Boston Team Party

November 5, 2008

A sell-out crowd roars approval as the Boston Celtics dance team takes the floor for the night’s first performance. The smiles on the dancers’ faces grow as they hit the opening pose, while photographers click away and television cameras zoom in and out. As the music starts, the dancers light up the arena with a high-octane jazz routine that showcases their precision and enthusiasm. The crowd responds with thunderous applause, as if determined to show the dancers that they are a welcome addition to the Celtics family.

Only a year earlier, no one could have predicted whether the team would succeed. Many of the dancers still remember the pressure they felt the night of their debut. As they prepared to go on, the tension kept building. “The dancers were like young children going to Disneyland for the first time—all wide-eyed,” says the team’s director, Marina Ortega. “I could see many were nervous, so I gathered them all together and told them, ‘No matter what happens, embrace the moment. The team that was never supposed to happen has happened!’”

As the dancers took the floor, the arena lights were dimmed. The girls wore black trench coats covering the vibrant “Celtics green” halter jersey dresses they would be performing in. The crowd grew quiet in anticipation. Unlike most games, where dancers perform short routines during timeouts, this first number was a big production with platforms and props. “It was one of the scariest moments of my life,” says dancer Courtney Kenihan, 20. “I was so worried about how the crowd would respond and I knew this was a history-making event.”

As basketball purists, Celtics fans had never wanted professional entertainment in addition to the game. In fact, longtime coach-turned-president Arnold “Red” Auerbach had gone on the record opposing the idea, and for years team management followed his lead. But by Auerbach’s death in 2006, plans had been drawn to create the Celtics’ first dance team.

“We were the last team in the NBA to have dancers and as newcomers, we had a lot to prove,” says team member Meghan Rourke, 25. It’s taken heart and effort, but the fans who were once skeptical have embraced them. “People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they love watching us dance,” adds Courtney.

Now in their second season, the dancers have earned their following in the Boston community. They perform at all 41 home games, usually four routines a night, and rehearse from six to 10 hours per week. Team members average two outside appearances a week, including charity events like muscular dystrophy fundraisers (“The kids are inspiring,” says team captain Alexis Heos, 25) and breast cancer walks (“My mom’s a survivor,” says Meghan), radio interviews, publicity photo shoots and corporate events. “We have become quite popular here and sign tons of autographs at our appearances,” says dancer Rachel Chepkunov, 19.

Two years ago, when the Celtics organization decided to form a dance team, it sparked a reality series on the NBA network called “Dreaming Green: The Making of the Celtics Dance Team.” The show documented the entire audition process, as well as preparations for the team’s first performance. Alexis remembers being surprised at the turnout for that initial Boston audition. “There were hundreds of girls lined up around the block,” she says.

The media attention quickly showed which dancers thrived under pressure. “Performing in front of 20,000 people can be intimidating,” says Ortega, “and I need dancers who can handle it.”

Although the pro dance team world tends to keep tryouts local, Celtics auditions were also held in L.A., NYC, Sacramento, CA, and Phoenix. Dancers first had to show their technical strength through across-the-floor progressions. After they performed a variety of leaps, turns and high kicks, a first cut was made. Then dancers were taught a routine that featured both jazz and hip hop, and had to perform it in groups of three. After the next round of cuts, those who remained performed short solos to show off their skills and stage presence.

“The toughest and most nerve-wracking part of the audition was the solo because you’re up on that stage all by yourself and all eyes are on you, which can be very intimidating,” says Rachel. “I danced solos in competitions and that definitely helped my confidence.” For the final audition, dancers selected from each city came to Boston for a pageant-style tryout. In the end, 20 were chosen.

For many who made it, having their dream come true also meant balancing the demands of school or work. “The biggest challenge is managing our time,” says Alexis. Since being a Celtics dancer is not a full-time gig, all of the dancers either have other jobs in areas such as finance, advertising and retail, or are in school. “Being a full-time pharmacy student didn’t leave much room for dancing professionally,” says Rachel, who auditioned for the Celtics because rehearsals and games generally don’t start until late afternoon. Many of the girls bring classwork along and snatch the odd 15 minutes between practice and game time to study.

That the dancers have close bonds is obvious—at rehearsals they joke, share tips and help each other. “We’re like a family,” says Meghan. Most of the team members are recent high school or college graduates and for many, this is the first time they have been away from home. “Before each game we make a circle, each put one hand in the middle and yell ‘1, 2, 3, dream team!’ It gets us pumped,” says Alexis. Nearly half the team share apartments, and because of their busy performance schedule, holidays are often spent with each other instead of relatives.

Back on the court, the first routine finishes with a flourish, and the dancers hold their final pose as the crowd applauds wildly. “We always yell, cheer and scream as we go back to our dressing room if we did well,” says Meghan. “When we nail a routine, there’s such amazing energy. I leave more energized than when I came. There may be days when I’m exhausted, or my muscles are so sore it hurts to walk, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”