “Stunning, congratulations from Cornwall UK.” Another comment read, in part, “How fun, how beautiful! Hats off to the wonderful teacher! From Braman, OK.”
The response was unexpected.
Each year, the drill team does a special piece for the TOC, but the dancers went into this one knowing it was unlike other pieces they had done.
Senior Ezinne Okoro said she wasn’t sure how it would play out because it was so different.
Part of that difference is that the drill team generally performs more “showy” pieces.
This piece, however, included some technical dance, particularly in the senior part. It was created and choreographed by the team of coach Debbi Conrardy and her daughter Cheyenne Conrardy, a senior in physical education at Wichita State University.
Senior Ayanna Hensley said knowing how big the dance would be was the most difficult part for her.
“I think we all knew that it was going to be pretty different, and we were a little intimidated going out there,” Hensley said. “Like, ‘People are either going to take this offensive, or they are going to take it really well,’ so it was one of those 50/50 things, and we pulled it together. I think our senior class got extremely close to this dance because we realized that it’s a very big message and it represents a lot of us and our community.”
The piece went big enough that it caught the eyes of those in charge of halftime entertainment for the National Junior College Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Tournament.
That tournament, which takes place in Hutchinson, started this week, and on Tuesday night, the drill team performed during halftime of the Seward County and Eastern Florida State game.
“The Entertainment Committee received several phone calls from people who had seen them perform and said they they were one of the best teams in the United States, and we should reach out to them,” said Richard Shank, entertainment chairman for the tournament.
The committee reached out to coach Conrardy, he said.
Each year, the committee looks for who tournament-goers would enjoy seeing at halftime. They receive lots of suggestions in the process, Shank said.
“We try not to use the same people every year," he said. "We like to kind of switch things around."
It was the team’s first performance at the NJCAA Tournament, he said.
“We were very pleased to be made aware of them,” Shank said before Tuesday's game, adding, "I’ve seen a video of one of their performances, and I was quite impressed.”
Drawing the committee’s attention to the drill team was not the end of the community’s assistance in making Tuesday night’s performance possible. The team needed some financial assistance for the trip, and someone stepped up, Shank said.
“There was a gentleman in the process of all this, who had seen them, step forward and offer to raise the money that they needed to get here and get back home,” Shank said. “That doesn’t happen every day, by the way, and we appreciated that greatly.”
A bigger message
The full meaning of the piece is never explicitly stated during the performance. It is introduced simply as “a message of light and love.” This is another deliberate choice, Cheyenne and Debbi Conrardy confirmed.
“For me and my mom, we don’t like to tell people what we think it should be about or what we created it for,” said Cheyenne Conrardy.
For the dancers, though, the piece is full of meaning.
“We’ve had a lot of loss, especially our group, throughout the past year,” Hensley said. “I’ve had one of my family members pass away, so going through this dance, you get to let out all of those emotions, and that’s something that we can’t normally do with a showy dance, so it’s one of those that you feel in the heart, more or less, not your feet.”
Asked whether she thinks that’s why people identify with the performance so much that it has gone viral, Hensley quickly responded “yes.”
“Yes, and that’s why it’s resonated with us so long, is because we get to let it out, and especially with our community,” Hensley said. “People know the story: We’re up there in terms of suicide and loss. So it’s our getaway, our release of all that.”