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It's hard to pin down the beginnings of the dance line movement in the NBA, though it's generally agreed that the first significant dance line was associated with the Los Angeles Lakers. The team's owner, University of Southern California alumnus Gerald Buss, invited his old school's cheerleaders, called Song Girls, to perform at a Lakers game in 1978. The Song Girls were such a hit that Buss helped evolve the team into what was then called the Golden Girls, a group that wore a sweater and skirt uniform and performed collegiate style cheerleading. The team quickly became more and more about dance, paring out the cheerleading elements and using choreography that blended street moves with hip-hop.
As the pinnacle of NBA dance line glory, the Laker Girls helped fans make the distinction between shaking pompons and real dance, and in the process achieved name recognition that is universally synonymous with their synchronized choreography. The marketing, and look, of a dance line has much to do with the hometown of the team they're dancing for. The Laker Girls's routines often feature high production values such as special lighting and expensive costumes, while the New York Knicks's dance line has a harder edge to its choreography. And in Houston, the team is friendly and energetic, traits that appeal to the Rockets's family crowd.
The Rockets started their dance line in 1993, long after the 1980s swell of halftime entertainment during which most basketball teams added their dancers. The reason for the late start has very much to do with the on-the-court fortunes of the Rockets themselves; the addition of a dance line is often the icing on the cake for an already winning team. Seattle, Phoenix, New York and Miami all added dance lines after their basketball teams improved dramatically, and after gaining a loyal following of ticket-buying fans. Once a team builds a stable fan base, in other words, they do everything they can to keep them in the arena. "When the league took off in the early '80s, the level of play was such that marketing started looking around and saying, 'What else can we do to give the fan entertainment value?' " Mike Burch says. "Obviously, fans are there to see basketball, but the mascots, the halftime shows and the dance lines offer entertainment when the guys are off the court."
To create that entertainment, Burch three years ago brought in Marilu Amador, a Dallas Mavericks dancer and the woman responsible for starting the dance line at Texas A&M, to run both the Power Dancers and the dancers for the Texas Terror, the arena football half of Les Alexander's sporting empire. There can be movement between the two dance lines; this year, two of the rookies who made the Power Dancers team came from the Terror Dancers. Amador and her Power Dancers co-captain Tammy Robicheaux spend a week every summer at a dance conference learning new choreography and spend hours during the season teaching the routines to the rest of the team. For their 15 to 20 hours of rehearsal per week and their performance time, the dancers are paid $5.25 per hour; for special events, they can expect $50 an hour. Of the Power Dancers, Amador is the only salaried employee of the Rockets.
Low pay, however, doesn't mean low visibility. At the meeting in which Burch discussed the dancers' bottom rank on the Rockets totem pole, he also drove home a message of hard-edged caution: Don't talk to the players, don't be seen fraternizing with the players and don't, above all, ever go into the players' locker room. "The media would love nothing more than to get ahold of a juicy story about a Power Dancer involved with Charles Barkley," Burch said sternly as the dancers sat with their unsigned contracts in front of them. "You guys have to be aware of that. That means if Charles comes up and talks to you, you're polite, you're professional and you disengage from it as quickly as possible." Besides the dangers of chatting with Barkley, Burch outlined that contact with a player, even asking one of them to sign a basketball for a charity, would be grounds for immediate dismissal.
As it happens, this draconian code of conduct isn't included in the dancers' contracts with the Rockets. And Robert Barr, Rockets senior vice president of basketball affairs, finds the whole concept of dancers not talking to players ridiculous. "It's a stupid rule," he says. "Les isn't going to fire a dancer because they talk to a player. I'd worry about the players if they didn't talk to the dancers." If other NBA dance lines serve as an example, dating between players and dancers is rare and marriage even more so. But there's always the possibility that proximity will spark a love connection. Last year, then Rockets forward Pete Chilcutt, who now plays for the Vancouver Grizzlies, married a former Power Dancer. As Barr notes, "These are women, and those are men. It's bound to happen."
Burch admits that the crackdown on passing conversation between dancers and players in public is new, and put in place largely because of the added media attention Barkley brings to the team. And despite Barr's dismissal of the no-talking rule, it could still be invoked: In the event of such an indiscretion, it's Burch's prerogative to make the final decision about firing a dancer.