Towson University dance student Rachel Petti helps Tigers win 16th national championship

Ever since she received her first pair of tap shoes from her grandfather as a toddler and started tap dancing around her house, it didn’t take long for Rachel Petti to realize her passion for dance.

In 1995, at the age of 3, after she performed made-up dance numbers for her family whenever she could muster up an audience, Petti was enrolled in dance classes at Backstage Dance Studio in Columbia, Md., by her mother, Sherrie.

Following an 11-year run at Backstage Dance Studio, Petti studied ballet at the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland for two years, while also performing live shows at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia. She also danced at B. Funk Dance Company in her hometown of Ellicott City, during her junior year of high school before competing on Mt. Hebron High School’s dance team as a senior in 2010, taking part in statewide competitions.

As she was preparing for her freshman year at Towson University during the summer of 2010, Petti was one of 16 freshman girls who were selected among the 70 who tried out to join the then-12-time defending national champion Towson dance team.

Even with 15-plus years of training and experience, Petti said nothing she had done to that point had prepared her for the mental and physical rigors she endured during the audition process.

“Tryouts and callbacks were really intense,” Petti said. “Callbacks were the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Girls would pass out and throw up, and nobody has any idea of just how hard it is unless they have been through it or seen it.”

Towson dance coach Tom Cascella said Petti’s strong work ethic and upbeat attitude had left a lasting impression on him.

“Rachel had many qualities that we thought would make her successful on our team, but the quality that stood out the most was her enthusiasm she showed as a performer,” Cascella said. “The one think that is difficult to see – when anyone auditions – is the passion or commitment that the person possesses.  We really felt that she had that emotion for dance that others in the audition lacked.”

After serving as an alternate during her first three years on the team, Petti capped her time as a member of Towson’s dance team by helping lead the Tigers to their 16th consecutive national championship at the National Dance Alliance Collegiate Dance Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., April 11.

Towson found itself trailing the University of Missouri-Kansas by 0.5 points after the preliminary round of the competition, and Petti said things had not turned out the way the Tigers had anticipated. The team’s second-place standing marked the first time Towson had not held at least a share of the lead after the preliminary round for the time in 10 years.

“That was the craziest, most stressful night of my entire life, because we hadn’t been in second place after prelims since 2004,” Petti said. “For the past several years, it’s not like we knew were going to win, but when you’re in first place after prelims, you’re pretty set on it.”

Petti said Towson put that disappointing effort behind it and came back with one of its strongest performances during team history to help the Tigers top Boston University (9.354-9.168) and capture the title.

Meanwhile, Sherrie Petti, attending her first National Dance Alliance Collegiate Dance Championship, said the parents of Towson’s dancers had done their part by altering the team’s costumes following the first day of competition April 10 – when the judges told Cascella they were taking away from the team’s performance.

Although Towson faced an uphill battle to repeat as champions entering the second and final day of the competition, Sherrie Petti said the atmosphere was electric from start to finish, as a sea of black and gold surrounded the Tigers. She also said that watching Rachel contribute to Towson’s come-from-behind victory made her trip worthwhile.

“Towson had such a large fan base at the [National Dance Alliance Collegiate Dance Championship] finals, and there was not a dry eye in the house when they were announced as champions,” she said. “I was never so proud of Rachel, because it had been a long, hard journey for her and the team.”

Cascella said Rachel had proved her worth to him and earned one of the team’s 18 spots on the competition floor with her improvement during each of her four years on the team.  He also said she had reached the point that he thought she could handle the pressure of competing for a national championship.

“Winning the national championship was a good experience, but watching Rachel perform on the floor at college nationals made me proud that she pushed through the adversity,” Cascella said. “She was a strong performer, and she gave everything she had to the team. For about two minutes and 15 seconds, Rachel was at the top of the dance team world.”

In addition to competing, Rachel has been teaching classes and giving private lessons at B. Funk Dance Company the past three years. She said she had jumped at the opportunity to return to her old stomping grounds after a representative from B. Funk Dance Company contacted her during her sophomore year at Towson.

“I did a summer camp with [B. Funk Dance Company], and they knew I was good with little kids,” Rachel said. “I started off with 3- to 4-year-olds, and then I started subbing some of the other classes. They knew I could handle 5- to 7-year-olds and 8- to 10-year-olds, so for the last few years, I’ve just been adding classes.”

While Rachel said she wanted to continue working at B. Funk Dance Company as long as she could, she also acknowledged that she had thought about starting her own dance studio. Moreover, Rachel said she could not imagine not remaining involved in dance, and by opening her own studio, it would provide her with the opportunity to continue her lifelong love of dance.

“It’s going to be really weird not doing [dance], and I can’t sit at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and do work,” Rachel said. “I was talking to my dad, and I told him, ‘Maybe when I’m 25, I can open a dance studio,’ because I feel like parents won’t send their kids somewhere that’s owned by a 21-year-old. My dad said he’ll take care of the financial stuff, and I’ll just recruit people and get the word out there. It’s a thought – if all else fails.”