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Montano Leaves Lasting Legacy with Branford Dance
Jacqui Montano is stepping down as head coach of the Branford dance squad following an exceptional run of success throughout the past several years. (Photo courtesy of Jacqui Montano )
Jacqui Montano became the head coach of the Branford High School dance team in 2013 and wound up leading the Hornets to a plethora of state championships and New England regional titles in both hip-hop and jazz. While she is retiring from her role as head coach this year, Jacqui leaves behind a lasting legacy with the Branford dance program after helping the Hornets establish themselves as a dynasty.
“I never even imagined that I would have this position. It turned out to be so much bigger than I ever would have thought,” Jacqui says. “It started because I just wanted to have dance in my life again. When I was asked to be head coach, I really didn’t hesitate. I jumped right in. I’ve made so many connections and relationships. The dancers and their parents are extended family to me now.”
Jacqui grew up in Hamden and attended the Joan Lynn Dance Company from the age of three until she graduated high school. Jacqui’s mother Nancy was one of her teachers, while her sister Mary also danced, only increasing her love for the sport.
Although Hamden didn’t have a dance team while she was there, Jacqui went on to compete at Hofstra University in Nassau County, New York. Jacqui spent all four of her college years as a member of the Hofstra dance squad, serving as a captain during her senior season. By competing for Hofstra, Jacqui had a chance to see the more competitive side of the dance world.
“When I got to Hofstra, dance teams were just starting to be a thing. They were gaining traction in colleges and some high schools. I didn’t really understand what a dance team was when I got there,” says Jacqui, who graduated in 2005. “It was a whole different world from studio, but I fell in love with it. All of my memories from college come from being on the dance team. With a dance team, you really get that sport aspect. Everyone is contributing the same amount.”
During her time at Hofstra, Jacqui was teammates with Kelly Olsen-Leon, who is currently head coach of the school’s dance team. In 2012, Olsen-Leon was doing choreography for Branford and helped Jacqui get in contact with then-head coach Jackie Dunn. Jacqui joined the Branford program as Dunn’s assistant coach for that 2012 season.
“I hadn’t thought about coaching right off the bat. I knew I wanted to be involved with dance again somehow, but I didn’t really know what that looked like,” Jacqui says. “When I was having that conversation with my old teammate, I realized I missed dance so much, and I wanted it back in my life. Once I got back into the groove of being around a team, I got sucked right back in.”
When Dunn retired as Branford’s head coach, she encouraged Jacqui to go for the job. Jacqui didn’t have to think twice and took over as the Hornets’ head coach in 2013.
One of the biggest changes that Jacqui implemented as head coach was incorporating jazz into the Hornets’ program. Branford had primarily been a hip-hop team that did jazz for fun. Jazz and ballet were Jacqui’s two strong suits as a dancer, and she wanted to add both styles to her athletes’ repertoires.
Branford became a powerhouse in both the hip-hop and jazz divisions during Jacqui’s tenure. The Hornets competed at nationals every year and claimed state championships in both the Small Varsity Hip-Hop and Jazz divisions each of the last six seasons. Overall, Branford has won a hip-hop state title in 13 of the last 14 years and a jazz state title in 8 of the past 11. The Hornets have also seen tremendous success at the New England Championship with Jacqui, winning multiple titles for both hip-hop and jazz.
Looking back on her time with Branford dance, Jacqui says that the moments leading up to the team’s biggest competitions were some of her favorites, because they allowed her to see another side of the squad.
“They’re some of the best moments and some of the most nerve-wracking moments. You’re super excited. Your adrenaline is going through the roof. You’re in your own little bubble with your team,” says Jacqui. “It’s a side of these kids not everybody gets to see when they’re in their element, they’re lighting up, and they’re so pumped to take the floor. We’ve had some really great backstage moments that are some of my favorite memories.”
As she steps down from the Hornets, Jacqui still plans on being around to support the team. Jacqui’s co-coach Megan Palluzzi will now be taking the reins as Branford’s head coach. Jacqui says that she never would have accomplished everything she did without Palluzzi, and she feels confident that Palluzzi is going to continue guiding the Hornets to great heights.
Palluzzi, a program alum, became best friends with Jacqui as the two of them coached together beginning in 2014. Palluzzi believes that Jacqui has given her all of the tools that she needs to succeed in her new role.
“Jacqui has taught me so much as a coach. The biggest thing is patience. She has taught me so much about hard work and dedication,” Palluzzi says. “Everything she put toward the girls came back to me. I’m learning just as much as they are. It has been a really incredible experience to have the bond that we do. We helped bring this team and this family together. It feels incredible. I know she’ll always be there to support the team.”
Dance has been Jacqui’s passion for a long time, and she loves the fact that it’s given her a creative outlet and a way to express herself. After participating in the sport in college, Jacqui had an opportunity to get involved at Branford and took the dance team on a remarkable run. Jacqui says that her experience with the Hornets gave her everything that she could have ever wanted and more from the sport of dance.
“I never imagined that it would last this long and become such a huge part of my life. It really is my passion. It was a hard decision to step down, but every good thing has to come to an end sometime. It was time to let Megan step up,” Jacqui says. “I definitely feel fulfilled. It goes beyond dance. I love the feeling that I’ve been a role model for these girls. It is a huge reward. I had a purpose for these young women.”