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Braintree High dance team keeps on winning

The Braintree High Varsity Dance Team practiced in Braintree High's Cafeteria.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The Braintree High Varsity Dance Team practiced in Braintree High's Cafeteria.

In their competition videos, the girls on the Braintree High School varsity dance team could be described as professional.

The choreography is tight; leaps and grand jetés approach those of Boston ballerinas; kick lines rival those of the Rockettes. The girls move as if clones of one another — in time, in synch, hitting high jumps into splits with an easy fluidity.

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But the most accurate description of the team may be victorious.

The team has participated in dozens of contests since its inception in the early 1980s, and since 2007 has placed in the top three at almost every level of competition, winning six state titles.

While the girls cycle in and out due to graduations, the team has been unstoppable, a distinction that was reinforced last week with another first-place finish at the Bay State Conference competition and will be tested again at the state championships in March.

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“They’ve always been a groundbreaking program for Massachusetts,” coach Jamie Campbell said of her team.

Coach Jamie Campbell drilled her team during practice.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Coach Jamie Campbell drilled her team during practice.

Braintree’s isn’t the only successful dance team in the area. Weymouth High, for example, has won regional competitions and placed third in the previous state championship. Still, Weymouth coach Alysia Roberts calls Braintree High the model for what her team strives to be.

“They have excellent technique, fantastic showmanship, and they always put on a top performance,” Roberts said.

In Braintree, the success of the high school team begins with a large pool of talent developed within the town’s borders.

According to Kelli Smith, a teacher at the Braintree Academy of Dance, the girls start learning technique at a young age.

“I think a lot has to do with what age they start at and what kind of training they are getting,” said Smith, who noted that there are several dance studios in Braintree.

Girls born with a love of movement typically choose a track at an early age — either cheerleading or dance, she said. “Every so often, you’ll get a girl that does both, but usually when they are little they do both for a while, but fifth, sixth, seventh grade, they decide what they want to do and focus from there.”

These two paths are cultivated with equal passion in Braintree. For cheerleading, girls start at a gym or join a Pop Warner program at a young age, building their skills from the ground up.

This approach has a proven track record. The Braintree High varsity cheerleading team won the Bay State Conference championship this month, as it has in eight of the past 11 years. The team was state champion in 2007 and national champ in 2008.

The Braintree Pop Warner cheerleaders, ages 13 and 14, have also been cleaning up lately, winning the state championship last fall, after state and national titles the previous year.

For all its success, the Braintree High dance team began almost as an afterthought. In the early 1980s, Campbell’s mother, Patty Hale, started the dance team as a pep squad replacement to perform during halftime at high school football games.

“I had all these girls and nothing to do with them. . . . So I changed it to a dance team, and I got music through the speaker system and the girls danced at halftime. And that’s how it all started,” Hale said.

Dance was quickly recognized as a sport at Braintree High, but it was one of the few high school dance teams in the state. Wanting to expand and compete, Hale coordinated a Bay State competition, prompting schools in the region to start their own teams.

“It didn’t just all happen, we had to make it happen,” Hale said.

Campbell has worked with the team all along, dancing under her mother’s direction in high school and participating on the cheerleading squads at Braintree High and University of Massachusetts Amherst. A certified dance teacher, Campbell was brought on to coach Braintree’s junior varsity dancers, and eventually succeeded her mother as varsity coach. After taking a break for a few years, Hale recently returned to coach the JV girls.

“This is her baby,” Hale said of her daughter and the team. “It was my baby. I had a hard time leaving it to anyone else, but I knew how talented she was and that the program would go on with the same integrity and level of commitment that I had worked for for so many years.”

The longevity of leadership has raised the expectations for each new class of girls, who were preteens when they set their sights on making the high school team.

“The girls we’re getting are ones that have wanted to be on dance team since early elementary years, and they are going to dancing schools that will train them to the point of making dance team,” Campbell said. “Seven to eight years ago, it would be if you had rhythm and could dance, you would make it. Now we’re looking for extensive technical training, a dance knowledge, and those are the athletes we’re targeting.”

To boost that effort, the team has started hosting clinics for younger girls to prepare them for an eventual audition.

On a Friday afternoon in January, more than 80 elementary and middle school girls bopped in time at a clinic at the high school, learning kicks, leaps, turns, and performance tricks before dancing alongside the varsity team at a basketball game.

“I would say almost 95 percent [of team members come from a dance background]. It’s rare they get on the team without having years of experience,” said senior Rose Thackeray, one of the team’s four dance captains.

The 18-year-old Thackeray said she has been dancing since she was 3, and saw the dance squad as a next step to her serious hobby.

Being on the team is a lesson in commitment. The team practices ­five or six days a week for 2 to 2½ hours at a time — on top of dance lessons, summer programs, Pilates, and yoga practices to stay limber.

“Our work ethic on the team is very serious,” Thackeray said. “We take what we do very seriously, and when we go to competitions, we push ourselves as far as we can go.”

According to Campbell, the academic expectations are also high.

“It’s a very structured environment,” Campbell said. “Girls are accountable for everything, their grades at school, their progress reports, attendance. They have to stay eligible, but beyond that, 80 percent of my team is in honors and [Advanced Placement] classes.”

Yet for Campbell, the marker of success is always a moving target.

In addition to advancing her own choreography, Campbell has started taking note of teams in more competitive states, such as Connecticut, which can set the standard going forward.

“I told the girls I will give them any opportunity that I possibly can,” Campbell said. “I want to get them exposed to the world and prepare for college dance or whatever they want to do — give them as many opportunities as I can.

“That comes along with watching it start at the bottom. You have so much investment. It’s hard not to give it your all.”

Visit www.boston.com/braintree to view a photo gallery of the Braintree High School varsity dance team in rehearsal and a video of its performance at last week’s Bay State Conference competition.
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