The Canby Cougar dance team has waited nearly two years to defend their remarkable streak of five straight state titles — and in fall competition so far, they have wasted no time establishing themselves as a favorite to take home No. 6.
Due to that extended, Covid-related hiatus, the Cougs boast an unusual amount of inexperience for a team with their recent championship pedigree, and head coach Jenn Chaffee admitted to a bit of uncertainty of how the team, especially its newer members, would navigate the return to real competition.
“The team did not forget how to compete!” she told the Current in an email. “Over half our team has never been to a competition before but they have been doing amazing, working hard, and improving each week. Coaches are very proud of our team leaders and how they are leading this team.”
So far, the Cougs are a perfect 9-for-9, earning first-place awards in every category and contest in which they have competed.
Their victories include earning top prize in the modern, contemporary and novelty categories at a Nov. 6 meet at David Douglas High School in Portland, a Nov. 13 competition at Adrienne C. Nelson in Milwaukie and a Nov. 20 contest at Reynolds High School in Troutdale.
A number of team members have also placed in the top 10 in drill downs. Gracelyn Chaffee, Zoie Fulks and Ava Coleman (Nov. 6), Coleman and Patricia Campbell (Nov. 13) and Campbell and Fulks (Nov. 20) finished in the top for Novice Drill Down, while Abigail Chaffee and Marissa VanHoose (Nov. 6), VanHoose and Elizabeth Dula (Nov. 13) and Chaffee and Lexi Moore (Nov. 20) hit the same marks in Advanced.
At the most recent meet, the Cougs also dedicated a moving and emotional performance of their modern routine to Matthew Dewar, a local high schooler who had died in a fatal car crash the previous morning.
“After Friday’s devastating news, senior captain Abigail Chaffee asked me if we could dedicate one of our performances to Matthew at the competition Saturday,” coach Chaffee recalled. “I told her of course.”
The Cougs see a wide variety of teams at each competition and are judged by a new panel of judges each week. Scores are not cumulative for the season and do not carry over week to week.
“We keep working on the routines in between competitions — cleaning them up and adding little enhancements,” Chaffee explained.
The Canby Cougar dance team is led by head coach Jenn Chaffee, choreographer James Healey and assistant coach Jenna Jernstrom (who also serves as Canby’s head cheer coach).
The team has qualified all of their routines to compete at the Category Championships on Dec. 4 at Sherwood High School.
The Cougars were poised to defend their title and fight for a sixth championship in March 2020, when state officials canceled the event due to Covid-19 — less than a week before it was set to begin. It’s still painful to remember, even two years later.
“I was cleaning our storage room last week, and I came across all these garment bags that had our costumes from that year,” Chaffee recalled during a recent interview. “And I burst into tears because it brought back a flood of emotions, of having to tell the kids that state was canceled and just processing through all that.”
Once safe guidelines were in place, the Cougars resumed dancing activities and practices, mainly outdoors — even when the weather wasn’t exactly conducive to it. Interestingly, without the focus on competition to drive them, Chaffee felt like it was easier to rediscover their passion for dancing.
The adversity also helped reveal the team’s dedication and resolve, she believes.
“They must really love dance to show up and be out there with us,” she said with a laugh. “Like, the weather element certainly wasn’t enjoyable for us as adults; I’m sure it wasn’t enjoyable for them. But it was enjoyable to feel like we came and we danced; we moved to music; we created; we learned something; we had this shared experience together out here.”
Athletics resumed at the end of the 2020-21 school year, albeit with most seasons severely shortened and no formal postseason. Dance, unfortunately, was the one sport for which there was no head-to-head competition. Instead, teams were judged and scored on their own merits by independent panels that visited each school.
Still, Chaffee and her crew made the most of it.
“We tried to keep as many traditions alive as we could,” she said. “We did everything we could to build a whole season of memories, in a season where we never competed once.”
Competition is back for real this season, and though it looks a little different than it did before Covid — the Cougs are willing to roll with anything for the chance to finally prove themselves yet again on the state’s biggest stage.
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