For the past two years, Odessa College's dance team has won national championships in the American Drill and Dance Nationals under the student leadership of Belle Gutierrez. Now that Gutierrez has completed an associate degree, she can officially be called "coach," a fact that gives her squad great joy.
Gutierrez, 23, started two years ago as a student athlete. Although she didn't have a degree yet, she was qualified dance training wise. She is working toward another associate degree from OC in biology and hopes to continue toward a bachelor's degree in the subject from the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. She also has a 2-year-old son.
"I led them through two national championships as a student, so that was fun to say," Gutierrez said. "I'm proud of it, too."
The team, which is mostly women, has 27 members, which is the largest it's been in a while.
Many of the squad members she's currently coaching were on the Odessa High School Showgirls, the same team she captained in high school. And many of her OC team members were friends in high school.
"Now I'm telling them, 'Straighten your leg;' 'Get your life together' and we're the same age," Gutierrez said. "It's been fun. It's been an interesting transition trying to be a friend and coach. I understand being at a peer level with my dancers that sometimes something I say might not come across the same way because we are at the same age; we're in the same classes. I'm still going to school. It's been really fun and they've done really well to adapt going from friend to coach."
While she loves being in the spotlight, Gutierrez said she dreamed of coaching a dance team. She added that she loves seeing her work being performed by others and how well they do in competition.
"… Seeing it come to life is amazing," Gutierrez said.
Before coming to Odessa College, she was living in Dallas working as a back-up dancer for music producers Play-N-Skillz and at Prestige Performing Arts Company where she was the children's dance director and a company dance instructor.
"At that time, I was 18 so it was fun. I did get into a bad relationship that ended up abusive. I ended up coming back home," Gutierrez said. When she got back to Odessa, she said she was looking for a chance to go back to school and wanted to join the dance team. A friend she contacted asked her about being the coach.
"On the roster I was listed as a student, but I was leading the practices every day from 2 to 4, making up dances, doing the formations, transitions, cutting the music, going with them to performances and I loved it," Gutierrez said.
Her motivation isn't money; it's to encourage her peers to earn a degree so they would have an education to fall back on.
"…I just want them to take dance and make it positive and use this time to go to school and just get ahead in life before life gets ahead of them and then you're back to square one. …," Gutierrez said.
She also helps train dance teams at Odessa and Permian high schools. Gutierrez said she is slowly putting the bug in prospective dance members' ears to go to college and dance for her.
"I have access to the east and the west. I see their dancers train all year. … A majority of these girls come from our high school dance teams," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez added that she's always had an interest in occupational therapy and dance movement therapy.
"I think just having the background in biology and science is good when you are a coach in understanding how far to push your students and how far not to," Gutierrez said.
She added that she wants to ensure her dancers are being trained correctly, that they're strong enough to perform the skills they're doing and that when there is an injury she's following the proper procedures to make sure a dancer heals completely.
When she arrived at OC, Gutierrez said the dance team hadn't won a championship in 11 years, but they also hadn't gone to competition and they were led by team members.
"… I think having a line in the sand like, 'I'm the coach you're the dancers. We're going to help each other get to what we want.' And ultimately, we just want to grow," Gutierrez said.
So far, the squad has grown in technical ability, size, confidence and national championships.
"I'm hoping this year as the coach we can produce the same results," she said. "I think it will be even more rewarding knowing that I'm officially the coach."
The first year, Gutierrez said the competition was "really nerve racking." No one knew what to expect and no one had ever heard OC's name before. It was also a new experience for her team to show their skills in front of an audience of dancers.
"When we went out and performed, we got a standing ovation from several teams," Gutierrez said. "The funniest thing, and they will never forget it, is when the team that just performed right before us left the floor and turned around and watched our performance. When we walked off, they were bowing to us on their knees. I was in tears it was really thrilling to see all of that."
This year, everyone has the mindset that they're going to win again.
"We have big plans to take multiple dance routines, so we hope to win a national championship in other genres of dance besides hip-hop, which is what we won both of these in," Gutierrez said.
Before she got her degree, Gutierrez said she wouldn't let the team call her coach because she didn't feel worthy of the title. After she earned her degree, they started using the appellation right away. "It was awesome; it was awesome to hear," she said.
The squad performs at OC basketball and volleyball games and is frequently asked to dance at school wide events on and off campus and perform at elementary schools for pep rallies.
For the past year, she has organized an event called "Now I'm a Warrior" to raise awareness about domestic violence. They put on a dance workshop and all proceeds go to Angel House, she said.
She added that the group also gives its time to other charity organizations.
"We like to help out with as much stuff as possible," Gutierrez said.
"It's tough. She's hard on us, but it's just for us to get better. That's the only reason why she does it. She's stern, but it's fun," said Isobel Gabaldon, who is in her first year on the team. She went to OHS.
Zoe Watkins, in her second year on the squad, said having Gutierrez as a coach is a blessing.
"Last year, getting to work with her was so much fun. It was great. Getting to call her coach this year is awesome. I'm super happy for her and proud of her for everything she's done for us and sacrificed," said Watkins, a PHS graduate.
Like her teammates, Watkins said she doesn't mind giving up part of her summer to practice because it keeps them sharp.
Medrano, who went to Odessa High, said the team is like a family.
"She's done so much. The program, at one point, was not where it needed to be. I think she did so much. She brought championships to the team, of course, and I think that says a lot. She's done so much. She's great," Medrano said.
A fellow OHS graduate, Diego Mata, is in his first year on the team and likes working with Gutierrez.
"She's really good. She's fun. She's very tough. She knows what potential we have and she sees it, even if we don't and she'll keep pushing us. It's almost she gets frustrated when we don't believe in ourselves," Mata said.
Like many of his peers, Mata said being on the team gives him academic focus, which helps because he's on scholarship.
"I wouldn't say it gives me a reason to go nuts about class because I have always enjoyed school. But here your scholarship is very much connected to your academics. You start dropping and it can be taken away from you or lowered," Mata said.
Ashley Torres, in her third year as co-captain of the OC squad and an OHS graduate, said Gutierrez is an amazing coach.
"She worked very hard to get her spot and she really deserves it. She's been through a lot and for her to finally get this position, it makes me super happy and I'm glad to see her happy as a coach here," Torres said. "… If everybody knew her story, they would like to have her as a hero. She's an inspiration," Torres said.
Lauren Gabaldon, Isobel's younger sister, said this is her second year on the team and is now an officer.
"When I was in high school, I went to Odessa High. I tried out twice for the Odessa High School Showgirls dance team and I made it my third time," Lauren Gabaldon said.
She added that getting on the Showgirls changed her life.
"It just gave me optimism about life when I made the team. It gave me something to work for in life. This team means so much to me because it reminds me so much of Showgirls and because we're such a family," Lauren Gabaldon said.
She said Gutierrez is an "all-around great person."
"She has such light and passion for what she does that it drives us to be better. You need someone there to want it for you so you can want it for yourself. That's what she does. She's a great mother. She's a great coach. I'm so glad that I've met her and she's in my life," Lauren Gabaldon said.
Article by Ruth Campbell OA