All-inclusive dance, cheer teams to add sparkle to Hannibal games

Hannibal High School senior Jackie Dowil, front, leaps in the air to close out a number as she leads Sparkle Squad members in a dance routine Monday in the high school gym in Hannibal. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
Posted: Jan. 18, 2015 12:01 am Updated: Feb. 15, 2015 12:15 am

By Alyse ThompsonStaff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- A Hannibal High School initiative is allowing students of all ability levels to add sparkle to sporting and community events.

Members of the school's varsity dance and cheer teams have started the Sparkle Squad, a dance and cheer team composed of experienced student performers and students with special needs. The group, created under a national initiative, is designed to give students at all ability levels an opportunity to participate in school activities.

The squad is performing during halftime at Saturday varsity basketball games. The group's first performance is Jan. 31 in Korf Gymnasium.

Jennifer Benson, varsity dance team coach, said she learned of all-ability cheer and dance teams through a dance competition at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. Proceeds from that competition go toward the Sparkle Effect, a national program promoting inclusiveness in schools.

Benson and senior Jackie Dowil, Sparkle Squad captain and varsity dance team member, said they saw a need for more all-ability activities at Hannibal High. Dowil added that the girls didn't enjoy turning away a couple of students with disabilities who tried out every year but didn't meet the technique requirements needed to perform on a competition team.

"That was really tough for us to make that decision and to give them that news," Dowil said. "It's really awesome to see them on this team and having fun."

The Sparkle Squad meets twice a week and hosted its first practice Jan. 7. Ten varsity dancers are paired with 10 students with disabilities. Two students lead the group.

Dowil said they're preparing "I've Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas and a cheer for their first performance.

"It's going to be really upbeat and fun," she said.

While preparations are underway, the Sparkle Squad needs financial assistance.

Benson said the squad hoped to get a grant from uniform supplier Varsity, but the timing of the squad's startup made them ineligible until next fall.

The group is hoping to raise $3,000 for uniforms, pompons and other future needs. Benson created a GoFundMe page for their effort, and donors provided more than $1,000 as of last week.

Benson noted the teammates are already connecting with one another.

"In the hallways at the high school, I'll see these students pass each other, and now they recognize each other and they'll say ‘hi,' " she said. "It's going to make a difference in our whole school environment."

The Sparkle Squad is more than an opportunity for inclusion at Hannibal High School. It has given the varsity dancers an "eye-opening" experience, Dowil said.

"It teaches us to use our listening skills and it teaches us to be patient with each other," she said. "In the long run, it also helps our dance team because then we're able to communicate with each other better."