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Choreographing for Wolfie: Behind the Scenes

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Sarah Shumate is in the second row, left side, on her kneees (photo by Aleef Rahman)

As a high school student in Bartlett, Illinois, dance team captain Sarah Shumate never dreamed she’d be choreographing numbers for a dance troupe during her college years—certainly not dances featuring the school’s varsity team mascot.

But today the junior health sciences major is putting together high-spirited numbers that include the group’s favorite gyrating, jumping, strutting partner on the field and on the court—Wolfie. So far he’s performed in hits like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”

When the group’s former captain, Kaitlyn Cozier, first asked her to try her hand at choreography, Shumate jumped at the chance. “We’re always trying to come up with new and better ideas to improve the function of the show,” she said. “During football season we visited an elementary school with Wolfie, and the DJ started playing ‘Thriller.’ Wolfie just started doing the dance, and that’s where I got the idea.”

A dance minor, Shumate is especially enthusiastic about the dance program at Stony Brook. “Being able to work with dancers who’ve taught professionally is outstanding. I’ve taken a few classes with Amy Sullivan, and they’ve not only helped me get better as a dancer, but have also helped me outside the dance life, with my regular classes. I know now how to sit well, how to breathe and release stress. Her classes have given me a different perspective on dancing and choreographing than studio dancing would.”

Dance has always been a big part of Shumate’s life. She went to a high school that was 45 minutes from home because it offered a dance program. Then, when she was choosing a college, she took a trip to New York City to check out the arts scene and promptly fell in love. A friend who was attending Stony Brook suggested she look at the University, and when she saw all that it offered, she knew this was the place for her.

How does Shumate choreograph for the dance team and Wolfie? “I always start with the music and think about what would be the best parts to choreograph. I try to picture what I want the dance team to do in relation to Wolfie. For ‘Thriller,’ I wanted to use some choreography from the video. I choreographed a little bit of what dance team was doing and then I replayed the music and thought about what Wolfie could be doing in that part, and then it came together. I taught the dance team their part first, then brought Wolfie into the picture and taught him his part.”

Choreographing for Wolfie presents its own set of challenges. “It’s not the costume that’s hard, it’s the head,” Shumate explained. “I have to have Wolfie in certain positions where he can physically see some of the dancers in case he forgets the steps. Having two dancers there by his side where he can refer to them is a major help.”

The first time Wolfie danced to “Thriller” at a Seawolves men’s basketball game was a huge surprise for the fans. “The crowd thought it would be just another dance team dance—and then Wolfie came on. All the cell phone cameras started going.

Will there be new dances for Wolfie and the team? “We haven’t gotten to football season yet,” Shumate said. “But we’re always looking for ideas to make football even bigger and better than last year, so there will definitely be more.”

—Toby Speed

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