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For high school show choirs, it's far more than sparkly dresses and showtunes

Linn Mar High School's show choir, 10th St. Edition, has advanced to the national show choir competition in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mark Muirhead
Linn Mar High School's show choir, 10th St. Edition, has advanced to the national show choir competition in Nashville, Tennessee.

Iowa is home to over 150 high school show choirs, all featuring students singing and dancing their hearts out to compete for their chance to be named the best. While some may think of glittery dresses and jazz hands on a creaky set of bleachers when show choir is mentioned, traditional show choir numbers have evolved to become much more — growing into full-fledged productions complete with props, dialogue and connecting themes.

For most groups, the show choir season has ended, but for 10th St. Edition, Linn Mar High School's varsity show choir, their next stop is the national show choir competition in Nashville, Tennessee.

It's the group's first time advancing to nationals, and they've had the Grand Ole Opry stage in their sights all season.

"I really could tell from the very beginning of the season, when we walked into choreography camp, that no one was playing around," said show choir member Grant Galloway. "They were like, 'We are going to nationals,' and we realized that the first day."

For many students in the group, several of whom are involved in multiple extracurriculars outside of class, show choir takes priority over everything else.

"With all of our roles being so involved, I guess for me it wasn't really that hard of a choice between anything and this," member Tejas Gururaja said. "During this time period, that fall/winter, it's kind of been blocked for show choir."

That's because show choir culture in Iowa is intense. Students spend thousands of hours rehearsing increasingly complicated numbers, trying to better themselves with each year that passes.

It's not an inexpensive activity, either. Some students and their families can expect to pay as much as $500 in fees per show choir season to help pay for things like production costs, travel and camps.

The financial barrier hasn't stopped show choirs from growing in number across the state. Waukee Northwest High School was quick to create its own show choir when Waukee High School was split into two halves in the past year — a school district with an already strong tradition of show choir. The new group, Eos, performed a show called "The Unbroken Circle," which featured traditional folk songs.

"This community that we get to exist and create in is so supportive of itself and of the people in it, that it really makes it this really welcoming place that kids want to be a part of," said Jackson Daubitz, head vocal music director of Eos, onTalk of Iowa.

Both Eos' show and the show Linn Mar is taking to nationals follow a recent trend among some show choirs — they follow a storyline. Eos' show is about an enclosed town trying to figure out what lies beyond the life they've always known.

10th St. Edition's show follows Nicholas, a man who dies and is taken to the afterlife by a cast of characters to make a deal with the devil to let him have his life back. Filled with songs from the Broadway musical Hadestown and classic hits like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," the ensemble of 61 students sing, dance and act out the sequence of tunes to a live, 17-member band. The show has stayed mostly the same throughout competition season, but students are still rehearsing new tweaks in choreography and going over vocals ahead of the national competition. They run each segment over and over — and over — until it's perfect.

The group's show is different than in year's past, but the risk has paid off. The cast is filled with award-winning vocalists and musicians. The ensemble has sacrificed their time to spend extra hours in the rehearsal room, practicing for their one, final shot on the national stage.

"It's really a special group of students things year," said Trent Buglewicz, who created the show with his wife, choreographer Lexi Buglewicz. "They're really dedicated to what's ahead of them, and it's been a really fun season."

At nationals, 10th St. Edition will be one of the first groups up, performing for the judges at 8 a.m., but they're ready for that, too. A week prior to the show, they'll practice an early morning call so they'll be at their best when the time comes to compete.

Of course, Lexi says, at the end of the day, competition isn't what it's all about.

"'If we do 10 kick ball changes and you do six kick ball changes, then 'we win and you lose' — that's not how it works," she said. "We can't play defense. All we can do is go in the audience and support and love on one another, as we would wish for people to do for our show, and I really feel like the directors in Iowa and all the kids working here that we have kind of that closer relationship in this state."

For Daubitz, it's all about creating a space for students to build connections through performance and music.

"It's a really special thing that we get to do every day," he said.

Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.