Monday, August 06, 2007

Dancing with the Suns 

Posted by Sasha at 9:32 PM ET

Women strut stuff for coveted spot on entertainment team

Lisa Nicita
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 4, 2007

The court at US Airways Center glittered with reflections from cleavage-baring, rhinestone-encrusted bras and tight-fitting half-tops dusted with sparkles.

Many of the 225 attractive women had left their long hair to hang. Most wore lip gloss and microscopic spandex shorts. When Justin Timberlake's voice began to exit two large speakers, the women moved in unison.

Every year, women do this dance as they try for a spot on the Phoenix Suns Dance Team. Last weekend's competition was intense: The NBA team selects only about 15 women. Dancers perform at 44 home games, appear at charity and sponsored events and have a chance to travel abroad. They will be paid, but they won't get rich. Most of the dancers are students or have separate jobs. For some, the gig has led to bigger and better things, including acting, dancing on tour and modeling.

Emily Gleeson, 23, of Scottsdale, has been here before, auditioning for what would be her third year on the team - veterans must try out like everyone else. But the experience is relatively new for Brittany Andreen, 21, of Peoria. A former member of the Arizona Rattlers dance team, she was unsure of the competition she'd be facing.

Women performing in groups would have about one minute to impress the seven judges, including a season-ticket holder, three sponsors and a former dancer. At the end of the day, only 27 of the enthusiastic, hopeful women would remain.

First dance

"I feel good," Andreen said early in the afternoon as several four-women groups performed a fast-paced routine at center court. "The court is really intimidating."

Straight-faced, Andreen watched the routine she and other dancers had memorized with an hour of instruction. She massaged her calves and hamstrings, loosening the muscles as she prepared for her turn. Around her, others went through the routine, their hands popping into the air and their heads tilting, a seated version of what they were watching on the floor.

Andreen, wearing a turquoise halter top and black shorts, did a short run-through before taking her place before judges. Many women lost track of the routine, some offering random moves, but Andreen hit almost every mark. She clapped and smiled when she was done.

"I feel really good, I do," she said.

It was hard for Gleeson to see other women mess up. It can be easy to fall off the routine and difficult to recover, should a dancer see another lose her place. To guard against mishaps, Gleeson said she usually looks at nothing: "I just totally space out."

Gleeson had a lot at stake. During her two years on the team, she has formed important friendships and been chosen to perform in South Korea at an NBA-sanctioned event. Being a Suns dancer has become part of her identity.

During last year's audition, she blanked and forgot half of the dance.

"I would love to be a dancer for as long as possible and perform," she said. "I've got to do it now before I get old and fat and they don't want me anymore."

Gleeson's group was one of the last to perform. She had been waiting for more than 90 minutes. A few beats into the routine she lost her way, echoing last year's performance, but recovered midway through. After finishing, she ran off the court, seeking solitude on the basement level of the arena away from the other competitors.

First cut

About sixty seconds. That's all the judges had needed to see of each dancer to take their first hefty whack at the pool. After starting the day at 10 a.m., the women would hear who made the first cut at 4 p.m.

Ken Ellegard, 61, a veteran dance-team judge who also has judged for the Arizona Cardinals, takes the auditions seriously, looking past the glitter for ability.

"They all pass the appearance test for the most part," Ellegard said, "but can they dance?"

After grading the dancers on a scale of 1 to 5, the judges met over lunch, though there was little deliberating. They ate, commented on good dancers, talked about flubs (such as the woman who nearly lost her tube top) and reassured instructors that the dance was doable despite the number of women who couldn't keep pace.

In the arena, the court was filled with dancers, working together to remember the routine as the first cuts loomed. No music played. Gleeson practiced and talked with friends. Andreen fixed her makeup and fluffed her hair.

Soon, the verdicts were in. Maggie Cloud, dance team instructor, stepped up to the platform.

"The judges had a hard time," she announced before calling the numbers of the 45 women going to the next round.

Holding hands with a friend, Andreen smiled when she heard her number. Gleeson exhaled, but gave very little reaction, when she heard hers.

"Now I have to redeem myself," Gleeson said. "I totally let it get to me."

Interview, photo, dance

Just 27 women attended the second day of tryouts. The other 18 were eliminated after a second performance Saturday evening (getting the bad news after calling a hotline that night).

Before the final cut, each would interview briefly with Kip Helt, vice president of game entertainment, and Cloud. The interview wouldn't be graded like the dance, Cloud said, but used to get to know the women better, to see if they could work together for a season.

Then it would be on to a graded photo shoot with a team photographer.

A beaming Andreen, in a graphic-print halter dress and peep-toe pumps, told Cloud and Helt in her interview that she had called the hotline with her family present.

"It was such a relief to hear my number," she said.

Next came the photo shoot, during which she moved fluidly with each click of the camera. A score sheet sat nearby.

Before Andreen headed to her final dance in front of the judges, she admitted that the weeklong pause before results would be torture. The women - along with the rest of the TV-viewing Valley - will be notified of the final cut on a half-hour documentary, Making of the Suns Dancers, at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 45 (KUTP).

Andreen said she'd probably get out of town.

"The goal is to stay as busy as possible," she said. "This is the most stressful part because you've come so far."

Gleeson mingled with others as she waited for her interview. Unlike the day before, when they wore skin-revealing outfits, the women now were dressed for a night on the town in cocktail dresses, trendy tunics or dressy denim.

When it was her time, Gleeson, in a white minidress and matching wedge heels, comfortably entered the interview room where Cloud and Helt waited. Sitting behind a black table, she soon admitted she didn't feel "that great" about her first-day performance.

Thinking about her life without the dance team, Gleeson began to cry.

"I just couldn't imagine my life without this," she said. "I don't even know what I'd do with my time."

She paused to wipe her face.

"I didn't plan on crying," she said, as Cloud insisted she be careful with her pretty white dress.

Minutes later, Gleeson was flashing sexy poses for the camera as a fan blew her long hair away from her face. When she was done, she placed her belongings in a temporary locker inside a lounge.

Gleeson said she has come a long way since her first year on the team. She didn't know a soul in Phoenix before that audition; now, she has made great friendships. But she thought she'd do better in her final dance.

"At least I can walk out of here knowing I had a great couple of years," she said.

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