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From the podium to the stage: Dancing with the Varsity Blues

Rower Esteban Poveda and dancer Emily Palios take first place
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Varsity Blues athletes and dancers shared the stage in the inaugural Dancing with the Varsity Blues competition. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY
Varsity Blues athletes and dancers shared the stage in the inaugural Dancing with the Varsity Blues competition. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

On a stormy Wednesday night, an unusually tall crowd of students descended upon The Cat’s Eye pub at Victoria College. Most wore various shades of Varsity Blues paraphernalia, from bulky winter jackets to low-slung embroidered backpacks. They settled into small groups, talking about practices and midterms, and waited for the show to begin.

The Cat’s Eye was strung with dorm-room style fairy lights, with twin jets of blue light focused on a small stage at the front of the room. A lithe woman, the host for the evening, climbed up and fumbled with a microphone. Ingrid Lui smiled out at the audience and announced the beginning of the competition — the first ever “Dancing with the Toronto Varsity Blues.”

Based on the vaguely popular TV show Dancing with the Stars, U of T’s Only Human Dance Collective paired with eight varsity athletes to choreograph and perform mercifully short dances to raise money for Free The Children.

The judges were then led to their table. The first introduced was Rico Suico, a dance instructor at Dancelife X Centre and a dancer in Toronto’s K-pop cover group R.P.M dance crew. He was joined by brothers Mike and Kevin Scheitzbach of dance crew Imma Beast. The brothers are well known in the Canadian dance community, having danced with Avril Lavigne at the MMVAs and having participated in the World Hip Hop Championships. After they were introduced and settled off-stage, the show began.

Cheerleader Amanda Choi and dancer Steven Cheng kicked off the event with a bachata number. Choi clearly felt comfortable with the moves, and the pair worked well together.

Next, rower Terek Been and dancer Daniela Ruscica, in matching maroon outfits, performed a contemporary dance. The height difference was especially noticeable when Been picked Ruscica up with stunningly casual ease.

They were followed by Ishaan Kohli, a nordic skiier, and Berenice Alvarez. The two performed an upbeat hip hop routine to a variety of contemporary mixes, but they received relatively low scores from the judges.

The venue was packed, with spectators piling onto low benches and on one another’s laps to get a good vantage point. Everyone cheered loudly, while many laughed as they watched their teammates blush their way through their routines.

Some athletes were more comfortable than others on stage, but all performed their choreography faithfully, even through slightly panicked expressions. The judges, clearly aware of this, were quite generous. The lowest mark given out was a six, but the average score hovered around a seven.

Next up were men’s volleyball player Martin Kosic and dancer Elissa Morgan, who tip-toed with varying degrees of grace through a simple ballet routine. Kosic was clearly enjoying himself, and the audience appreciated his light-hearted approach to the show.

Moving briskly along, his teammate Alex Barnes performed a fun Bollywood routine with Ravneet Kaur. Kaur was excellent, and Barnes kept up gamely. They were followed by women’s volleyball player Anna Feore and Stella Pock, who displayed some impressive flexibility in their contemporary piece. After their performance, the host asked Feore if she’d found the routine difficult. Feore smiled ironically into the microphone. “Yeah,” she said, “I did the splits!”

Men’s rower Esteban Poveda and Emily Palios performed a Latin-inspired ballet routine. Heavy on the winking, Poveda won loud cheers from the audience, while Palios’ use of a fan was appreciated by the judges.

Finally, the show was rounded off by water polo’s Maddie Hertz and Helen Su, who worked through a superhero-inspired routine. The women both wore silver masks and were clearly influenced by Hertz’s martial arts background.

After all pairs had performed, the host announced a brief intermission to give the audience members time to vote. Each checked off their favourite pair and handed back their yellow voting cards. After intermission, the votes were tallied and the winners announced: Poveda and Palios’ Latin ballet. A clear crowd favourite, the two graciously accepted their victory.

The event raised $600 for Free the Children and provided some much-needed entertainment on a cold night in the middle of midterm season. Athletes likely learned that the dance is much harder than it looks, while dancers likely learned that not all athleticisms are created equal.

All in all, the event was a success, Blues teams showed up in droves to watch their teammates flipper around stage, athletes participated enthusiastically, and the audience members seemed to enjoy themselves.