André Diaz was late to the first day of tryouts. Coaches told him he had missed the cut. Unwilling to accept his fate, Diaz returned the next day, determined to prove that he deserved a place on the team.
He stepped onto the court and sized up his competition. Some of the guys were good, real good. Some were taller, with more muscles and more experience. Diaz knew it would be tough.
I'm just as good as these guys. I've worked all my life for this, said the voice in his head. Show them what you've got.
So, with nothing to lose, Diaz did what he does best: He danced.
Justin, JT, Britney Spears' ex, Janet's wardrobe stylist -- call him what you want, but Diaz calls Justin Timberlake his savior. It was Timberlake's boy band, 'NSync, and their catchy ditty "Dirty Pop" that got the part-time salsa instructor his job as one of eight male dancers for the Memphis Grizzlies Dance Team.
"I put my resume down on the table and told [the judges] that they had to give me a chance," Diaz says. "The other guys had learned the routine to that song the day before, so I was behind, but I worked to catch up and got on. It's my third year, and I've learned a lot. And these guys [fellow dancers] know I've grown."
The other men lounging on the dance studio floor nod in agreement.
|Grizzlies dancer André Diaz busts a move.|
It's Tuesday night, almost 8 o'clock, at the Mid-South Dance Studio. Youngsters in tights and jazz shoes, fresh from class, race through the building as their parents try to wrestle them into coats. The professionals are just arriving for rehearsal.
The members of the dance team practice twice a week during basketball season. First, they warm-up individually. Some do the first positions of ballet. Others do jazz toe-touches or tumble like cheerleaders. Then, for the next three hours team coach and studio owner Kathalene Taylor takes the squad through time-out, television break, and special event routines.
Tonight the 16 female members of the troupe have a new routine to learn. Taylor presents the piece in a series of steps, each one more difficult. "Got it?" she asks. "Good, because you have perform it for the game tomorrow."
The men are released to work on their own while the women practice.
"Make sure you write this in your story in capital letters," the men say: "WE ARE NOT CHEERLEADERS!" We agree, but the dancers have an image problem: Nobody takes them seriously.
"Memphis is not used to having males in this industry," says team captain Isaac Lias. "When [fans] get used to seeing us do this, we hope they will take us just as seriously as [they do] the girls. We're working with the Grizzlies front office to put us out there on TV for promotions and things just as much as they do the girls."
Most of the men come from dance backgrounds, including school teams, studio training, and cheerleading squads. A couple began as high school athletes who took up dancing on a dare. Lias, who prefers to be called "Lee-Lee," played high school football before an injury ended his gridiron career. His talent for tumbling led to a place on the cheerleading squad and a college scholarship.
The other athlete on the team is baby-faced Zurick Thomas. At 23, the former track star has the perfect characteristics for a dancer: shining pearly whites, bubbly personality, and eternal optimism. "Track was my heart," he says. "But one day we got a new dance teacher at high school, and she started a dance club. I went to the auditions just joking around, and she told me to do some moves. Every move she did, I could do it too. I've been dancing ever since."
From the 24-member squad, Taylor selects 12 women and four men to perform at each game on a rotating basis. Members must audition each year to retain their positions.
So, what does it take to make the team? An understanding of basic dance styles, a good attitude, and a commitment to games, rehearsals, and community appearances. Oh, did we mention that a sexy body with tight butt and abs doesn't hurt? The pay isn't much, about $50 per game, and $25 for promotions and rehearsals. And there may be an unexpected downside.
Dancers are warned that "if the Memphis Grizzlies lose games, you may become symbolic recipients of fan displeasure."
"I remember the first year we were here someone wrote in the paper that having guys on the dance team was bad karma," says dancer Donald Frison. "I don't agree with that at all, because we're some of the best guy dancers that you've ever seen."
Frison's body is sinewy and compact, shaped by almost two decades of dancing. At 36, he is the "dad" of the group. Frison began as a Libertyland dancer in 1987. After eight years, he left for a stint off-Broadway. When he heard about the Grizzlies auditions, Frison took the opportunity to return home. "I always wanted to dance in the NBA. I remember watching a game with the Atlanta Hawks and they had guy dancers, and I immediately knew that was something I wanted to do someday," he says. "When people see us down here having fun, I want them to know that it took a lot of hard work to get here."
|Darrius Bell, Taurus Hines, Donald Frison, and Isaac Lias.|
For a recent game against the Clippers, Lee-Lee and Frison are joined by Taurus Hines and Darrius Bell as the male dancers. Taylor, who once danced for the Clippers, is asked: "Who plays for the Clippers?"
"Who knows?" she says.
During pregame warm-ups, the women dancers rehearse a sexy number. Then a school-age dance group takes the floor to practice. As the kids prepare for their rehearsal, Frison and company warm-up on the side. Pure adulation shows on the faces of the younger dancers, especially the boys, whose own postures seem to straighten as they watch. Appreciation is easy to get from kids, but with adults, the task is tougher.
For instance, Commercial Appeal basketball writer Ron Tillery has been a relentless critic. Tillery began his jibes against the men soon after the team's start in The Pyramid. He has called for their removal from the squad so many times in his weekly basketball wrap-up column, "10 From Tillery," the guys have lost count. His usual refrain: "Whose idea was this anyway?"
Last year, Tillery cited the male dancers as one of the reasons the Grizzlies failed to advance to the postseason. When Mayor Willie Herenton proposed a $4.5 million infusion to renovate The Pyramid, Tillery sarcastically asked if the mayor's plan included money to keep the male dancers. Then suddenly, in mid-January, the negative campaigning from Tillery stopped.
"Let's just say I was asked to discontinue writing about them and have stopped," says Tillery. He declined to say who made the request and why, but since then, he has been true to his word.
"One of the stereotypes is that we are gay because we can do things with our bodies that the average male can't. Or, that we only got on the team to date the girls," says Lee-Lee. "Sometimes we do feel like we're being used as a gimmick and that the [front office] is hesitant to get us out there."
Not so, says Taylor, who has been involved with the dance team since the Grizzlies' move from Vancouver. "The fans have their own opinions, but we really want the guys to stay," she says. When the team was in Vancouver, male dancers were used sparingly, performing only for special occasions. "I encourage guys to perform because they bring a certain strength and masculinity to the routines," Taylor says. "You can do more with guys on the team. And they are less dramatic, don't take themselves as serious as the girls, and improve faster."
The Memphis male dancers are part of a disappearing breed. Only one other NBA team, the Atlanta Hawks, has males on its dance team. The Seattle Supersonics, the first NBA organization to include a male on its team in 1998, returned to an all-female troupe this year. "At the height of the male dancer phase, about two years ago, we had five full-time dancers, and our dancers were well received," says Supersonic director of marketing and events Brett Ballach. "We had a couple of men try out for the 2003-2004 year, but they didn't work out, and the organization had decided to go in a different direction by then."
In 2002, Cleveland Cavaliers dancer Bryan Martin was let go when fans objected to his presence on the court. The NBA leaves all hiring and firing decisions up to the individual teams. "The truth is that in basketball, we're on the bottom of the totem poll," says dancer Taurus Solomon. "Actually, as male dancers we're under the totem pole."
The guys admit that they sometimes hear negative comments from the audience, but some female fans have given them nicknames and even flirt with them, asking for dates and phone numbers. As for male fans, they have one question: "How do I get to the girls?"
But none of the negative attitudes really matter, says Lee-Lee. "We're combining three loves: getting paid, getting to dance, going to all the home games and having the best seats in the house, and as a bonus, being around some of the most beautiful women in Memphis.What more could you ask for?"