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Catholic schools’ show choirs making their mark at competitions

By Daniel Charland
Witness Correspondent

DUBUQUE — Competitive school sports are a well-known facet of a school’s identity. Over the last several years, particularly in the Midwest, a new kind of school competition has appeared called show choir. This activity has the unique feature of combining elements of both artistic performance and competitive sportsmanship. Some Catholic schools are at the forefront of this increasingly popular trend.

Wahlert Catholic High School hosted the Key City Classic Jan. 25. Only in its second year in existence, the competition drew hundreds of people from multiple states to Dubuque. According to the director of Wahlert’s prep and middle school show choirs, Kevin Dugan, show choir is about friends and community at its core.

“Show choir is really just an activity for kids to come together and sing and dance, but at the end of the day, it’s more about that team-building common goal aspect,” said Dugan. “That’s a huge driving factor of why show choir is so big, especially for us at Wahlert.”

Choirs perform a series of musical numbers — often choral arrangements of popular songs — with synchronized choreography. These musical routines are de­signed by teams of directors and choreographers who choose the songs and have them musically arranged for the group. The typical protocol of a show choir performance consists of a carefully structured balance between energetic and calm musical numbers in order to vary the entertainment and pace the energy reserves of the student performers. Singers appear with live student bands. A back stage crew handles special effects, sound equipment and other facets of production.

Although the majority of schools in these show choir competitions are public, Wahlert and Xavier Catholic High School in Cedar Rapids, currently the only participating Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, are making their mark. Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School in Dubuque also has a show choir and there is a choir made up of students from St. Joseph Elementary School in Marion and LaSalle Catholic Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

While Christian concepts are not inherent to show choir, the senses of work ethic and community that come with it naturally lend themselves to promoting Christian virtue. At Wahlert, group prayer is always held before a performance and Christian music is often incorporated into the song selections. The ability to do this is a unique privilege for a Catholic school, since songs with religious elements might meet resistance at a public school. Faith elements are also naturally a part of Wahlert’s show choir performance attitude.

“We always talk about the fact that the music is the stewardship,” said Kevin Dugan. “We would be doing ourselves a disservice to not put on our best performance always. At the end of the day, we just want to showcase what we can do, but also thank God for allowing us to do what we’re doing. There are definite distinct elements that we add, and there are certain secondary elements that just fall into it from being faith-filled students. Everyone here takes their faith seriously and values prayer time and self-reflection.”

Matt Walker, the director of show choir at Xavier, also works to implement faith elements into both the student experience and the show itself.

“Our shows usually have a theme to them, where you can envision a storyline that runs from one song to the next.  That storyline often relates to the faith lives of my students, and it’s something that we talk about throughout the season.”

One thing that student performers, stagehands, directors and organizers all agree on about show choir’s ­popularity is that it’s naturally contagious. Many students describe it as a tight-knit family and source of stress relief. Hannah Burk­halter, a performer from Holmen High School in Holmen, Wisconsin, believes that the balance of a sense of community and the value of the individual is a big part of the draw.

“I like to showcase my talent, and show choir is a cool way to do that because you’re all doing it at the same time, so there’s this big teamwork aspect, but it’s also very individual because what you do impacts the group. It’s a group competition, but it’s also that you want to be the best that you can.”

This sense of family and community also extends to the greater show choir community across all the schools. According to Katrina Hawkins of Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, in spite of the schools competing against each other, there is no animosity or rivalries between them like there may be in sports.

“Even though when it comes to football or something, we may be enemies, when it comes to show choir, we’re just one big family,” said Hawkins. “Everyone is so supportive. It’s so different. All students know the work that goes into it, so you respect the other teams and want to be so supportive of them, and they’re so supportive for you.”

Another possible reason for this sense of family and sportsmanship among the schools is the attitude that the directors and organizers instill in the students. According to Kevin Dugan, camaraderie is heavily emphasized over winning.

“It’s a competitive activity for sure — we have a finals round where we rank the groups from one to six and give out some awards — so there’s definitely a competitive aspect, but also it’s an artistic ­medium, and all the directors and choreographers I’ve talked to agree that the art is the reason,” said the director. “If you place well, awesome, and if you don’t, did you put on a show that you’re proud of that resonates with people? If that’s the case, then that’s where the success is more than a piece of plastic trophy.”

The success of show choir and its rise in popularity over the last few years in the Midwest can largely be credited to seeds being planted in schools by teachers who transitioned from their previous jobs with show choir experience. Abby Wagner, a Wahlert performer and volunteer, believes that show choir grows in popularity among the students because it has elements that can touch everyone of any background.

“They come up with shows that tell stories which can relate to high school and college ages,” Wagner reflected. “I’m on Wahlert Catholic Impulse, and this year we have a show that is sending the message of not giving up and moving through darker times and to know that everything gets better, which I think teens can relate to a lot. That’s why I think a lot of teens love show choir so much. People listen to every­one else’s songs, they fall in love with a certain show just because of the message of that show, and that’s how you become a fan of certain show choirs. You make friends from that school, and those friendships can last a really long time.”

With the continued gradual spread of show choir through school promotion and word of mouth, it’s possible that more Catholic schools could create show choir programs in the future. When asked about this possibility, Walker said that it’s a big commitment for a school, but worthwhile.

“I think that would depend on the indi­vidual schools,” said Walker. “Building a show choir program is a major investment, both in terms of time and money.  Not only does it take students willing to make that investment, the school’s staff, administration and parent community all have to be on board as well. If all those things can happen, then it can be a wonderful learning experience for the students involved!”


Impulse, Wahlert Catholic High School’s varsity show choir, performs in Dubuque Jan. 25. (Photo by Jose Garcia –