Leslie Swiggum stands in the gym watching the Wayzata Trojets go over their routine for yet another run at a Minnesota dance team state championship. It’s a scene the coach, better known around the school and state dance circles as “Swig,’’ has been a part of for almost all of her 44 years at Wayzata.
But there’s something different in the way she stands, observes and coaches the girls this year. This is her last state tournament, which runs Friday and Saturday at Target Center.
“It’s taken a lot of thought. I love the kids, I love the other coaches, I love the relationships with the families,” Swiggum said. “You reach a point where, ‘OK this is good.’ And I’ve got awesome coaches that are going to take over.”
After over four decades and countless hours of coaching generations of dancers, Swiggum, 66, will retire from her post with one of the most decorated dance programs in the state.
Though Swiggum didn’t dance growing up, save for one modern dance class in college, she’s become a local legend in dance. She was among those instrumental in helping it gain official status as a Minnesota State High School League-sponsored activity more than 20 years ago. She has helped lead the Trojets to 11 state championships, and many of the hundreds of dancers she has instructed have become dance coaches themselves.
When Swiggum started coaching in 1975, dance team in Minnesota was in its early stages, with no governing organization. Then-Brainerd coach Cindy Clough sent Swiggum and other dance coaches a letter in the summer of 1980, and they created the Minnesota Association of Dancelines (MAD).
“We pretty much had to invent everything. We had to invent the judging system. We had to write the sheets. We had to write bylaws and mission statements, and we had to hire an attorney and become incorporated for a non-profit,” said Clough, who now owns a dance business called Just for Kix. “[Swiggum’s] probably one of the most ethical people that I know, and trustworthy, and she was a constant presence on the board.”
With guidance from MAD and its successor organization, Minnesota dance grew bigger, moving beyond just performing at other events. Eventually in 1996, the MSHSL, at the urging of Swiggum and others, approved it as a competitive activity.
The state tournament got larger too, going from high school and small college venues to Xcel Energy Center to Target Center, its home since 2009. It hosts three classes of 12 teams each in high-kick and jazz competitions, attracting more than 18,000 fans over two days.
“This is going to sound weird, but it’s almost like another child of mine,” said Swiggum, a mother of two and grandmother of three. “To see it have grown so much and to know I’ve been a part of it kind of since the beginning, it’s an incredible feeling.”
Swiggum’s teams have been among the most successful of late. Six of the Trojets’ 11 state titles have come since 2006. They have been in the state tournament every year since 1978.
“What I think I’m most proud of is having built a culture of success, and a culture of empathy between the kids, and grit, and work ethic,” said Swiggum, who retired as a teacher at Wayzata in 2011. “Some coaches are screamers and yellers, and we never operate that way. Everything is calm. Everything is encouraging, and then kids will do things for you. You can’t yell at kids for 44 years and feel OK about that. … They know the same ‘Swig’ shows up every day.”
The final years
Her role changed starting in the 2015-16 season, when she and the head coaches of three other teams served one-year MSHSL suspensions after they and their teams stood off to the side of the Target Center floor holding hands in protest as Faribault was named high-kick champion in Class 3A in 2015. The coaches had raised concerns before the tournament that Faribault had copied another team’s routine.
Swiggum declined to discuss the episode in a recent interview, saying she wanted to focus on positives. When she wasn’t allowed on the floor during meets, Alyse Iorio was in charge and gained enough experience to take over the Trojets this season and going forward.
“She’d be here all week, and then we’d go to competitions and I’d be in charge, and she came and sat in the stands and watched, so that had to be ridiculously hard,” said Iorio, who was coached by Swiggum and later danced at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Swiggum still fills in as a substitute teacher from time to time at Wayzata. She said she plans to stay around dance while pursuing a new passion: leading civil rights tours in the South. She and her husband fly with as many as 20 people to Atlanta, drive through Alabama and Mississippi, and finish the weeklong trip in Memphis, site of the National Civil Rights Museum. They visit historical landmarks and talk to veterans of the movement along the way.
“We make no money. We do it because people need to understand our history and how it relates to what’s going on today,” Swiggum said.
Wayzata looks to close out the season with a good showing this weekend at the Class 3A tournament. The Trojets took first in both jazz and high kick in their section.
“It’s amazing to have someone who’s been here for so long, be able to be part of the legacy,” senior captain Lauren Honke said.
“We’re doing it for each other, but we’re doing it for Swig. It’s her last year, we want to get her a double blue.”
Jack Warrick is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.