Dance coach McGhee’s unique recruiting style builds team culture

The Lantern
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The Dance team poses following the UDA Collegiate National Championship in Orlando, Florida, in January. Courtesy of Dave Thayer

Before the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the world upside down in 2020, high school junior Brenna Bocik finished dance practice exhausted and upset.

Finishing an intense practice in preparation for the Universal Dance Association High School National Competitions, Bocik had yet to reach her goal: an offer from the Ohio State dance team.

The previous night she learned another girl from her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, received an offer to join the team, but Bocik had not heard anything. Knowing this was Ohio State dance coach Melissa McGhee’s last night in Knoxville, Bocik left practice assuming she wasn’t getting an offer.

However, McGhee held an offer up behind Bocik’s back, and when Bocik turned around, she said she couldn’t contain her emotions.

“I cried,” Bocik said. “I just sort of stood there. I was so shocked looking at the letter because I knew it had my name and all that stuff on it. I texted my mom, and I was like, ‘Mom, I’m a Buckeye,’ freaking out, and she was like ‘What is going on?’ I got home, and I had the letter and I had a few weeks to respond. Obviously, it was a really clear answer for me.”

McGhee was the captain of the Ohio State dance team in 2010-11 when the squad was still a club sport. When the Toledo, Ohio, native was a senior, the team made its transition into a varsity sport, earning Division I status and benefits. The athletic department asked McGhee to serve as the head coach for one year.

Twelve years later, she’s developed the dance program into one of the best in the country, utilizing a recruiting strategy that translates friendship to competitive success.

“I am fueled by continuing to push the entire industry forward, but also our program,” McGhee said. “We came in a very different spot than we are now, and I think that’s a testament to every single one of the people that have come through our program. It’s really about making them proud, of continuing on the legacy and the journey and continuing to push boundaries.”

McGhee has pulled strings to make offers special for recruits.

Senior Makenna Blacklidge said McGhee called her to brainstorm ways to make the offer for her younger sister, sophomore Macie Blacklidge, special. Makenna Blacklidge suggested McGhee  present the offer on her sister’s birthday.

“I got home from dance one day, and my mom had a present from her and a present from Makenna,” Macie Blacklidge said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to videotape you opening this because Makenna got you this present and she wants to see how you like it.’ I was just expecting it to be normal birthday gifts, and I opened the box and it was like, ‘Do you want to be a Buckeye?”’

Macie Blacklidge said when she was being recruited, McGhee made sure she joined the team on her own terms.

“Melissa works really hard to make sure that we have a certain set of team values that we all follow,” Macie Blacklidge said. “[When I was being recruited] she wasn’t trying to force me to come here or telling me things that weren’t true.”

The process to become a Buckeye dancer changed four years ago, though. McGhee said they used to host an open tryout, but now they only host closed tryouts for hand-picked prospects.

Makenna Blacklidge was a part of the first freshman class to experience the new recruiting model before the 2018-19 season. She said she appreciated McGhee’s transparency about the program and the commitment it requires: performing at every football and basketball home game, team lifts and daily practices leading up to nationals.

The dance team also has a recruiting committee in which team members learn about the recruits on a personal level — doing everything from FaceTimes to ice cream dates. Makenna Blacklidge, who is on the recruiting committee, said the process has evolved in the four years she has been at Ohio State.

“One thing I look for is ‘How interested are they?’” Makenna Blacklidge said. “Do they want to get to know me just as much as I’m getting to know them? If they’re proactive, if they are reaching out about things ahead of time, that’s a big thing because our team works at a very fast pace and you have to stay up on everything. Also that they’re personable, and you can talk to them easily.”

Makenna Blacklidge said maintaining team chemistry can be difficult with the cycles of graduating classes, but to overcome it, the team remains “a unit.”

“Constantly, people are leaving and entering, but we focus on that a lot,” Makenna Blacklidge said. “I think it’s something that makes our team stand out compared to other dance teams, which makes us unique and special. It’s not forced, we choose to live together, we don’t have to.”

The Buckeyes have won nine national championships in the past five years, and Macie Blacklidge said “all of the success” of the program is due to the team culture, because they prioritize “how each individual works with each other and works to be a part of the bigger purpose of the team.”

McGhee’s culture is built on representing Ohio State, and Makenna Blacklidge said the Buckeyes not only dance for themselves, but for the Buckeyes who came before them.

“That’s something that I think makes this program really special is every year we talk about working just as hard as the girls did before us who worked super hard and didn’t win and didn’t get the rewards or any of the benefits that we now have,” Makenna Blacklidge said.

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