,,, 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.

What Burch and Barr discussed as the right look -- good features, a shapely but athletic figure and attractive, stylish hair that complements a dancer's skin tone -- was somewhat tempered by Amador's bid for dancers who knew how to move, particularly for Heidi Jones, whose background included stints with Dayton Contemporary Dance and the Cincinnati Ballet. A redhead with superior technique, Jones didn't necessarily have the "look," but as Amador pointed out to Burch over and over, "She can dance." That understatement was the highest compliment paid to any of the women all evening.

As it got later, the remaining spots on the team began filling up as a dancing rainbow coalition -- from pale redheads to African- and Asian-American women, with Barr lining up his picks' headshots and Burch pacing the balcony, unable to distinguish what he liked or didn't like about the eight or so dancers who kept rotating into his "yes" pile. The main tension between him and Amador concerned a short, platinum blond whose resume included a year as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. She was particularly impressive during the first audition, learning her combination quickly and performing it well, though, as Amador pointed out, she didn't try to help anyone else learn the combination, an essential element in teamwork. Whether because of her experience, or simply intuition, the dancer seemed to know the judges were on the brink of a decision about her.

Either that intuition, or the experience of working the crowd at Cowboys games, led her to make a fatal choice: positioning herself to face the judges instead of dancing with the rest of the women in her group. Amador groaned in mock horror over the showboating, and Robicheaux rolled her eyes. Even the sequined side of show business has its limits, and canned presentation seldom, if ever, makes the last cut.

The decision about who will make the last cut is often dependent on cosmetic changes. One dancer, a pale blond high school teacher, was considered an option only if she agreed to make trips to the tanning booth and possibly deepen the color of her hair. There were many such caveats, often regarding weight. Several offers would be made on the condition that the dancer lose weight, generally between five and ten pounds, before she could wear the uniform.

While it was easy for most of the women to believe they still had a fighting chance as the audition ended, for Devinna Garcia, a Power Dancer veteran, the truth was harshly evident. She hung back from the rest of the leaving dancers, her sequined uniform on a hanger. The reasons why she was the only one of the nine veterans asked to bring her uniform in seemed to be occurring to her all at once, especially as she hung it on a railing next to Amador. It's rare that a dancer who wants to stay on the team is denied a spot, but in Garcia's case, Burch explained, there was a question of maturity and the all-important positive attitude. "In the middle of the season, one girl who doesn't have a positive attitude can bring down the whole crew," Burch said seriously. He would call Garcia into the office to tell her why she wouldn't be coming back. Too, Amador recalled while watching Garcia dance for one last time on the tape, there was a great deal of friction in trying to get the 22-year-old to cut her long black hair and shed a few pounds.

By the time the eight new Power Dancers had been selected, a balance had been struck: three choreographer picks, three administrative picks and two dancers that everyone agreed would be easy to work with and would be willing to make the hair and weight adjustments necessary to fit the team. One sure pick had been Barr's choice, a dark-blond dancer who submitted a studio photo featuring her in dancewear, backlit by a red spotlight, with her application packet. A dancer who was passed over had written on her application that she would like to own a business someday so that "she can be the boss!" What might be seen as noteworthy ambition in one context was considered a possible problem for the dance line. Leadership ambition is not a trait that greases the wheels of teamwork.

And it's Wilson, the sophomore who came home from Florida State, instead of her friend Nora Martin who makes the team as one of the last three dance choices. It is with the condition, however, that she tans regularly and bleaches her already sandy blond hair. As Burch flips through the final choices, he counts down their list of requirements: "blonder, blond, blond and tan, lose a little weight." Talent counts, but not without its price.

Packaging a look doesn't end with the dancers' selection. Cosmetic and physical changes are often required throughout the season, and if a dancer gets lax about making the changes, they may sit out a performance or, like Garcia, be reminded of their error at a later, and more tragic, date.

Weeks later, when the dancers signed their contracts on the long marble conference table in Greenway Plaza, they turned over much of their life for most of the next year to the Rockets organization. But the proximity to fame, the chance to perform in front of 16,000 people and the opportunity to dance drew them to agree to 42 games a year and long hours per week of practice. A typical week in a Power Dancer's schedule means rehearsals from 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and an average of two games a week. Rookies also attend a special Sunday practice, designed to help them play catch-up with the three to four routines they may learn in a week. Special events are often on evenings (a recent birthday party appearance began at 11:30 p.m.) and weekends. Occasionally, dancers will be excused from rehearsal to attend a special event or promotion, though they're expected to report to practice afterward. Missing a practice without notifying Amador is grounds for dismissal.

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