,,, 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 structure of a rehearsal period is broken down into a warm-up, including muscle work such as a 300 sit-up series as well as pushups, across-the-floor passages with leaps and turns and, finally, learning the choreography for the halftime performance and for the three or more "Hot Time Outs" the team performs during a game. At rehearsal breaks, dancers sprawl out on the floor, grateful for a moment of rest, and pass around candy and pretzels. The schedule makes for long days for the women who make up the team, which is split almost evenly between college-educated professionals and full-time students. A glance through Alexander's date book illuminates just how little time is left free: Practices and games listed in red ink take up almost every weekend during the season, from early November through May. The demands of the schedule led Burch and Amador to create a rotation, where two dancers are off for every game, allowing them to rest and, ostensibly, do their laundry.

Early October marked the new Power Dancers's first public appearance. It came in conjunction with the Rockets's search for a public address announcer, and in studying the new lineup as they cheered on the announcer contest, Robicheaux noted that one rookie looked heavy in comparison to the rest of the team. But everyone, she said, could use some firming up. "Lots of blonds," Robicheaux said looking over the brood, "and most of them we made."

The Power Dancers's custom-made sequined uniforms weren't finished on that October evening, so the theme for the first night's appearance was black, which the dancers interpreted with vinyl, leather and Lycra. Combined with the provocative stomping and snappy choreography, the outfits made their five-minute routine one that caused the gaggle of men surrounding the stage to step back in what appeared to be stunned arousal. The confidence shown in the whirlwind of turns and in-your-face dancing was in marked contrast to how the women had appeared when standing at the top of the stage stairs moments earlier, with Amador blessing each one. And once the dancing was over, the rookies, not quite prepared for the proximity or the salacity of some of their fans, came off the floor and ran for their dressing room.

A little more than a month later, the new dancers had glided into their role, lifting their faces to smile and wave at the fans in the nosebleed seats at the Summit and playing to those seated closer to the court. At last Thursday's game against the Phoenix Suns, they took their places on the sidelines. Two players who had been sent to Phoenix in the off-season -- Sam Cassell and Robert Horry -- were back in Houston, and as they hit the floor for warm-ups, the Houston fans gave them a standing ovation. Meanwhile, in the $75 seats under the basket, a teenage boy was giving one of the Power Dancers a different kind of ovation -- and a reminder that, no matter how exclusive a spot on the Power Dancers team may be, and no matter how much talent it takes to keep that spot, some fans are firmly trained on a display of something other than dance.

As Anne Nugent, the pale blond who agreed to tan regularly as a condition of employment, entered the arena to take her place on the floor, the teenager recognized her as a teacher from Cypress Fairbanks High School. Revved by the sight of an authority figure in sequined hot pants, the boy jumped up, sending his folding chair backward, and yelled, "Miss Nugent -- Miss Nugent!" Unable to get her attention, the boy sat back down in his seat, but not before turning to a friend, raising his eyebrows and growling, "Va va voom.

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