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Pioneerettes star at Nationals

The Pioneerettes finished in the top 5 in two events at the NDA Nationals in Orlando.

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‘Ettes Forever and Always.

The dancing may be over for the Pioneerettes, but they went out on their own terms. The high school dance team did it big over the weekend in Orlando, finishing fourth in Pom and fifth in Gameday while competing at the NDA Nationals. The Pioneerettes also brought home the Superior Sportsmanship award, a fitting nod for a team that brought love and joy with them everywhere.

It has been a long journey for the squad, especially when it comes to finally getting in front of judges. The Pioneerettes did most of their qualifying this season virtually, but the NDA Nationals were a chance to go live. They didn’t disappoint while under the lights, giving their all while soaking up every second of time to be together on stage.

The Pioneerettes were in Orlando for five days, using some time to bond while visiting some local attractions before getting down to business the last two days. The team cruised through the first day, qualifying for the finals that were held on Sunday.

The Pioneerettes were just as good on the final day, leaving it all on the stage before finding out they had finished in the top five in the nation in both categories. It was a huge moment for the team, which features seniors Andrea McCormick, Yaire Valadez, Oniurca Ramirez, Dante Grayson and Kataen Shockley. Keira Reynolds, Milly Stone, McKenzie Hillis, Braelin Slaughter, Makayla Cagle, Aniston Smith, Brooklyn Cope and Brynn Woodlee will be carrying on the Pioneerette tradition in the future, learned from the fierce five seniors and coaches Penny Shockley and Sherry Burnett.

Let’s dive into what made the Pioneerettes special this season:

Unbreakable bond

Like any other team, the Pioneerettes went through last year wondering if they’d every get to truly compete this season. For months, they were barred from performing live, even during basketball games – their usual showcase to the community throughout the winter. Going through tough times can bring people closer – it’s definitely what happened with the Pioneerettes.

Check out any picture from the season – or the Orlando trip – and you’ll see a group of happy-go-lucky teenagers who can morph into rock stars on a stage in a moment’s notice. The love shines through even when they aren’t performing, but it hits another level when they know it’s time to shine.

“This year was totally different from any other year I’ve been on the team – and it’s been four years,” said Ramirez. “The team has never bonded the way that we did this year. It was truly something special and I’m so glad that I got to be one of the seniors this year to experience it.

“My 12 teammates are like sisters to me and I know for a fact that I will never forget them.”

Kataen Shockley has been on this journey before, having been a Pioneerette for five years. Over the season, it started to set in that this would be her last time representing Warren County. Fortunately, she got to finish with a tremendous group.

“This team, especially, holds a very special place in my heart. These 12 other dancers that I have been given the opportunity to dance with this year have been such a blessing,” said Kataen. “This is the hardest working team I’ve ever been on. In my span of five years, I’ve had some ups and down but this year was definitely the best way to end my journey as a Pioneerette.

“I am so honored to say that I am a part of a team that not only loves dance but dances as much for the people beside them as they do for themselves.”

Before going to Nationals, the Pioneerettes got a send-off at Patrick Ramsey Field.

Unwavering support

Everybody has heard of the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” For the Pioneerettes to prosper, it took two amazing coaches, administrators pushing for live performances and an army of Dance Moms – and Dance Dads. It didn’t hurt that the community always has a soft spot for the local dance team that has gained national respect over the decades.

“The confidence we had going out there last weekend and the Warren County support we received made this whole experience one of a lifetime,” said Grayson, a groundbreaker on his own when he became the first male Pioneerette three years ago. “I have been performing for many years, but this year is something different – not only because it’s my senior year, but because this team is special in our own way.

“We can’t express enough how thankful we were for the opportunity to go to Orlando and compete at the NDA National Championship in-person.”

Grayson pointed out that it would not have been possible to make the trip without Director of Schools Grant Swallows and WCHS principal Clark George paving the path. There were times in the fall and winter where there were thoughts it wouldn’t happen, but Swallows and George always took a cautious and optimistic approach to the future, ultimately giving the green light for the Pioneerettes to perform.

“They (Swallows and George) have been the biggest support and we can not thank them enough for this amazing opportunity,” said Grayson.

The Pioneerettes always had the support of their coaches this season.


The Pioneerettes are traditionally everywhere in the community throughout the year, enjoying their chance to do great services or jumping at the chance at cheering up groups with their performances. Before they made the trip to Orlando, the Pioneerettes even broke down a new barrier, performing at a baseball game as part of their ultimate send-off.

The embrace of the community and Pioneer Nation isn’t lost of the dynamic dancers.

“The community has helped us - they’re always supportive and have been by our side,” said Ramirez. “That’s a big thing to know that they’re right behind you, rooting you on no matter the outcome.”

Grayson summed it up succinctly for the whole squad, saying, “From the bottom of our hearts, thank you Warren County for the constant support. We wouldn’t be where we are without our community support!”

Coaches Sherry Burnett and Penny Shockley, back corners, are pictured with Pioneerette seniors (Painted Barn Media)

PShock and Sherry – Perfect coaching combo

Want to get a Pioneerette talking? Just ask them their feelings about their coaches – Penny Shockley and Sherry Burnett. They may spend a few seconds with wide eyes thinking about coach Shockley’s meticulous second-by-second breakdowns of their routines but give it a few more seconds and the tears will begin to flow.

The Pioneerettes absolutely adore their coaches.

“All of this would have not been possible without our amazing coaches, Penny Shockley and Sherry Burnett,” said Grayson. “These two have made not only this year, but every year on Pioneerettes worth every single second.”

Ramirez added, “Our two wonderful coaches, P-Shock and Sherry, have put in as much dedication as we have and didn’t give up on us for one second. They’ve always been there for us for anything, even non-dance related things, and I can’t think them enough for how much love and support they have showed us.”

Penny and Kataen Shockley.

Kataen Shockley gets to take her coach home. Being coached by a parent can sometime be a burden, but it never has felt that way for Kataen, who will usually point out at the coach Penny Shockley treats every dancer as her kid. For any tense family moment brought on by dancing, there are thousands of great experiences to remember forever.

One that Kataen will always take with her as the embrace she had with her mom – and coach – when the lights went off after the final performance Sunday.

“After we got done dancing we ran backstage and the first person I hugged was my mom. (It was) my favorite hug and I looked at her and said ‘It’s over,’” said Kataen. “I want to thank our coaches for never giving up on me and always pushing me. I am who I am today because of these dancers and these coaches.”


Senior leadership

Kataen Shockley, Dante Grayson, Oniurca Ramirez, Andrea McCormick and Yaire Valadez never took a day off from leading. They wanted to finish their careers the best way possible – and each will say this is how they wanted to go out.

“Now that it’s over, I couldn’t explain to you how happy we are and how thankful we are with our succesess,” said Ramirez.

Kataen added, “My time as a Pioneerette has been nothing short of amazing. I have made some of the best memories and some of my best friends through my five years of being on this team. Growing up, all I wanted to do was be a Pioneerette and dance on a stage with such talented people. I can officially check that goal off my list.”

In the final moments, Grayson reflected on what it took to get to Orlando.

“This weekend wasn’t just about us, but about the hard work and dedication we have put in all year long. And as NDA always says, the work is worth it,” said Grayson.

The five seniors were inseparable over the year, whether it was in the rain back in August when the Pioneers kicked off the football season or on the final day of performing at nationals. Shockley, Grayson, Ramirez, McCormick and Valadez will always be bonded together through their time with the Pioneerettes.

Even more so, their legacies will last as they have touched all the underclassmen who joined them on the journey this season. As Kataen pointed out, the awards mean nothing if you aren’t having fun with your teammates.

“These are the best times of our lives making memories with of our best friends,” said Kataen. “Dancing on the stage with your best friends is one of the best feeling I have ever experienced. Feeling each other’s energy and pumping each other up on the stage is a feeling like no other.”

Messages from their teammates

Junior Milly Stone: "We couldn’t have asked for better seniors to lead this team. Each of them have been such an inspiration to me this past year. They have helped the team and myself grow in our dance ability, (to) have more confidence and realize what a strong team can do."

Sophomore Braelin Slaughter: "Words could not describe how wonderful our five seniors have been. They have been the best leaders. Thank you for helping make me the person I am today and never giving up on me. Thank you for teaching me how to be a role model to someone else. Thank you for being someone I can look up to and learn from. I wouldn't be who I am without you. I will miss them so incredibly much."

Sophomore McKenzie Hillis: "Ever since freshman tryouts, they have been there to help and push me. I came to tryouts knowing really nothing at all, but they are the ones who helped me get to where I am today. The five seniors say I’ve improved a lot since last year but what they don’t notice is, there’re the ones who taught me and made me the dancer I am today. I’m gonna miss them so very much! It’s gonna be hard saying 'goodbye.'

P.S. - Y’all better still come to some games."

Freshman Brooklyn Cope: "We couldn’t have asked for better seniors to lead us this year. They have loved us freshmen since Day 1 and welcomed us with open arms. I am going to miss them! This has been a great year and I will never forget it!"

Freshman Keira Reynolds: "Our seniors this year are the best seniors we could ever ask for. They are amazing leaders and took us freshmen under their wings. This year we have made so many memories and laughs that I will cherish forever. I love them so much and will miss them more than they will know."

Freshman Aniston Smith: "I love our seniors like family and it’s gonna be so hard for them to leave. They have taught us so much and we have learned so many valuable life lessons from them. I love all of them so much and I’m gonna miss them so, so, so much."

Freshman Makayla Cagle: "I wouldn’t ask for better seniors. When I first met them, I wanted to get really close with them.They have been such good role models to us underclassmen. I love y’all and y’all are the best."

Freshman Brynn Woodlee: "Our five seniors have taught me so much this past year. They have helped me grow as a dancer and an individual but, most importantly, they taught me what it means to be a team and a family. Words could never explain how thankful I am for everything they've done for me. I'm going to miss them and I love them all so much!!"


The Pioneerettes received major publicity for their great spirit!


One Final Dance

Anticipation grew from behind the stage. The Pioneerettes knew it was their last chance to impress and they wanted to make sure they walked off after doing their best. It wasn’t butterflies filling their belly – it was fire and determination to leave a lasting mark for Warren County on the national stage.

“Our last performance was Pom. Possibly my last time ever stepping out on that marley stage and I got to do my favorite genre and I got to wear the big W across my chest proudly,” said Kataen. “I think those were the quickest two minutes of my life because just like that it was over.”

Ramirez added, “My thoughts when performing was this is my last so I’m going to make it my best, not only for myself, but more for the team because everyone on that floor dedicated every second of those performances to each other as well as the other three that weren’t out there when we were performing Pom.”

In the moment, there was pure bliss among the group. Happiness filled their hearts as they put their best foot forward over and over, firing each other up with their skill and spirit.

“The amount of energy and excitement our team showed as a whole was absolutely amazing. The feel of finally being in front of in-person judges and being able to showcase our talent and abilities was the best part,” said Grayson.

Ramirez added, “When I was about to finish my final routine, I was just filled with joy knowing I had done anything and everything I could to help my team to place as high as we did.”

Kataen was in the same mindset as her teammates, shouting encouragement while trying to embrace every second.

“I remember the second the last song started, I screamed, ‘Bring it home’ and I was fighting back tears. It took everything in me to not break down right there on stage. I just didn’t want it to be over yet,” said Shockley.

The tears would come after.

“After our final routine, they turned out the lights as they did for the other runs too,” recalled Ramirez. “But in that moment of those lights turning off something hit me - almost like a heartbreak knowing that would be my final Nationals performance and I broke down crying.”

After all the emotions ran through the team, they gathered together one final time to break it down. They knew they were carrying hardware back to Warren County – and all those moments together would always been carried along in their minds.

“I will never forget those last two minutes I spent dancing with my best friends, the last time we prayed together, the last time we put our hands in and I screamed, ‘Ettes on 3,’ the last time I said, ‘5, 6, 7, 8 … Warren,’ and the last time I took that red sequin uniform with the big W off,” said Kataen. “My time may be over but this is not goodbye - this is see you later. These dancers can’t get rid of me that easily.

“Ettes Forever and Always.”

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