Reflections of an ex-NBA Dancer

By Theresa Runstedtler

Originally posted on www.layupline.com

Back when I was a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak (1996-1999), I was always the go-to girl for any media interviews about feminist critiques of our troupe. I guess that I must have seemed like the perfect person to counter such criticisms since I was scholarship student at York University and had won several academic awards. I was also considered “articulate” enough to speak to the press.

The questions were pretty predictable: “What do you say to those who argue that the Dance Pak takes us back to the days before the women’s movement? Do you think that you are good role models for young girls?” I usually gave the same answer: “For me, feminism is about choice. I am a trained dancer and I cherish the opportunity to have a job that allows me to express my creativity and to enjoy the camaraderie of other performers. I work hard to look and move the way that I do, and I don’t think it’s a crime to express myself in this way. My friends on the team are some of the strongest and savviest women that I have ever met.” These comments may sound a bit naïve, but as a young woman in my early twenties, I really liked the job.

Dancing in the Pak helped me to pay for my living expenses as a university student. I made more money dancing than I did at my previous job as a research assistant for a professor (about $8.00/hour). At the time, we made $75.00 a game (approximately $18.75/hour; we performed 2-3 dances per game and spent most of the time in the dressing room goofing around). We made a paltry $25 for each three-hour rehearsal; however, the most lucrative part of the job was the $100 an hour we made for appearances.

Moreover, the job opened up opportunities in the broader entertainment industry in Toronto and I was able to get an agent and my ACTRA card (the Canadian equivalent to SAG). The summer after my first season with the team, I made almost $10,000 for two weeks worth of work as a dancer in a movie. (And to this day, I’m still getting residual checks.) To the twenty-something me in the late 1990s, this was a very lucrative payoff – one that kept me from having any student debt. Of course, we also received invitations to the best parties and nightclubs. People knew who we were. There was a certain prestige associated with being on the team. We had a lot of fun hanging together. Heck, we got the opportunity of a lifetime to perform at the 1997 NBA All-star Game.

Even at the time, I recognized that being a member of the Dance Pak went against some of my beliefs as a budding feminist. I recognized that we were walking billboards. I was fully cognizant of our status as “eye candy.” Yes, we were often harassed by the players; they felt that they had some special kind of access to us. Fans sometimes took out their frustrations on us, yelling out criticisms of our hair, bodies, costumes, etc.

But, where else could you go to make money as hip hop dancer in Toronto? How else could someone from Kitchener, Ontario easily transition into the entertainment business of the big city? I honed my craft on the team, learning how to pick up routines one day and perform them the next. I became confident enough to dance in front of almost 20,000 fans. And, over the course of my short career in the industry, I worked with great choreographers from Barry Lather to Luther Brown to Frankie Manning. I worked on projects with actors, artists, and athletes, including Dan Aykroyd, Emilio Estevez, Alanis Morissette, Tara Lapinski, etc.

As Dance Pak members, we did our best to exert some control over our working conditions. We weren’t just passive automatons who agreed to everything. We insisted on being called dancers. (“Cheerleader” was a derogatory word in Ontario at the time.) We fought off the use of pom-poms. Once when Game Operations sent us to do our fourth-quarter routines in the stands and we were heckled by unruly fans, we all stood together and refused to do it again. Yet we still had only limited control over our representation on the court.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, under Isiah Thomas’s management, the Raptors Dance Pak experienced a brief golden age. We were not your typical NBA dance squad:

We were a motley crew made up of diverse ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and even body types. We had wild hair and plenty of attitude. We worked hard but we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We were known for free-styling a lot in our routines –we had “flava.” [For a time we even had male dancers.] On the flip side, many of us were university students on our way to becoming professionals. Others were performers who would soon leave Toronto to chase their dreams in New York and Los Angeles. . . .
 
We wore costumes that were sporty rather than sparkly. (Much of this began changing when the team went into the hands of Maple Leaf Sport & Entertainment a year later. The Pak got whiter and more monolithic in look. Our costumes became smaller, barer, and sequin-drenched. We had Labatt’s logos plastered across our chests. There was no more Biggie or Busta; it was only Motown, classic Michael Jackson, and “hip pop.” We were told that these changes were part of a larger plan to make the entire game experience more appealing to the (white) corporate big-wigs and VIP’s who sat courtside. Unfortunately, in the process we also lost the respect of the folks in the nosebleeds.)

There is certainly a glass wall in the NBA, and sex does sell men’s sports. However, the on-the-ground reality of the women who perform at the games is much more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Just like any other performers, we had to figure out how best to navigate our way through the sexism and racism of the sports and entertainment industries. I learned a lot about how the world works from my short stint on the Dance Pak. I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything.

 

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