The Rules of Going Pro

November 5, 2008

It’s 5:40 p.m. on a Tuesday and I find myself weaving in and out of traffic along Route 271, heading toward Cleveland at 90 mph trying to get to practice on time. My two teammates and I perform this routine on a weekly basis; we know the consequences of being even one minute late. Unfortunately, we pull up to the gym at 6:03 p.m., missing the start by three minutes. The following night, after dancing and cheering the Cleveland Cavaliers on to victory, we find ourselves running 10 laps around the humongous top floor of Quicken Loans Arena and sweating through 100 push-ups.

No, I wasn’t at boot camp or reform school—I was an NBA dancer for the Cleveland Cavalier Girls dance team. After making the team, I thought I would instantly be granted celebrity status. I imagined myself hanging out with LeBron James and shootin’ the breeze with Usher, partial owner of the Cavaliers. Instead, on Day One I had to sign a contract with a long list of rules, like “No fraternizing with players,” and “No drastic changes in physical appearance.”

Breaking the rules on a professional dance team can lead to sitting out a game or even termination from the team. While the penalties may be harsh, dancers who are lucky enough to make it into the sports entertainment world have to accept a tough set of standards. Teams insist that the dancers look and act the part. Here are some of the most common violations that can get you benched for a game, a month or an entire season.

Being late to practice or games

While this rule should go without saying, busy dancers still tend to break it. My two teammates and I were still full-time college students at a school almost an hour from where we practiced. However, most coaches insist on punishment for being late, whether it’s running laps, or worse, being removed from a game. And while my punishment seemed a bit severe, I wasn’t ready to compromise my spot on the team by complaining.

Forgetting choreography or not executing it properly

A professional dancer’s job, first and foremost, is dancing. Unfortunately, no matter how well you might know a routine, there’s still a chance the coach won’t put you in front of an audience. Many will test dancers before they ever allow them on the court. It’s like auditioning for each performance, and if you don’t make the cut, you don’t perform. This translates into lots of extra pressure. Not being on the floor for game night is heartbreaking—and you’ll probably be watched more closely on the next routine, so you’ll have to work extra hard.

Not maintaining your appearance

After years of dance training and a cross-country audition, Chelsea H. (pro teams use first names and initials for dancers’ protection) was ecstatic when she was chosen for an NBA dance team. But at the first game, she found herself forbidden to dance. “I was told that I wasn’t living up to my job requirements,” she says. While no one said her weight was a problem, hints were dropped. “When I was being measured for costumes, the coaches said my butt was big.”

“Fitness is part of the job requirement,” says Rebecca Girard, dance team director for the Detroit Pistons Dance Team–Automotion. “You can’t complete the job if you’re out of shape.” Usually, a team doesn’t have a specific weight regulation— it’s more about being fit for your specific body type and looking good in costume. “It’s critical to have expertise available to help figure out what’s considered healthy for each individual,” says Girard, who has a trainer/nutritionist on call for her team.

While the nutritionist can offer advice, the coach ultimately has the final say. This close scrutiny may come as a shock to women who danced in high school or college and were never criticized for an extra five pounds, but it’s a reality of the biz.

Developing an eating disorder

Like any dancer, a dance team member may be susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Amanda D.,* an NFL dancer, didn’t have a problem with belly fat; she was benched for being too skinny. “Being on the team was actually the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. “When my weight began to drop, the coaches got me back on track. Being benched for a game was so horrible that I didn’t want to go through it again.” Thanks in part to that experience, she now maintains a healthy weight.

The fear of being out of shape can push some dancers in the opposite direction. This means dancers often become addicted to weight-loss pills or laxatives to lose weight, and coaches are forced to bench them as a means of intervention.

The Pistons’ Girard tries to head off problems by asking her dancers to keep food logs. The team nutritionist reviews them, and works with dancers whose eating patterns send up a flag. “If I know of a dancer who has a serious eating disorder,” says Girard, “I wouldn’t bench her unless she was too weak or sick to do her job. And I’d encourage her to seek professional assistance.”

Fraternizing with professional athletes

Perhaps the biggest no-no is fraternizing with the professional athletes on the team for which you’re dancing. Talking to, flirting with or hanging out with the players can even get you removed from a team altogether.

“When I was around professional football players I found myself so wrapped up in the stardom image,” Amanda explains. Wanting friends back home to think you’re tight with the superstars they see on TV is reason enough to think the rules can be bent a little. Amanda felt invincible and joined two veteran dancers at dinner with a few players. When management found out, however, the women were dismissed a month prior to the end of the season.

“It was a devastating time in my life, but I was able to learn from it and redeem myself by making the team again this year,” says Amanda. “I realized I’m here to do my job.”

The bottom line

While being benched is humiliating, most dancers don’t find it enough to make them call it quits. “It all depends on the individual dancer’s investment, coping abilities and support from the team and coaches,” says sports psychologist Debra A. Ballinger.

After being out for a handful of games, Chelsea decided to finish out the season with the dance team that benched her before trying out for a new one. She then ended up making the Detroit dance team and has a trainer on hand to keep her body in shape. “Now, when I put on my blue sequined costume,” she says, “I look in the mirror and am proud of what I see.”

As for me, I got to meet some big-time celebrities, have my name up in lights and sign autographs. But those things were simply extras. During the season, I became the best dancer I could possibly be. I performed in front of an audience of 22,000 fans, and it got my heart beating and adrenaline racing like nothing else ever could. My need to dance and desire to perform were fulfilled in an incredible way, and it’s something I will always be thankful for. So, while sticking to the rules may seem like a drag, it will allow you to do what you love—perform.

*name changed to protect dancer’s identity