The crowd is cheering, clapping, shouting, led by the 10 women dancing on the sidelines. The women are dressed in skin-tight white pants and sleeveless silver tank tops, with the New Jersey Nets logo on the front. They dance to the music, so loud that the vibrations can be felt in the floor. They jump around, shaking shiny red and blue pompoms and high-kicking in time to the music. They are Power N’ Motion.
Minutes later, the lights are brought up and the frenzied crowd settles down to watch the main event, the New Jersey Nets versus the Dallas Mavericks. The women run off the court. This is a typical evening for Sara Haley — dancing is her job.
The 24-year-old Chicago native has been with the Nets dance team since August. She has been a dancer for as long as she can remember and loves the performances at the games. Forget pompoms and perky ponytails, Haley is one of a new generation of cheerleaders who are as ambitious as they are energetic. Haley considers her present job to be a step in the right direction. “I would love to be on Broadway eventually,” she said.
The Irish-American dancer, who has red hair and fair skin, bears a striking resemblance to Geri Halliwell, the singer of Spice Girls fame. Tiny at 5-foot-2 and 105 pounds, she has startling blue eyes, which she admits are aided by colored contact lenses. Her size belies her confidence and drive, both of which may be the result of years of performing and competing. She has the enthusiastic and positive personality that one associates with cheerleaders.
“Both dancers and cheerleaders are upbeat and confident,” Haley said. “You have to be if you want to dance in front of a crowd.”
Haley makes a clear distinction between dancing and cheerleading. “The Power N’ Motion dance team are there for the crowd,” she said. “We fill in the down time between breaks, but we are not cheerleaders. The Nets have mascots who do some tumbling and get the crowd involved.”
They may not do stunts and cheers, but the dancers do fulfill the same role as cheerleaders. They run around the sidelines of the court, encouraging cheers. They throw promotional T-shirts up into the stands. They shake their pompoms and smile enthusiastically at the crowds.
The dancers come out at various intervals, during quarter breaks and timeouts. They add to the carnival-like atmosphere of the game and choreograph various party tricks, like seat upgrades and party zone dances.
There is a lull in the game. The dancers come out onto the court in a different outfit. More hip-hugging pants in black velour and tiny tank tops in shiny black sequins. The music starts and the atmosphere is cranked up a notch.
Young girls in the stands get up and join in the high-energy hip-hop dance routine. Their fathers and other men in the audience look on at the dancers admiringly. The crowd yells its approval and the dancers look like they are having a blast.
Rebecca Palamaia was at the Nets-Mavs game. She is a great fan of the dancers. “They have great spirit and there should be more of them,” said the 13-year-old, who is on both the dancing and cheerleading teams in her school but prefers dancing.
Cheerleading is one of the fastest-growing activities in the country, with approximately 3 million taking part. Its popularity has spread to other sports-crazed nations. Australia has caught the cheerleading bug and has started to hold cheerleading camps.
It has been 30 years since Title IX was enacted, a statute that discourages discrimination in academics and sports. So why are some women still on the sidelines instead of in the game? What is the attraction? Is the glamour attached to cheerleading still as powerful as it once was?
These are questions that have fascinated Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at the University of California. She focuses on popular culture and has spent several years interviewing cheerleaders across the country. She believes the growth of cheerleading to be worthy of intense academic study.
The results of her study revealed an activity that is steeped in traditional values but also changing with the times. “Cheerleading today,” she said, “still embodies traditional feminine qualities: looking pretty and sexy in public, supporting men from the sidelines, smiling, getting a crowd emotionally involved, being on display.” However, she sees it evolving into a much more athletic and skillful activity than before.
Haley dismisses negative comments about her chosen profession. “I am an entertainer,” she said. “That is what I was hired to do. I see dancing and cheerleading as sports. Some of the competitions are televised on ESPN now. I tell people that and they are surprised that there is that level of interest.”
Start in ballet
Haley has always danced. At the age of 13, she won a ballet scholarship and studied in Nashville, Tenn. On returning to Chicago to start high school, she decided to have a regular teenage life rather than live in the rarefied and disciplined ballet world. The next decision that presented itself was easier to make: cheerleading or dance team?
“There were girls from my dance studio who had joined the dance team in high school,” she said. “I was curious and I tried out”.
Haley’s high school dance team did well at competition level and so when she graduated and went to the University of Illinois to study English and speech communication, she got involved in the dance team there and went on to become the team captain.
The Universal Dance Association is one of the largest organizers of dance competitions in the country. Elementary school children as young as 10 take part.
While predominantly popular with women, there are some men on the dancing and cheerleading teams. “I don’t know what the male perspective is, but the female perspective is that they are very talented: fun to watch and charismatic,” Haley said.
After college, Haley toyed with the idea of teaching English or going to law school. Her boyfriend got a job in New York and she made some quick decisions. “I had a semester more than Sean at school and it was then that I really started to consider the dance thing,” she said. “It was either L.A. or New York. Then he got engineering work here, so it worked out really conveniently.”
Haley moved in February 2002. She kept busy teaching dance and gym classes but was on the lookout for other opportunities. She saw an advertisement in Backstage Magazine for Power N’ Motion auditions.
The audition process was tough. Two hundred girls tried out and numbers were whittled down by testing technical skills and dance routines.
Haley said she wasn’t nervous. “Auditions in New York are a lot of fun,” she said. “They can be cut-throat, but everyone is in the same boat and is rooting for each other.”
Haley was delighted to be one of the eight new recruits. “I have danced for a football team, but this is better because I love basketball,” she said.
At only 24, Haley does not put her age on her resume. There is an assumption that the younger you are, the better. “A lot of girls start to audition straight after high school, especially in L.A.,” she said.
The dance team trains three nights a week for four hours per night. Dominick DeFranco is the coach/choreographer. Appearances are important, but unlike some coaches, DeFranco does not advocate “weigh-ins.” He told the girls in August, “You were hired for the way you look now.”
There is no guaranteed place on the team and the girls must audition every year. “It is a great job for a dancer because it means a steady income and it is nice to be a role model, but it is up to them whether we stay or not,” Haley said.
Haley teaches dance in two studios. “I love teaching,” she said. “When you teach English, the kids don’t want to be there. When you teach dance, they want to be there.” Her classes include hip-hop, jazz hip-hop, tap and ballet.
She also teaches aerobics in a gym. “I am in better shape now than ever before,” she said.
The other girls on dance team have similarly busy schedules that involve juggling long hours of practice with teaching, modeling, acting and singing.
Dancing for the Nets brings its own disciplines as well. The code of conduct is strict. When in uniform, the women don’t drink or smoke. They are strictly forbidden to fraternize with the players. “We are not allowed to hang out,” Haley said. “I am not aware of the rules being broken, but there are so many dance teams, I’m sure they have been.”
Haley’s boyfriend goes to the games. “He thinks it’s the best thing ever,” she said. “I get two free tickets a game, which is great.”
The women make a special effort with their appearance for a game. “We all have a different look,” she said. “I am definitely the only Irish-looking girl on the team.”