By Stephanie Bezler
The Jacksonville J’ettes dance team have long been an award-winning program at Jacksonville High School. This year they took their success to a new level by winning the Illinois High School Association 1A Competitive Dance Championship.
This was the first time the J’ettes had earned this coveted title since IHSA (Illinois High School Association) began their state dance series back in 2013.
The J’ettes had their inaugural debut at IHSA back in 2018, when they won their sectional and finished 5th in state.
In 2019, the J’ettes qualified to state and placed 7th in the final. In 2020, they won their sectional again and moved up to a 4th place finish at state.
The year 2021 was a virtual year due to COVID-19, and J’ettes fell to 15th place. In 2022, Jacksonville won their sectional yet again and moved back up to a 4th place finish.
Winning the 2023 state title out of 80 plus teams was a goal that the J’ettes had been working toward since that first year at IHSA back in 2018. This accomplishment has put Jacksonville on the map as a top-tiered team in Illinois. If you ask any of the J’ettes or their coaches, they will tell you that this victory was the highlight of their season.
Of course, their IHSA win was only one of many awards and accomplishments the J’ettes won this year. The team started their season going to Universal Dance Camp last summer, where they earned superior ratings on all of their evaluations and home routine. Four J’ettes were named All-Americans: Leah Hoffman, Anna Muller, Ella Stremming and Issy Woods.
During their season, the J’ettes competed at both IHSA and Illinois Drill Team Association. They brought home 1st place with their lyrical dance and 3rd place with their pom routine at the IHSA Invitational at Morris High School. In January, they competed at the IDTA (Illinois Drill Team Association) Edwardsville competition, where they earned 2nd place in lyrical and 3rd in pom. They then took home the IHSA sectional championship, which earned them a spot at the state finals in Bloomington.
On the second day of the state finals, they were awarded 1st place in the 1A category of the IHSA Competitive Dance Championships. This was truly a day they will never forget, as it secured their spot in the IHSA state archives as State Champions.
Following their IHSA State Championship victory, the J’ettes traveled to UDA Nationals in Orlando, where they earned their way into the semi-finals and finished 12th in the nation with their lyrical/jazz dance.
This trip to nationals was a new experience for the team, and they worked hard all year to make enough money to be able to go. Some of those fundraisers included their annual Radio Day, calendar fundraiser and cow plop. The J’ettes really enjoyed their trip to nationals, as it gave them the opportunity to see many of the nation’s elite teams and it motivated them to keep growing and improving as an organization.
To finish out their year of competition, the J’ettes competed at IDTA in February. In true J’ette fashion, they won the AA Lyrical Division and 2nd place in the Open Pom Division. Leah Hoffman won Miss IDTA with her lyrical solo and was also named as 8-Count Audio’s “Dancer of the Year” in the state of Illinois. Coach Tiffany Hickox was also recognized as “Coach of the Year” in the Southern Illinois region.
Members of this year’s J’ette team include: senior captains Leah Hoffman and Ella Stremming; senior squad leaders Meredith Gallo, Anna Muller, Gwen Poole and Issy Woods; junior squad leaders Kate Alexander and Lindsey Hautala; junior members Kimmy Davis, Jacey Evans and Lily Rohlk; sophomore members Kylie Chumley, Samantha Lawson, Hailey Weeks and Gianna Williams; freshmen members Greta Bryson-Adams and Lily Hickox; and manager Marley Van Aken.
The J’ettes are coached by Tiffany Hickox and Allison Maul.
Hickox has been coaching the J’ettes for 23 years, and Maul has been coaching for 5 years. Both were former J’ettes themselves.
Hickox was a J’ette in the early ’90s under J’ette founder Jan Ryan. While on the team, she won 7 state titles, was a squad leader her junior year and a captain her senior year.
Maul was a J’ette in the early 2000s and was coached by her very own co-coach, Hickox. J’ettes have a long tradition of dedication and commitment, and this is evident by the labor of love that these former J’ettes have continued into coaching.
When asked what she loves most about coaching, Hickox replied, “Dancing is my true passion and I’m lucky to still have it in my life after so many years. Dance is forever evolving, and I love the challenge of keeping up with the changes. The girls I coach mean the world to me. I feel blessed to have worked with so many girls over the past 23 years. I enjoy working with their daughters now as they are now raising little dancers too. Some are so young and just getting started, while others are dancing in college, with studios, or professionally.”
J’ette alum Anna Bezler choreographed their state-winning lyrical dance, which the captains and coaches tweaked throughout the season to make it the best version it could be. Their pom routine was choreographed by Haylee Holland of Tribe99.
Tryouts for the season are usually in April, and the season starts quickly after that. To earn a spot on the team, Hickox says, “Dancers require quite a lot of training at our local studios. The basics of dance are taught through ballet, and from there the more advanced skills will come with continued work and dedication to the craft of dance.”
As so many hours are spent working on skills and the routines, a true love of dance is necessary to be a part of this team. Dancers must be proficient at fouetté turns, pirouettes, leaps, jumps and aerials. Flexibility is also showcased a lot.
In addition to competing in regional and state competitions, the J’ettes go to camp in the summer, hold their own kiddie camp and fall clinic for local dancers, host the annual J’ette Pom Revue at The Bowl, perform at all home boys’ basketball games and some football games, and participate in community parades. They practice a couple days a week in the summer and 2-3 times per week in the fall. Additionally, they lift weights to gain strength.
The J’ettes have a long history of excellence, going back to the 1980s when they first started competing under original coach and founder, Jan Ryan. They won their first state championship in 1984. Since then, they have brought home 21 Varsity state championships with the Illinois Drill Team Association.
They have also won three Junior Varsity state championships with IDTA. In 2018, the J’ettes joined the IHSA Championship series. Individually, three J’ettes have earned the top honor of Miss IDTA — Emilie Bezler (2018), Ava Lahey (2020) and Leah Hoffman (2023).
Since 2018 they have earned four sectional championships, three Top-5 placements and this year, the 1A IHSA State Championship.
Coach Hickox says this tradition of excellence was truly embedded in her as a dancer and a coach — by Jan Ryan. Several former J’ettes have been coaches for this team, which shows how special this team is to anyone who has been a part of it.
So, what’s next for the J’ettes? “The obvious answer is to win another state title. However, we see our goals in small, tiny steps that add up to the big goal. We want to build a strong foundation of team-building skills. We want to have our routines in place early so we can perfect, perfect, perfect. We want to maintain a level of excellence so that we stay on top overall. We want to get better and better until we have the best routine possible and we walk off the state floor confident we left it all on the floor,” says Hickox.
With such big goals, it seems like the J’ettes have their work cut out for them. But with their talent, passion, knowledge, work ethic and coaching on their side … anything is possible. They know from where they came and they know where they’re going — and they don’t have any intention of stopping now.