UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

An exceptional song and dance

Special Olympics Cheer squad to perform high-energy halftime routine, choreographed by UND Dance Team co-captain 

Grace Bartunek
UND senior and Dance Team Co-Captain Grace Bartunek says members of the Special Olympics Cheer squad, regularly coached by Meghan Foy, are ready to steal the show this Saturday during a halftime performance during the UND men’s basketball game in The Betty. “I want this to be a memorable experience for them,” said Bartunek, who organized the event and choreographed the routine. “This is their time in the spotlight. This isn’t about me. It’s not about UND Cheer or UND Dance. The rest of us are basically the background dancers.” Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

It’s Sunday. School’s out. But the energy level still is making the floor shake inside the gymnasium of UND’s Hyslop Sports Center.

Heads swirl. Arms swing. Hips sway. And shoulders shimmy — all to the beat of pop star Taylor Swift’s eternal hit “Shake It Off,” now blasting (boom-bah-dah-boom-boom) out of a large portable speaker:

“But I keep cruisin’ / Can’t stop, won’t stop, groovin’ /
“It’s like I got this music in my mind / Sayin’, it’s gonna be all right /
“I … shake it off / I shake it off … I, I, I /
“I shake it off … I shake it off!”

The two dozen women from the UND Dance Team, UND Cheer Team and the UND chapter of Special Olympics College stretch the length of the floor as they rock one of their final rehearsals before this weekend’s show. They’re set to perform Saturday at halftime during the UND men’s basketball matchup against Kansas City. Tip-off is at 1 p.m. in The Betty.

UND senior and Dance Team Co-Captain Grace Bartunek says the Special Olympics athletes have performed regularly with UND Cheer and Hockey Cheer at multiple UND sporting events in the past, but this Saturday will mark the first time they’ll get the chance to steal the show with their very own dance number.

“They’re excited, and they are so ready,” said Bartunek, who organized the event and choreographed the routine as part of her capstone project for her bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation & Human Services.

“I’m so proud of all of these women. Their passion and work ethic is absolutely amazing, and this performance is better than I ever could have hoped or imagined,” she said. “I always knew they would be positive, but this group really has exceeded all expectations. I can tell you, every single one of them wants to be here. They’re here to learn to dance, to cheer and to have fun.”

Special Olympics Cheer member Raquel Allison (center) strikes a pose during a rehearsal for the upcoming halftime performance. As she dances to Taylor Swift’s up-tempo hit, “Shake It Off,” Allison shows style and sass — something she says she gets from her mother. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.
Special Olympics dancers
Em LaPlant (in purple T-shirt) practices an arm movement ahead of this weekend’s performance. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

A check off the bucket list

It doesn’t take long for athlete Em LaPlant, of Hallock, Minn., to second that.

“To be honest, this is like a dream of mine because I’ve always wanted to get involved with UND Cheer,” LaPlant says. “I kept getting hurt during basketball, so I joined cheerleading for Special Olympics (instead), and now I know I’ll always have something to do.”

Is she nervous about making her dance debut in front of a huge Fighting Hawks crowd? Not a chance.

“I mean, I don’t think so,” LaPlant adds with a wry smile. “Considering I sang the national anthem at a UND hockey game last year.”

An enthusiastic Raquel Allison, of Grafton, N.D., adds that she’s also looking forward to Saturday. But first, she says, she has something else she wants to share.

Then, with as much poise and charisma as any modern-day movie star, she leans in to the reporter’s handheld recorder and says: “I would like to thank all the people who I love and care about and who helped me to get this far. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

After that, UND Today had a tough time keeping up, but suffice to say, Allison has a long list of important family members, as well as others who helped to introduce her to Special Olympics years ago.

And of all the sports she’s participated in over those years, Allison says being a part of the Cheer and Dance squads has been her favorite.

“I love it. It makes you feel so alive,” she said. “I always wanted to be a star and in show business. I’m never nervous. I’m not the nervous kind of girl.”

Same goes for Grand Forks athletes Breanna Foy and Hannah Watson. They say they enjoy the camaraderie among their Special Olympics peers, as well as making brand-new friends with members of the UND Cheer and Dance teams.

Plus, says Foy: “The music with those body movements and dancing kind of felt good.”

And multisport competitor Watson adds: “This is my all-time favorite to be with the Cheer Team and Dance Team. I love the relationships they have with Special Olympics athletes, and I hope that it’s going to be long-term.”

As a lifelong dancer, Bartunek hopes that’s the case, too.

“Seeing these women out there brings me such joy,” Bartunek said. “It just shows that intellectual disabilities don’t have to limit you by any means. They just give you a different experience and a different perspective on life.”

Breanna Foy, a member of Special Olympics Cheer, moves to the beat during a practice session with teammates and other members of UND Cheer and UND Dance. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.
Hannah Watson (center) says she hopes Special Olympics Cheer can continue its connection with UND’s spirit squads. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Capstone course brings it full circle

Bartunek has been familiar with disabilities all her life.

She grew up with cousins with diagnosed autism. And while at UND, she worked part time as a direct support provider for children and adults with disabilities.

It was personal experiences like these, she said, that influenced her decision to come to UND and, eventually, to choose a capstone project that could help create change.

“One of the most rewarding parts of this project is that I get to apply everything I’ve learned in class. It’s no longer hypotheticals,” Bartunek said. “This is go time, and now I’m actually getting to see how my education is going to play out in real time in real life.”

Lee Ann Williams
Lee Ann Williams.

That’s the whole idea of a capstone project, said Lee Ann Williams, clinical assistant professor and program director of Rehabilitation & Human Services in the College of Education & Human Development. She explained that the goal of a capstone project is for the student to demonstrate a mastery of their field of study.

For Bartunek, Williams said, it wasn’t an easy project, yet she went above and beyond as she tackled all the logistics, lobbied buy-in, recruited volunteers and juggled her regular academics and responsibilities as a student athlete.

“Grace is a dynamic servant leader who has an unbelievable endurance of spirit,” Williams said. “She didn’t want to write a paper or do a poster that might later sit in a drawer. She wanted to do something that was more creative — something that not only would support her project but also would support other people, break down social barriers and potentially grow even after she’s graduated and gone.”

Bartunek, along with a large team of volunteers, definitely built the groundwork.

“I think this was a meaningful project because it’s starting that process,” she said. “It provides the blueprint for that change if that’s something people really want.”

>> So what’s next for Bartunek? The Fargo native who’s also set to earn minors in Psychology and Gerontology, as well as a certificate in Diversity & Inclusion, plans to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where she’ll pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy. Her long-term goal is to work in pediatrics or with hospital patients with head trauma or spinal injuries.

Special Olympics and UND Dance, Cheer
The mixed squad of UND Cheer, UND Dance and Special Olympics Cheer takes a breather after practice to get a photo for their memory books. UND Cheer Coach Dani Thompson says her team “gets a lot of joy” out of the partnership with the Special Olympics Cheer squad. “They’re always so hyped, and the crowd gets extra amped up at the games,” she said. Special Olympics College Advisor Renae Bjorg said the chapter has been active on campus since 2014. “It’s so rewarding to see our students lead the way through passion and purpose and be agents of positive change in the community and beyond,” Bjorg said. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.