By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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