,,, And Don't Talk to Barkley

Pinched for fat. Put in their place. The Rockets Power Dancers don't care, just as long as they're given a chance to make their moves.

Fame exacts a price, and in show business, that price is often a fleshy one.
Heidi Jones, a rookie dancer for the Houston Rockets Power Dancers, was discovering just that a month ago under the fluorescent lights of the Westside Tennis Center's gym. She grimaced as she exposed her waistline, bust, arms and thighs to Rockets fitness and rehabilitation coach Anthony Falsone. With an instrument poised to measure the flab at her tiny waistline, Jones looked anxious. Nearby, other Power Dancers awaited the same fate. As each body part was offered, Falsone used a caliper to measure it for fat that, in general, was all but invisible. Falsone was amazed at the women's distress at being measured; if he were in the shape they were, he said, he'd probably run around naked.

The remark offered little comfort to Jones. When Falsone's calipers closed on a minuscule fold of her flesh, she laughed nervously and blamed her recent honeymoon as the culprit. Another dancer waiting to be measured ran to the bathroom, convinced that by urinating she could reduce her circumference; another did quick jumping jacks and ran in place, hoping to pump up her muscle mass before the pincers and measuring tape did their dirty work.

There was joking about the parts of their bodies the dancers thought the fattest (their uniformly lean thighs), but there was also discernible panic. The experience was at once humiliating and educational: By facing it, each woman was made to realize that her position as a Power Dancer relied heavily on just how much fat the calipers grasped.

The skin fold test is just one of the trials the 16 members of the Rockets Power Dancers endure for the honor of wearing their signature uniform: a sequined, blue hot pant leotard with a cutout midriff and built-in bra cups. The results of the body composition tests are used to determine which dancers need to lose weight and which need to start a training program for better muscle tone. And while the contract the dancers sign with the Rockets doesn't have a specific weight clause, dancers can be dismissed if they're asked to sit out more than twice because of a "uniform issue." As Mike Burch, the Rockets's vice president of special events, puts it, "Looking good in the uniform is part of their job."

Looking good isn't the only edict that Burch has handed down to the new Power Dancers. During their contract signing at Rockets Headquarters in Greenway Plaza, he stood before a conference room's dry erase board ready to let them know exactly where their place was in the Rockets hierarchy. At the top of the board, he drew a circle and wrote inside "Les Alexander." He then drew a line from the Les Alexander circle to the bottom of the board, drew another circle and wrote "Rockets Power Dancers." Turning around to face the table of new dancers, he pointed to the circle at the bottom of the board and capped his blue marker definitively. "This," he said, "is where you are. At the very bottom of this organization."

Welcome to the glamour that is dance in the NBA.

Despite the humiliations of fat testing and the blunt assessment of their lowly place in the world of professional basketball, there is no dearth of Houston women eager to take their place on the Summit's sidelines. This summer, 130 hopefuls showed up to try out for the 16-member Power Dancers team. Part of the reason was practical; for many, it was their last chance to reap the rewards of years of dance lessons, of countless auditions and, sometimes, suffering through the relentlessly cute choreography of high school and college dance lines. And then, of course, there was the hope for that mythic big chance, what might also be called the Paula Abdul reason. Every field of entertainment has its Cinderella story, and the one that's nearest to an NBA dancer's heart is that of Abdul. A Laker Girl who had a major role in choreographing the group's routines, Abdul was hired from the NBA dance line to coach Janet Jackson in her first dance oriented music videos. Abdul's girlishly sexy hip-hop style helped launch a whole new dance industry in the music video business. It's the kind of story that could only happen in Los Angeles, but it does lend credence to the idea that high visibility, even if it's a high visibility midriff, can attract all kinds of worthwhile attention.

Still, while dancing on the Rockets's line might open up the chance for a furthered career, the more likely circumstance is that the women hoping for a spot with the Power Dancers were looking at their last chance to dance professionally. So perhaps the most compelling reason 130 women showed up at the first cattle call audition was the knowledge, deep in the delicate performing egos of the assembled applicants, that a crowd seldom puts a sexy, well-danced show at the bottom of its hierarchy. In fact, judging from the rapt attention of the fans who stay in their seats when the Power Dancers take center court, the dance line doesn't hover anywhere near the bottom of the entertainment food chain. A presence on the sidelines during time-outs and at halftime for the past three years, the Power Dancers have ardent admirers among the season ticket holders. At a preseason game with the New York Knicks, a father and his young son, wearing a fresh-from-the-team-shop hat, clapped and cheered for the dancers' performances with nearly as much vigor as they used cheering for the players. When the dancers' halftime bit was over, the boy turned to his dad, his cap's price tag bouncing, and said, "That was good." With no less than three costume changes during one game, the Power Dancers make it their business to be fan friendly, presenting new choreography each time they perform. If dance lines are always about T&A, the Rockets's line is at least about family friendly T&A.

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