© 2016 by KAYLEE RANDALL.​

Are NBA Dancers Becoming a Thing of the Past?

June 25, 2019

When the news broke that the Orlando Magic was getting rid of the Orlando Magic Dancers, my social media feeds pretty much blew up. I lived in Orlando for six years and this team is a big part of the dance community there.

 

But these types of changes have been happening for a while now in the sports entertainment industry and extends far beyond Orlando. It’s becoming more and more common throughout American sports, especially in the NBA.

 

Since it is such a sensitive topic, I wanted to take my time thinking about it and do my best to understand what’s really going on here. I wanted to explore all sides of the topic and offer a thoughtful opinion. So, here goes.

 

 

 

 

Where the Trend Started

 

One of my freelance writing jobs involves creating content for a dance auditions website. In the coming weeks, most NBA teams will start holding auditions for their dance teams so I’ve been scoping out the details. While working on this job, I noticed the trend.

 

The first team I saw that was doing things differently was the Toronto Raptors (who recently won the National Championship). They already had a co-ed hip hop dance team called the North Side Crew, as opposed to the traditional pom-style, all-female NBA dance team.

 

The crew seems to have a few seasons under their belt and my first reaction was of mild enthusiasm and interest, but I didn’t think much about it. I thought their branding was great and if it worked for their city, then that’s awesome to have men and women coming together to create a new kind of sports entertainment.

 

As I continued searching through NBA auditions, I started noticing more of a trend toward co-ed dance teams and I started to think a bit deeper about the implications of such a move.

 

In doing a bit of research, I gathered some of the reasons why this is becoming a trend in the NBA and in American sports in general as well as some of the other implications I find interesting about what’s going on in the female dance world.

 

Feminism

 

One of the biggest arguments for dissolving all-female dance teams in the NBA seems to be in the name of feminism. The definition of feminism is something along the lines of promoting equal rights for both men and women.

 

According to Mike Bianchi’s opinion piece for the Orlando Sentinel, it was a progressive step in the right direction for the Orlando Magic to get rid of the dancers since the whole thing seemed sexist in the first place.

 

“We are finally and thankfully reaching a point in today’s ‘Me Too’ world when it is becoming unfashionable for both college and professional teams to objectify women for the viewing pleasure of male audiences.”

 

There have also been allegations of sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment coming from some female dancers in relation to their jobs with NBA teams.

 

In her less-approving view on the situation, Amara Grautski of the New York Daily News asserts that women are “yet again” paying for the mistakes of men. She claims that the change is being made because of these lawsuits against players and owners for their treatment of female employees. She claims that instead of responding with responsibility, they’re getting rid of the problem altogether.

 

“They are quietly replacing their all-female dance team, the Silver Dancers, amidst a series of revelations about how poorly women in that industry have been treated by sports franchises.”

 

So, it seems like you could use feminism on both sides of the argument.

 

You could say it’s a progressive step that supports feminism by getting females off the sidelines whils also saying it’s sexist to get rid of a team that’s all about female empowerment. Using the same reasoning on different sides makes both arguments pretty weak, in my opinion.

 

Family-Friendliness

 

Another term being thrown around to explain these changes is “family-friendliness”.

 

It’s pretty obvious that these cheerleading and dance teams easily become a form of eye-candy for sports enthusiasts. It’s not hard to see that tiny costumes and potentially suggestive routines can give the wrong impression. But, let’s be honest, sex sells and this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

 

As a dancer myself, I really don’t mind the costumes I’m wearing, even if they are suggestive. I mean, I worked in Vegas for a bit and, let’s just say that in some shows, there’s not much left to the imagination. I think most of my dancer friends would agree and say that as long as the work they’re doing is challenging and rewarding, it doesn’t matter much what costume we're in.

 

Plus, if it sells tickets and I can keep my job, I really don’t mind. In fact, I think it’s a bit weird to claim that dance is the only industry in which sex sells.

 

Still, I’m not saying we should bring kids to burlesque or that dance teams for sports should be seen as only pieces of meat. In my view, I felt like most teams have done a good job of remaining tasteful and if they weren’t, maybe NBA leadership could’ve just asked to make a few changes.

 

Pro Cheerleading Podcast released an interesting conversation on this topic and their thoughts on family-friendliness was notable.

 

First of all, dancers on the podcast said they didn’t have control over what they wear. If management wanted the vibe to be less sexualized, that’s up to them and dancers said they would’ve obliged to less revealing costumes. For them, it’s about the dancing (or it should be), not the outfits.

 

Secondly, these women on the podcast made the point that basketball games aren't all that family-friendly in and of itself. You can get literal jugs of alcohol often leading to drunken fans screaming and swearing at one another. Fights often break out at sporting events. Super family-friendly...

 

On the podcast, they felt that the female dancers were blamed for any family-unfriendliness when really, if you want adults to enjoy something, unfortunately or not, you have to have something in it for them.

 

To listen to the full conversation on the Pro Cheerleader Podcast, click here.

 

Overall, sex sells and maybe it’s time to get over that fact. In this case, the dancers aren’t responsible for an event not being family-friendly. Another invalid argument if you ask me.

 

Inclusivity

 

The next buzzword that keeps coming up in these conversations is inclusivity. It’s not very often that men aren’t included in something but in dance and cheerleading, men do struggle. I have two younger brothers who dance or have danced and I’m the first one to understand that the bullying and ignorance surrounding boys in dance is a huge issue in our industry.

 

In this way, I definitely understand that men might want to join an NBA dance team. Here’s the thing, I've come to find out that most teams never had a rule against it. Men always had the opportunity as far as I can tell.

 

The sports industry has already started to see men trying out for NFL cheerleading teams and a few have made it. There are currently two male cheerleaders on the LA Rams’ squad. These men are seen as “breaking barriers” and it’s true. So, why weren’t more men trying out for these “all-female” dance teams?

 

By changing these teams from its technique-based dance style (these girls do everything - jazz, hip hop, Bollywood, musical theatre) to strictly hip hop crews, perhaps this encourages more men to take part. 

 

Yes, a lot of these brands like the Laker Girls or the LuvaBulls could surely use a re-brand to include men. But, by getting rid of the entire culture of these teams, you can’t really say that this change was in an effort to be more inclusive. If it was, they’d simply do a push for more men to get involved. I don’t think the female dancers would’ve been against that at all.

 

Should the whole industry have to change in order to help men feel more included? The doors have been open and the opportunity has been there. This seems to be a clear case of “equality of outcome” versus “equality of opportunity” which means that these changes are trying to control the outcome of a team versus equalizing the opportunities presented to everyone.

 

Dance Opportunities

 

As the NBA started dissolving these teams, a lot of the outcry was in terms of dance opportunities being taken away. The responses to these complaints were, “Why don’t you just try out for this new team?” or “It’s still a dance opportunity, just a different one.”

 

With this argument, there are certainly two sides to the coin.

 

On the one hand, it’s giving people who have trained in hip hop styles a dance opportunity that is really hard to find when you don’t live in LA or New York. Even then, it can be difficult to find paid work in such a new, undervalued dance style.

 

Benjamin Phan, a dancer with the Funkywunks Crew who have been featured on NBC’s World of Dance had this to say on the subject:

 

"I do think that it is exciting to have a 'Hip Hop' team as a form of entertainment. I guess under this very general terminology, I am a 'Hip Hop' dancer myself. I've attended many 'Hip Hop' auditions for theme parks and things of similar likeliness and I have to say that I've always been very underwhelmed with the choreography and authenticity of these 'Hip Hop' routines.

 

"For example, most of these auditions consist of technical across-the-floors prior to learning any sort of 'Hip Hop' choreography, if it can even be considered that. Time and time again, this results in many talented street/hip hop dancers being cut from an opportunity calling specifically for them. These roles are now represented by highly technical dancers with no street/hip hop culture or knowledge, let alone ability and presence. Not to take away from them, but there are dancers who's primary training is in these styles, not just something they barely have in their back pocket.

 

"I think this is an exciting opportunity and I have high hopes that this team will represent Hip Hop and street dance culture somewhat appropriately.

 

"In an idealistic world, I would have LOVED to see both technical AND hip hop/street dancers represented alongside each other, as Orlando has PLENTY talent to offer. I don't think a new team should have come at the cost of the all-girl team. I also do not manage and budget these things, so I have no place to say what is 'right' and 'wrong'. I am sad for my friends who have been a part of this team and/or were looking forward to their chance of being on it."

 

Conversely, Molleigh Wallace, a former Orlando Magic Dancer felt that the NBA dance team created a space for technically-trained dancers to adequately show their talents in a way that she hadn’t been able to find in other aspects of her dance career and now they’re taking that away:

 

“I have absolutely no problem with adding men to dance teams. Why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to live out their childhood dreams just like I have been fortunate enough to do? But at what expense?

 

"By taking jobs away in a field where the options are already limited and the pay rate is not even enough to make ends meet? Especially in Orlando where there are so many dancers (both male and female) who are technically trained in many genres of dance.

.

"If the Orlando Magic is trying to be inclusive by adding men to the team there were many other ways to do so without creating a Hip Hop-only team. And this is where my frustration sets in...

.

"Originally the Orlando Magic Dancers were a team who executed high-quality routines in many styles including Jazz dances with intricate turn series and leaps, musical theater, Bollywood, high heels choreography, country-themed dances, Latin fusion and ballroom styles, cheer/Pom aspects as well as Hip Hop.

By creating a team that is only centered around one style of dance they are actually limiting the number of people who will have the opportunity to audition for this team and creating a less inclusive environment.

.

"My heart is broken that in a city where there is so much talent it is hardly being utilized to its full potential in mainly in the theme park shows and now in the NBA.

.

"Being an OMD and having an outlet to dance my ass off was the only thing keeping me in Orlando. We didn’t do it for they pay (even though the pay rate will increase for the new team) I did it for the opportunity to showcase my talent in a city where this was my most challenging and fulfilling option. Being an OMD kept me in Orlando for four years when I was only planning to stay for one season.

.

"Obviously, the new team is not for me but I do hope it allows others to thrive in their craft.”


 

In particular, it seems the Dallas Mavericks' ex-dancers seem to have gotten the worst deal. Their dance team is being replaced by an entertainment squad that will include an almost circus-like offering, complete with dancing animals.

 

It’s pretty painful for dancers to feel like something they’ve worked their whole lives to perfect is being replaced by what’s clearly a less valuable option. It feels like another smack in the face since dance is usually the first piece of entertainment to get cut.

 

The other issue is that these decisions could affect the entire pom style of dance. We’ve already seen heels and jazz funk styles take over traditional jazz and lyrical styles at studios and in professional jobs worldwide. Does that mean hip hop is going to take over pom style dancing in the sports arena?

 

A lot of collegiate dance is based on these traditional American styles and of course, we’d hate to see those go away. If you’ve never seen how incredible college dance teams are, just look at this year’s UDA College Dance Team Championship Winners in Jazz, the University of Minnesota.

 

 

 

By the way, these dance teams are open to men. Here’s Florida State University in the same competition back in 2011.

 

 

 

The dance industry is clearly changing as it always has and it always will. And at the end of the day, it’s not the NBA’s responsibility to create opportunities for dancers. Hard pill to swallow, I know, but it’s a good lesson to learn. If we want to keep the styles we love alive, it’s up to the dancers themselves to create programs and share their craft.

 

So, what’s going on here?

 

All in all, there’s no easy answer.

 

Perhaps switching things up will be a step in the right direction for feminism and inclusivity. It does give hip hop dancers and their culture an opportunity to make money and find new support, but at what cost?

 

Will the pom style and collegiate dance team style go away because of these changes? What’s left for paid opportunities in these areas?

 

And what about other prolific dance companies that feature women? A good example is the historic and esteemed female dance company, the Radio City Rockettes. Will this call for inclusion start to penetrate other areas of the dance world? Should the Rockettes become co-ed? 

 

I don’t think the owners of the Orlando Magic are evil or stupid for making changes to their business model. I also don’t think the dancers who are impacted are wrong for feeling upset or mistreated. Still, it’s important to put egos aside and understand what this really means. 

 

It’s a good opportunity to see that if we’re offended by something, it’s best to look inward. No one else is responsible for you but you. (Spoiler: It might not always feel good, but it's in your best interest. It’s empowering to get in the driver’s seat of your life!)

 

In a broader sense, this is a topic I’ve been super interested in lately, especially in the dance world. I’ve found that the more inclusivity becomes synonymous with progress, the more I feel like femininity is losing its importance in dance. 

 

Women of the past have worked incredibly hard to create spaces for themselves and this feels similar to the outcries of other minorities who feel like the “majority” is invading those spaces. But in reality, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Maybe, in fact, this is wake up call that inclusivity doesn’t always feel good when it goes the other way around.

 

Maybe it’s good that male energy is more prominent in our little ballerina bubbles. But maybe it’s also something to keep an eye on. What do you think is going on? How do you feel about these recent changes in sport and dance?

 

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