"Let's try it! Everybody get in line."
It's game night, and Camille Law has less than 30 minutes to make order out of mayhem in a small locker room inside MCI Center. Thirty laughing and loud-talking boys and girls, ranging in age from 6 to 16, line up to perfect the moves of a new dance they've just learned and will perform that night. The Jackson 5 sing "The Love You Save" from a portable sound system that sounds as old as the recording itself.
Five young boys practice standing on their heads. Someone delivered a box of giant soft pretzels, and several children are trying to grab a few quick bites. "No talking!" Law, the group's choreographer and coach, calls for attention. The song starts again and finally, about 10 minutes before the tip-off, everyone's arms go up together, their legs go out and all hips circle and stop in the right direction at the right time.
The hardest part, said Danae Johnson, 9, of Silver Spring, "is learning the dances." But learn them they do.
The group is the Mystic Mayhem, the youth cheerleading squad for Washington's WNBA team, the Mystics. And when it's the dancers' turn to take to the court during timeouts in the games, their hip-hop grooves and funky moves to pop tunes such as "Wild Wild West," "Let's Go Party" and "YMCA" lift the roof in a whole new style.
Dressed in distinctive uniforms donated by corporate sponsors--white T-shirts with the Mystics logo emblazoned on the front and "Mayhem" stenciled on the back, and denim shorts--squad members line up to face the crowd on both sides of the court. In between them, one tumbler after another flips and handsprings from one end of the court to the other, defying gravity with twists and double twists in the air. The audience goes wild with each twirl and spin.
"They're great," said Margaret Wynn, of Washington, who was dancing along with them recently from the stands.
Part of the fun, said Brittany Hill, 12, of Suitland, "is when the audience stands up and tries to do the dances with us." Most of the time, the fans have to just dance at their seats, but when they were invited at one game to come down on the floor and dance alongside the young troupe, many jumped at the chance to be a Mayhem for a few minutes. A Mystics player or two have even been known to try to learn their steps.
"Murriel [Page] comes in every game," Krystle Chichester, 13, of Washington, said one night during the pregame rehearsal and not long after Page had come through. "She wants us to teach her the dances."
Page, who is ranked first in the WNBA for field-goal percentage and has a career high of 19 points in a single game, showed she had learned a thing or two from the Mayhem when she joined the group on the floor after a 35-point win against Cleveland on Aug. 8.
Chamique Holdsclaw, 1999 WNBA All-Star and newly selected member of the USA Basketball Women's National Team, also stops by the Mayhem locker room from time to time.
"They're just so cute," Holdsclaw said. "As much as they wish they could be like us, I wish I could be like them because they're very athletic."
For all the group's preparation, however, the Mayhem average less than two minutes a game on the floor and perform only during home games. They typically come out once each half, usually during the third or fourth full timeout. And while they know at what timeout they are up, they never know exactly when that's going to be, so they have to be ready at all times.
"Sometimes the crowd gets angry," said James Coe, 14, of Dale City. "But I just keep smiling. Stay smiling."
During the short performances, the Mayhem's job is to get a stadium filled with 15,000-plus fans pumped up. While that may seem an easy thing to do in the midst of the Mystics' recent six-game winning streak, it has not always been so: The team failed to win at home for the entire first month of the season.
"It's nerve-racking when you first go out there because everyone's looking at you," said Carrie McCormack, 16, of Fairfax County. "But then it's an adrenaline rush."
Ariel McLean, 11, of Silver Spring, also keeps a positive attitude. "Before each game, I tell myself that we're going to win today."
Like the Mystics, this is the Mayhem's second year. More than 300 Washington area youths, including a few from last year's squad, tried out for the coveted 30 positions. In picking the squad, Law said, she looks for energy, enthusiasm, the ability to learn a dance quickly and a little something special.
"Kids who like to perform and who have the most personality, who bring something extra to the court," said Law, who was a dancer for the NBA Bullets before they became the Wizards. "All these kids are natural hams."
The squad brings together children with a range of experience and talents, from beginners to a few pros. McCormack has been cheerleading for 10 years; Eddie Crane, 10, of Washington, has been tumbling since he was 3; and Brittany Tyree, 9, of Washington, has been dancing since she was 2, which is perhaps why the large crowds don't make her nervous.
"It's all fun to me," Brittany said.
The Mayhem members are not paid for their participation, although they do receive complimentary tickets to the games for family and friends. Law said they do it for the experience.
"I tell them, 'If you do nothing else, have a lot of fun and make some new friends.' The point is for this to be a memorable experience."