Dance and cheer teams are nothing new. The crisp, in sync performances to mashed up top hit music with pom poms and flashy outfits have energized schools and fan bases for decades. But there’s one dance team that actually has a mission – the Mississippi Angels. The dozen plus girls and coaches came together when on a whim, Carissa Gardner had a humorous “what if” conversation with Madison Alderwoman Sandra Strain earlier this year.
“What if we had a competition dance team that was separate from a regular team and then my daughter added she’d like it to have a community service aspect,” Gardner said.
Gardner and her daughter, London had already been praying and looking for opportunities to serve the community.
“God was really working on us in our spirit through prayer and our experience to reach out to others with our skills and abilities,” she explained. “London has always helped others that were younger than her if they were trying out for a dance team or couldn’t get down a dance routine. This was something that she could do because she’d already done it and she said, ‘It’s in my heart.’ The minute we started talking to people, everyone was on board. It’s so fulfilling to be part of this community ministry through dance.”
The mission of helping others to be part of a dance team combined with paying it forward by teaching dance, dealing with special needs persons and volunteering time and talents as needed for different events. And the Mississippi Angels was born. The team consists of girls from ninth to twelfth grades from Madison Central, Madison Ridgeland, Ridgeland and Rosa Scott. They train in Gluckstadt outside of their other school and dance team priorities.
“They have to have a heart for this specific thing and the importance of the joy of dance both mental and physical into people’s lives,” Gardner said. “I have these girls who are so busy and are still making time to be part of this team.”
The team members were each interviewed and selected for this special dance mission. The team has been busy practicing for competition and busy spreading that dancing joy throughout the community.
“They represent so much more than just a dance team. They represent a movement,” she said. “They’ve been asked to sing the National Anthem at the Mayor’s Breakfast in Gluckstadt. I’ve been asked to manage it and these girls are just blowing me away. Everything they do, they do to the next level.”
At the recent Scarecrow Fest, the Mississippi Angels Dance Team set up a booth to do face painting and the line was continually backed up until the festival ended.
“They were creating full face painting of Spiderman. They were pulling things up on Pinterest and going above and beyond. They aren’t just doing this to get by or do a service, this is their heart and they are into this. They aren’t getting anything back except knowing they are making people happy,” Gardner said. “It’s been a beautiful project so far. We’re getting so many requests such as singing the National Anthem. We’ll pick up trash in neighborhoods, we’ll take food to folks in nursing homes but our main mission is special needs and we do that once or twice a month. We teach dance and programs with dance and exercise and they love it and we love it. It’s fun to be part of that with them.”
Head coach Sarah Phillips has two decades of dance experience and owner of Encore Dance Studio, described the team.
“They are more of a competitive dance team but they also dance with poms. The style is a lot different from regular dance teams,” Coach Phillips said. “We have hip hop tom, we have a lot of technique classes with me and we focus a lot on jazz and do a little contemporary. We do a little bit of everything. They are going to perform in the community and in competition.”
Coach Phillips understands how dance is beneficial.
“When I was in high school, this is a hard age for these girls. Dance was an escape for me – good mood or bad mood – dance was where I felt happiest and at home. Your dance friends were your best friends and I wanted to be that for these girls. They could come together and enjoy each other outside of school and do community things and be more like a family. A tight knit group of girls. And also learn how to get better at dance and their performance,” Coach Phillips said.
The team practices twice a week for about four hours a week. And that’s on top of the normal school and regular dance team commitments. And add in the community service aspect and the 11 girl team continues to bond and grow.
“The community has really gone crazy over having them out to different events,” Gardner said. “The last event we did was a Buddy Walk with Special Needs where the girls dressed up as Disney characters. The Angels don’t just have one thing, they are so much to so many and they think outside the box.”
Dancer Hannah Travis from Rosa Scott High School discovered the team through her mom.
“I was nominated by someone and I was surprised to be on this team,” Travis said. “I really like all of the community service and helping others. I’m getting better at dance and I’m really happy about that.”
London Gardner, Madison Central junior, has been dancing for 12-plus years. Having a mission as a dance team member really stood out to her.
“I joined because my mom had the idea and sprung it onto me. I love dancing and expressing myself in any artistic way. When I had the opportunity to join this team, I jumped on it,” London said. “I enjoy helping downs syndrome kids and special needs kids and this team has become like a family to me.”
Madison Central junior Caitlin Conner got involved after her mom told her about it.
“I struggled with it at first but I have an amazing coach and amazing people around me that kept me going and I’ve learned a lot about myself being able to serve and with dance,” Conner said.
MRA senior Elyse Lemly has been dancing for 15 years and has enjoyed being on a team with new dancers.
“I have enjoyed meeting the new girls because we wouldn’t have met if I didn’t join this team,” Lemly said. “This team has been amazing and has helped grow not only as a dancer but as a person because I’ve gotten so used to the community service aspect. I’d encourage anyone interested to join.”
Sophomore Lucy Ledford from Madison Central didn’t know if she’d have time to be on the team but found a way.
“This dance team has become a very big part of my life and I really love coming to class. There are no mean girls on this dance team. Everyone here is so nice and fun to talk to and we all vibe really well,” Ledford said.
Maggie McKenzie, sophomore at Madison Central thought the dance team was a cool idea.
“It’s been great and I’ve really grown a lot. We painted faces at the Scarecrow festival and I had so much fun. I’ve really grown as a dancer,” McKenzie said.
Sarah Hart, a junior at MRA, has been dancing since 7th grade and has been part of a cheer and dance team before joining the Mississippi Angels.
“I’ve been able to use the gift God has given me to leave someone or something better than it was before,” she said. “I’ve learned better dancing techniques and it’s just been amazing overall. I just love this team.”
Gardner noted that each team member has been growing as leaders through their experiences together. If anyone is interested in joining or learning more about the Mississippi Angels, check out their Instagram and Facebook pages, mississippiangelss. The team currently has 11 members but is looking to grow the team to 30 members and is looking for alternates to fill in for events. Potential members have to try out and have to have a letter of recommendation from someone outside of their own family.
“We don’t pressure anyone to do the service or to come to the dance classes until competition. They dance outside of this team already,” Gardner said. “These kids are going to be leaders in the community. They have to watch their social media. I’m not going to put the best dancer in here if her heart isn’t right. We can always teach dance but we can’t teach someone to be wholesome and good hearted.”
The Mississippi Angels, a dance team with a mission that continues to grow.