The Russell County Laker dance team was literally days away from participating in the program’s first-ever national competition when it was taken away in the blink of an eye.
It was March 2020, and as you may have already guessed, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic put a screeching halt to the team’s crowning achievement.
After taking last year off from competition due to restrictive COVID-19 guidelines, the dance team members seized their opportunity this season to once again qualify for nationals, which are set to take place March 26-27 in Louisville.
“These kids are a special group,” said Amanda Turner, who is in her third year as head coach. “This is an opportunity for them to get out of this county and to be able to step out and be on a big stage to see how they measure up with other teams from other states, the best of the best.
“Two years ago, they got the rug taken out from under them at the last minute, and they didn’t get to go [to nationals]. That’s what makes this such a big deal.”
The Lakers have been able to prepare for their run at a national championship since December, when they qualified with the best outcome they could have hoped for at The Crown Dance Championship in Corbin: first place for both their lyrical and hip hop routines, best choreography of the day and grand championship for the school division.
And, of course, a bid to nationals.
“You can’t compete at nationals without an invitation,” Turner said. “This year, we went to a bigger competition, which is risky sometimes because you never know. There were big schools from Lexington and schools with a lot of talent. They have tons of money, they have tons of everything, tons of opportunity.
“And [our] team earned a bid again. We were elated,” she added. “We are a very small district. We don’t have any kind of funding like the bigger schools have. We fundraise ourselves, get donations from the community … so we compete with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
As a “very theme-y coach,” Turner said her squad has been especially attached to their lyrical routine this year.
The lyrical portion of dance competitions, she explained, is “a little bit more of an emotional routine, plays on the words of a song.” While a lot of coaches do routines about being in love, Turner said she likes to focus on subject matters that her team —comprised of high school- and middle school-aged members — has more of a practical connection with at this point in their lives.
“This year, our theme is bullying in schools and how one kid can be singled out and how we have to come together,” Turner said, “and that’s something they can all feel. They can all understand what that feels like, to be out there all by yourself.”
She explained that the routine consists of the majority of the team dressed like school girls with a blue plaid skirt but one dancer is dressed in red.
“You can really tell she stands out,” Turner said. “We wear turquoise ribbons for bullying awareness … Having that special connection with the routine, it meant a lot for it to have scored so well.”
While lyrical is more of an emotional expression, the hip hop portion of dance competitions is more “high energy and wide open.”
“We do a mash-up of songs, but it’s all following a theme,” said Turner, reiterating her status as a “theme-y” coach. “The concept is [the team members] are at a sleepover, and they’re watching a scary movie. They have pillows that they use, and the Halloween theme is in there. We have red balloons, so it kind of plays on the It theme a little bit. The clown kind of talks, so it’s really fun.”
After performing these routines at The Crown, Morgan Taylor, one of two seniors on the squad, said learning they had qualified for nationals “felt amazing.”
Having the opportunity to compete at nationals taken away at what felt like the last second — and then being unable to compete her junior season — just getting back out on the floor was “extremely exciting.” Qualifying for nationals again was just the icing on the cake.
“To be back with the team and earn back what we were supposed to have our sophomore year, it definitely felt great,” Taylor said.
For Audrey Popplewell, the team’s other senior, this season has been bittersweet. Last summer, while conditioning and practicing, she was doing just a normal kick — “like she’s done a million zillion times,” Turner said — Popplewell’s foot slid out from under her and she suffered a season-ending injury.
Even though she hasn’t been able to compete, Popplewell’s played the role of mentor all season long.
“She’s not missed a practice,” Turner said. “She’s not missed a competition. She’s right there supporting the team. She’s top notch and one heck of a leader.”
Despite being unable to compete this year, Popplewell said part of her motivation for continuing to serve as a mentor and in a leadership role is the impact being an older sibling has had on her.
“I just like being able to be there for them and help with dance — or even just any other thing — because I have younger sisters,” she said. “Being on the dance team, it’s like having a lot of sisters, and I just like being close with them, like being able to be here for them.”
The senior leadership has especially helped this year’s team because it’s a mix of young dancers and first-year members.
“There were mostly rookies and not a lot of veterans, so it was pretty much like taking it from the ground up,” Taylor said. “It’s been amazing to see them be able to qualify their first year. It’s just kind of been unifying as a team, seeing a common goal and being able to say, ‘Hey, we did this together.’”
“It’s really fun to meet the new ones every year and get closer with them, and I know, just as an example, Olivia was younger whenever we first started,” Popplewell added. “I’ve gotten really close with her over the years, and she’s a sophomore now. It’s just been cool to be able to watch her from middle school up, and the same goes for all of them, just watching and seeing them grow as a whole.”
While their win at The Crown competition earned them a paid bid into nationals, there are still plenty of expenses needed to make the trip, Turner said, such as travel, lodging, food, and more.
The team’s goal is to raise $3,000 total — $300 per team member — and still need donations to reach it.
Nationals isn’t until late March, but the last day to donate will be Monday, March 7, so parents will have plenty of notice to know how much they’ll need to pay.
To donate, contact Turner at 606-448-1638 or email her at Amanda.email@example.com. Checks can be made out to “Laker Dance” and can be sent to or dropped off at Russell Springs Elementary School, where Turner works.
“We’re super grateful for everybody who has bought things from us, those who have donated money, and the community’s support as a whole,” Turner said. “We couldn’t have done anything without those donations.
With just over a month left before the competition, Turner said the excitement around the team has been palpable. And with the circumstances the team encountered two years ago, she couldn’t be happier.
“I’m excited and proud for the kids,” Turner said. “It’s the first time for all of them. They’ve never gotten to do this before, and it’s a really big deal.”
The dance team consists of the following members:
• Morgan Taylor
• Audrey Popplewell
• Olivia Thomas
• Madison Caldwell
• Brooklyn Walker
• Nikita Walker
• Mia Keen
• Lilly Williams
• Abby Fox
• Alexis Fox
Alissa Thomas has also assisted the team this season.
Thus far, the following businesses have donated to the team’s fundraising efforts for nationals:
• Bennett’s Carpet
• Selby Asphalt
• United Citizens Bank
• Monticello Bank
• First National Bank
• Citizens Bank
• Bargain Box
• Mammy Frogs
• City of Russell Springs (Mayor Eddie Thomas)
• McKinney & Blair Insurance
• Farm Bureau of Russell Springs
• Duo Broadband
• Main Street Liquidators
• Rick and Eve Humble