Lord of the Dance: CF grad behind choreography of award-winning Tiger routines

Eleven years ago, the dance team was privileged to get a choreographer who would take them to the next level while competing against the toughest dance teams in the state at the annual Iowa State Drill Team Competition in Des Moines each December.

Afton Wilson is a former Cedar Falls dance team member and University of Iowa dance team alumni who choreographs for varsity dance teams all over the Cedar Valley. On top of choreographing state routines, she also owns her own dance studio in Waterloo, called Fusion Dance & Fitness. Over the past 11 years, she has created around 30 state routines.

After she started choreographing state hip hop routines for Cedar Falls, she has also reached out to many other varsity teams around the Cedar Valley. Waterloo Columbus, Waverly-Shell Rock, Waterloo East, Waterloo West and the University of Northern Iowa are other teams around the area she has choreographed, and she has also worked with Central College, Winterset, Newton and PCM.

This year Wilson is working with Cedar Falls hip hop, Waterloo Columbus hip hop,and Waverly-Shell Rock novelty.

Each year the competition gets harder not only to receive a division one rating, but also to get a chance to earn a trophy. Since there are only five trophies at the maximum, it is extremely difficult to grab a spot in the top five. Not only do the dancers and coaches feel pressure, so do the choreographers who made their routines.

“I feel a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “The teams I choreograph for are competing against some of the toughest schools in the state. The talent is getting better and better every year. It’s a lot of work to keep up with that.”

Coming up with new material isn’t easy. Wilson makes it seem so easy with her trophy winning routines. She said, “It’s always tough to stay fresh, especially when choreographing a style that is ever changing and evolving. I wouldn’t say everything I choreograph is always ‘fresh and new.’ Every choreographer has their ‘go-to moves,’ so I give mine names, and then it’s easier for the kids to know exactly what I want.”

Making the routine entertaining to watch is what Wilson does as she strives to bring energy and imagination into each one of her routines and keep every aspect of the routine exciting.

“I just try to keep it exciting as far as music, movement and formations go,” she said. “You want the music to continue to build and always finish strong. You want your movement to be appropriate and make the dancers look good. You want your formations to be visually appealing.”

The process of creating routines takes a lot of time to piece every detail together into a two minute routine. Wilson said, “The whole process takes months. Collecting and creating the perfect music mix is time consuming. I will spend around 12 hours creating the first draft of a dance. If I am close to a team, and have the opportunity to go back and work with them more, I will usually spend another three to four hours modifying movement, as well as coming up with better ideas to fix things.”

The songs can be difficult to find considering there are so many out there to choose from, so Wilson uses iTunes, Pandora and Youtube for her music selections. “I try to have more songs than I need to start the process, and then you can get rid of the parts that don’t work or don’t mix well,” Wilson said.

Every year Wilson utilizes new inspiration for each one of her routines, so that every routine has a different style or theme. She has created themes including Money, Bad Girls, Rosie the Riveter, Missy Elliot, Beyonce, Pitbull, Basketball Players, Pirates, School Day, Astronauts vs. Aliens, Toy Box and many more.

“It is very difficult to remain creative in any art form,” Wilson said. “Choreography is non-stop when you own a dance studio and do freelance choreography on the side. I’m constantly searching for inspiration.”

Wilson said she also finds inspiration throughout her daily life, her daughter’s cartoons, traveling, broadway shows, etc. “I find inspiration everywhere,” she said.

Selecting the varsity teams isn’t easy either, especially when every dancer has so much talent and potential.

“It’s really hard to select dancers for teams because you want to give people with potential the chance to rise to the occasion, but you can’t predict what kids will do, and how hard they will work for you,” she said. “Some dancers pick up styles differently too, so they may not have a great audition, but totally fail when it comes to learning from a new choreographer.”

Adjusting to various styles is challenging, but Wilson has found a way to make it work. “Style is hard,” she said. “It takes teams a long time to adjust to a new choreographer’s style. The more you work with a team, the easier it is to know what they can do choreographically, and the easier it is for them to pick up the movement.”

Every year seniors graduate and are no longer members of their teams. Lower classmen then have the opportunity to join the teams and blend in with the returning dance members. For 11 years Wilson has dealt with different teams every year.

“When I choreograph before meeting a team, there are usually sections of a dance that are optional or have various choices based on their ability,” she said.

But even after all the work, creating routines and being a part of the journey is so special to her. “One of my favorite parts of creating dance is teaching the routines to the kids,” Wilson said. “I usually have a lot of fun with them, but the best part is to see the finished product — when you finally sit back and watch a dance and enjoy it for the first time.”

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