,,, 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.

The veterans are used to occasional snickering about fishing for a player husband, a notion that causes third-year Power Dancer Shelby Alexander to snort with laughter. "Athletes are such losers," the 21-year-old says. "They don't care about you at all -- but real guys are a problem, too. Every time I go out with a normal person, he's like 'Can you get me tickets to the game? Do you know the players?' "

The proximity of their dressing rooms, and their simple physical nearness during the season, means that dancers and players not only know each other, but often develop casual friendships. As Alexander waited for her body composition test, Clyde Drexler swung by and teased her about it. "You don't have anything to worry about," Drexler told her. She swatted him away after he told her that his body composition had held steady for 20 years. Alexander leaned in to an observer and pointed out that precisely because the dancers are privy to the players' personal sides, they also see the long line of potential girlfriends who wait at the locker room door. If anything, the dancers' close-up view of the players off the court proves an educational source of caution rather than an incentive to find a boyfriend.

Most professional basketball teams split their corporate structure between the sports side and the business side, and the Power Dancers fall on the business side. The sports side, however, plays a role in everything from the selection of dancers to the critical assessment of their dancing. Robert Barr helps choose the new dancers every year, generally selecting two or three he thinks move well and have the right look. During preseason, he also shows up at the Power Dancers's rehearsals to watch the routines and hold court. Throughout a rehearsal, it's not unusual to see Barr inviting a number of the dancers over to sit on his leg and banter about their diets (which run pretty evenly between candy and vegetables) and their dancing. Aside from learning such personal details, at one early October rehearsal Barr let Amador know that out of the two "Hot Time Outs" the dancers were practicing he preferred the sexier one, the one where the dancers slap their butts and suggestively pat their breasts.

Such comments generally aren't made around the dancers -- especially not during their long audition process. So in late July, when 30 women gathered together in the neon-bordered aerobic studio at World Gym on Richmond for one more round of trials, they could still believe that what mattered most in the final selection was their ability to dance.

It was 11 p.m. on a Thursday, and traces of perspiration had begun to penetrate layers of hair spray and carefully applied makeup. For the past two hours, the judges -- Burch, Barr, Amador and Robicheaux -- had watched the women perform a difficult piece of choreography in different groups of 12. Standing on a balcony above the dance floor, the four alternated between watching the women dance and then turning to shuffle through headshots and resumes, comparing skin and hair tone with the eight returning dancers who had already, unofficially, made the team. Among the dancers down on the floor, there was still a hyper-politeness, a willingness to apply another coat of hair spray for one another, the obligatory check for lipstick on teeth and evenly applied eyeliner.

Amy Wilson, 20, had come home to Houston from her sophomore year at Florida State to try out for the team. A sandy blond with an all-American look, Wilson tossed her long hair out of her way when she talked about how she'd beat the odds before, auditioning for the dance line at her college, competing for six spots with 150 other dancers. What drew her to the Power Dancers, she said, was the chance to perform, and the chance to be associated with a world-class basketball team.

Wilson also talked about the challenge of the audition piece's tight, streetwise choreography, a trademark of Amador and Robicheaux's fast, aggressive style. There's no mistaking their routines for cheerleading; this is street meets hip-hop dance (MTV style) with the volume pumped up and with moves every half-count: arms punch, legs fly and the performers spin off double turns. Wilson wasn't worried about the combination, she was worried about "all those eyes" getting to her during the final countdown. A friend from high school, Nora Martin, was also in the final round and came up the stairs to sit with Wilson during the break. At first glance, the two women seemed to resemble each other -- each with long, glossy hair and similarly well-tuned physiques. Martin, outfitted in a black dance bra and high-cut briefs, seemed more sure of herself than Wilson, easily bantering about her chances, but she left Wilson to check her makeup and stretch.

Fifteen minutes later, in a strange moment of truth, Burch and Barr flipped Martin's and Wilson's photos back and forth on a carpeted bench. "She has the better look," Burch said of Martin, and Barr agreed. "I'd have to work with her," said Amador, "a lot." Wilson had more polish, more spark and was clearly the better dancer. And that's what Amador was looking for -- dancers who moved well, and dancers who could be shaped to her hip-hop meets bad girl style. By the end of the evening, Martin's and Wilson's pictures had changed places countless times, with the sports side's pull for the "right package" and Amador's pull for the better performer.

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