This story was originally published on Dec. 2, 2001, in The Washington Post Magazine. And update was published on June 12, 2011.
Virtually anyone can try out to be a Washington Wizards Dancer. As long as you’re female and at least 19 years old, you can pay a $25 registration fee, fill out a short application and show up at MCI Center in early June for the annual auditions.
But why would anyone want to? The pay is laughable, the hours are long and the skirts are ultra-short. Make a mistake, and a few thousand people laugh at you. So what’s the upside?
Some girls, just like some boys, crave the spotlight from early on. And as they mature, for some of them, their looks and their talent make it clear that the spotlight is theirs as long as they want it. This is a chance to be a cheerleader after high school, after college, after everyone else has packed away the pompons. A very select group of women living in major cities can become dancers for NBA teams. For them, the spotlight can get a whole lot brighter. But at what cost? They make as little as $40 per game. And the outfits they have to wear put little in doubt about what sells. Lots of skin, lots of shaking.
In an era when women strive for equality in the boardroom, the sciences, politics and everywhere else, where on the cultural map do we put dancers like these? The women trying out for a spot have a simple answer. They just love to dance.
A few weeks before graduating from Howard University, while interviewing for
jobs, taking final exams and mulling over a Teach for America offer, 21-year-old Keona Tarpley, above, found exactly what she was looking for: a reptilian-patterned pair of glossy red short-shorts and matching bikini top.
The team choreographer and director, Stephanie Davis, encourages the dancers to wear the same outfit all three days of auditions, to make it easier on the judges. And they’re encouraged to call costume makers who specialize in sequined numbers that look like what you’d get if you crossed a bathing suit and evening gown. Tops that reveal the midsection are required.
At a Wizards game, Tarpley had a revelation while watching the dancers perform. “I just wanted to be out there with them -- that’s all I could think about the rest of the game,” she says. “But my friend was like, ‘I can’t believe you would want to do a thing like that.’ “
In the hall, some auditioning dancers lean and stretch against a Wizards mural; others practice together in front of the bathroom mirrors. The hallway is unofficially split into the Loud Ones and the Quiet Ones. Women who were on the team last year account for most of the noise. All returning team members must try out again; no spots are guaranteed. Just as nervous as the newcomers and dreamers, veterans find comfort in anecdotes from last year, giggling loudly and vamping it up as they tell embarrassing stories about one another to rookies. They crowd around the wheelchair of Benjahmin Worley, the team’s makeup artist, whispering gossip in his ears and sitting on his lap.
A Quiet One lunges into her gym bag and pulls out a package of Animal Crackers, and dancers of all decibel levels descend upon her like hungry pigeons. No one, it seems, has eaten since lunch. It’s close to 8:30 p.m., and the gym won’t clear out until past 11 p.m.
“People see us having fun at the games and think, ‘I can do that,’ “ says Davis. “Washington has lots of diversity, lots of soul, lots of women who can dance. But we need women who can perform, not just do what they do at clubs.”
Instead of mimicking MTV moves, attendees spend hours repeating highly technical moves typical of ballet and jazz lessons. On the first night, 150 prospective dancers file up and down the gym floor, repeating intricate steps: pirouettes, double axels, switch leaps and fouettes. Davis is adamant about technique, a fact that makes dancers both proud and petrified.
“No one realizes how hard this is -- how technical our practices are,” says Kelly Owens, a returning dancer. “I mean, I love this and all. But, ya know, it’s not easy. I’m sweating my ass off out here.”
Black, white, Asian, Latino, tall and short, Wizards Dancers demolish the blond Barbie stereotype of a perky cheerleader. But they do share one physical characteristic with Mattel’s curvy one: ample, if not necessarily authentic, breasts. A trip to Victoria’s Secret to buy a pair of “jelly boobs,” synthetic in-bra enhancements, is a rite of passage for new team members.
“It didn’t take me long to realize the emphasis on looks,” says Sandy Nguyen, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher. Nguyen, far right opposite page, was wrapping up her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins and didn’t attend pre-
audition clinics, so she missed the inside scoop about where to get the right bra, glitter and nude pantyhose. “When five people you’ve just met are shoving things down your top to help you have cleavage, you realize rather quickly.”
Katie Herberger, 26, probably shouldn’t be here. Or maybe she should. She hasn’t really decided if this is the right thing to do. “If I make it, then ask me,” she says. Herberger, center above, works as a lobbyist for a trade association. She quietly left her downtown office a few minutes early so she would have time to floof her hair and put on her makeup in the dark parking garage before heading to the tryout. Herberger wants to see how far she’ll get in auditions before she risks raising eyebrows and objections at work.
“I know that this takes talent, I’ve been dancing my whole life,” she says, in a voice much softer than her thick, smoky eyeliner, “but there’s still this perception of ditsy cheerleaders.”
Even if the lobbyist-dancer image doesn’t cause any friction at work, the lobbyist-dancer schedule might. Team members are required to attend two, or sometimes three, four-hour practices each week, all 41 home games, and numerous fundraising and promotional events. Then there are the workouts at Bally Total Fitness in Landover, an unofficial-but-seldom-skipped team activity. One of these could collide with a “Meet the Senator” mixer or a Capitol Hill cocktail hour. “I felt bad leaving a few minutes early just to make it to tryouts,” she says. “What if I have to do that twice a week? Why should I expect them to just say, ‘Sure, go dance’?”
The locker room -- usually home to the Washington Mystics -- isn’t roomy, but hopefuls still make space to practice and primp. With its occupants stuck in pantyhose, cramped quarters and a stressful five-hour competition, the locker room could easily be a breeding ground for bitchiness. But it’s not. It’s Girl Scout-camp nice in here.
“We don’t have time for divas,” Davis warns those trying out. “We spend too much time together for anyone to be giving attitude.” During auditions, participants swap horror stores about tryouts for the “other” team in town, where everyone is snarky and rookies get the cold, glittered shoulder. “Everyone tells us we’re the nice ones.”
Crystal Albright, 20, tried out last season and was cut on the final day. She sat in her car for two hours in the MCI parking garage, waiting for her friends to finish auditioning. They all made it. A few days later, Albright, center above, called to find out why she didn’t and what she could do to improve her chances for the next year.
“Lose a little weight, get a ‘look’ and come back,” is the message she’s been replaying in her head since that call.
Albright has lost 15 pounds, dyed her hair blond, cut it, straightened it and kept taking dance lessons. She recently “took a break” from her boyfriend because she didn’t want any distractions. “I am so determined to make it,” she says. “I’ve been dancing since I was 3. Being in front of people, being the center of attention, it gets in your blood.”
The air is thick with glitter dust, hair spray mist and the chemical smell of pantyhose right out of the package. Dancers arrive on the final day of auditions around 8 a.m. to have their makeup and hair done by the team’s stylists. Worley is manning the primping pit stop with four tackle boxes of makeup supplies. He’s staked out his territory on a large conference table, covering it with thick tubes of MAC lipstick, vials of hair goo, a flatiron hair straightener, bottles of water and a pair of falsies.
This will be the first of many sessions with Worley and the hair stylist for those who make it. Once each dancer gets her signature look, Worley explains, she can’t change it without permission. No dancer colors or cuts her hair during the season unless the team’s choreographer or stylists agree to it.
After the first giddy hour of nervous chitchat, the volume level drops in the locker room as the toll of jumping, twirling and slithering catches up with the participants. Nguyen pulls out a paperback. A few women shout and blow kisses at Allen Iverson on the TV set. “If I don’t make it, I’m going home and taking a nap,” says Owens. “If I do make it, I’m going home and taking a nap and going out to party.”
“If I don’t make it, I’m going to McDonald’s as soon as I leave,” Albright says.
The interview, first round of the final day, is the hardest part, dancers agree. Those who’ve made it this far are required to wear the skimpy Wizards Dancers uniform for the first time. There are eight uniforms and 28 finalists trying out in groups of four. The locker room entryway is a pit stop where eight nearly naked women, in push-up bras, thongs and nude pantyhose will quickly exchange outfits between interviews. They get about two minutes to find a uniform close to their size, pull on socklike booties and make sure they’ve got visible cleavage.
Out in front of the judges, four women attempt to mount a wooden stool gracefully. During Wizards games, dancers sit on stools between routines. The judges -- a group of former Wizard Dancers, Wizards office staff, a couple of professional dancers and the Redskinettes coach -- need to see how skin shifts, pinches and rolls when dancers sit down. “I know it sounds anal, but the fans are going to see you sitting on those stools, and we want you to look good,” Davis explains.
“Yeah, they want to see if anything is hanging out or poochy,” pipes in Jennifer Johnson, a veteran with abs worthy of a Bowflex commercial. When instructed by the head choreographer, the four turn to the left, the back and the side in unison. They suck in their stomachs and repeatedly tuck their hair behind their ears. No one seems to know what to do with her legs. Cross them at the knee? The ankle? Leave them uncrossed? Let them dangle off the stool?
During the actual interview, which takes less time than the stool spinning, each woman announces why she wants to be a Wizards Dancer. Not a single one fails to mention the word “love.” “I just love to dance.” “I just love to be out there in front of lots of people, in the spotlight.”
“My parents support my decisions, they want to me to go after this if this is what I want to. They know I’m a smart woman,” says Keona Tarpley. “I’m sure they’ll want to come to games, at least a few.” She hasn’t been able to reach her mom, despite several calls before the final team roster is announced. Tarpley has been upbeat and confident all three days. If it’s just an act, it’s a good one. The calls are the first and only sign that she is in need of a pep talk. Each dancer gets two free tickets per game to give away, and many invite their parents for at least one game. At least a couple of dancers have never been to a Wizards game.
Auditions are over. And so are the giggles and chitchat that gave the locker room a slumber party vibe. All eyes turn to the locker room door every time someone walks in. Everyone is waiting for Davis to break the news. After an hour, she walks in somberly and kneels in front of the television. The women pack in tightly around her.
“Guys, if you made it this far, you have to come back next year. You have to call me,” Davis implores, stressing how difficult a decision it was for the judges. She reads the numbers of the women who’ve made it. Before anyone erupts in hugs and squeals of delight, they wait for the six women who didn’t make the team to leave the locker room. There’s not a lot of time for sympathetic embraces. The six scoop up their makeup bags, slip into warm-up pants and leave quickly without looking back down the hall, where 22 women, including everyone mentioned on these pages, are beginning to hug one another and shout things like, “Girl, I told you that you’d make it!”
Your 2001-2002 Washington Wizards Dancers. For those who made it, in addition to the long schedule ahead and a litany of area appearances, also on tap is this year’s pinup calendar. Lounging on sand or standing in front of such random props as a Humvee, coquettishly assuming the wind-in-the-face, babe-in-the-bikini pose, the dancers will play dress up -- and dress down -- for the various layouts. They’re already talking about this year’s version. “I hope I get a cold month, like December,” says Nguyen, flipping through last year’s edition. “Maybe I’ll get to cover up a little more.”
Amanda Temple is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington. Lois Raimondo is a Washington Post staff photographer.