You'd never know how talented they are by just looking at them--a bunch of fresh-faced high school girls dressed in an eclectic array of oversized T-shirts, leotards and sweats.
But turn the music on, and 14 move as one through balletic leaps and gymnastic splits, with Janet Jackson funk and Rockette flair.
Even during practice, it's obvious why the Culver City Dance Team is considered one of the best high school dance teams in the world.
After a second-place finish in international competition last year, the team lost only two members to graduation. This year, the girls say, is theirs.
"One of the advisers from another team said this is our year to win and do really well," said sophomore Laura Hatfield after a recent practice. "That made me feel really good."
"We don't want to be rude to other teams, but it makes us feel good to know that other teams are intimidated by us, and they feel like, 'Oh, wow, we're competing against Culver City,' " said Nicki Rivas, a junior.
Culver City's is just one of more than 100 dance teams--high school pep groups derived from larger drill teams--throughout Southern California. The dance teams perform three-minute choreographed routines at athletic events, community functions and in competition. During competition, teams are judged on appearance, showmanship, choreography and execution.
Judy L. Chabola, a dance competition organizer and judge, said Culver City will be the team to beat at this year's Miss Drill Team U.S.A. competition, the largest in the nation.
"With dance teams, one of the hardest things is to combine free-form elements of dance with precision group movement," she said. "They do an excellent job at that."
Chabola said each team develops its own style. Culver City is known for incorporating fresh dance moves from rock videos and the club scene into its routines.
So far this school year, the young dancers, all of them students at Culver City High School, have performed twice in competition, winning a December meet and taking third-place in a competition in Placentia that featured an impromptu performance to a song they had never danced to before.
"I forgot the tape" of their usual performance music, explained their adviser, Kym Weber.
The girls credit Weber, a 22-year-old who looks as young as her dancers, for a large part of their success.
"She's the one who does the moves, she's the one who teaches us," said junior Jennifer Olmos. "If you don't have a good adviser you're not going to have a good team."
Weber, a Culver City High School graduate who performed as a child in a Broadway production of "The King and I," runs practices with both sternness and understanding, her persona ranging from drill sergeant to den mother.
"Excuse me, excuse me, did we go over this or what?" she asks the team, lifting her knee to demonstrate a move.
One moment she reprimands her young charges for talking in the ranks; the next, she strokes a frustrated dancer's cheek and offers soft-spoken encouragement.
The Culver City Department of Human Services, which took over sponsorship of the team from the high school after Proposition 13 reduced school funds, hired Weber to coach the team four years ago.
Weber said she is still learning her job and has no set coaching philosophy. "Every year, I try to approach it differently," she said.
She gave most of the credit for the team's success to her dancers, who practice three hours a day, three days a week. "They either have to want to do things or not," she said.
But her dancers insist that it is Weber, who placed among the top 10 in the Miss Drill Team U.S.A. individual competition when she was a junior, who makes them shine.
"We listen to her because we know that she's been through it and she did really well," said Tara Petitte, the team's only senior. "Personally, I think she's still better than all of us."
The team is enormously popular at the high school level, performing at football games and pep rallies, said Syd Kronenthal, director of the Human Services Department.
"In the City of Culver City, it's the single most status thing for girls," he said. "It's like making the football team."
More than 100 girls tried out last fall for the 54-member drill team, said recreation coordinator Cindy Turner. From that drill team, 14 girls were selected for the dance team.
In addition to its regular funding, the city gave about $4,500 last year to defray the team's expenses for the trip to the Miss Drill Team International competition in Tokyo, Turner said.
But this year, city and corporate funding for a return trip to the tournament in Japan may not be available, she said.
"People are generous," she said. "But two years in a row? I'm not so sure."
So the girls say their goal is to take first place in the Miss Drill Team U.S.A. competition for high school drill teams, cheerleaders and other pep groups at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in March and win a free trip back to Tokyo.