The Dallas Mavericks Dancers hustle out onto the court, all smiles and waves, and line up with near-military precision. The crowd quiets, and there is a second of calm before the team unleashes a synchronized storm of dance moves — hip-hop and jazz, athletic and graceful, sexy and classy.
The entire routine lasts little more than a minute, but it’s the product of hours of practice and dedication that have made the Mavs Dancers the hottest dance team in the NBA. That’s how they’re billed when they take the court, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the sold-out American Airlines Center who would disagree.
In their 23rd season, the dance troupe has become an important part of the experience of attending a Dallas Mavericks game. And in this lockout-shortened season, as the Mavs have struggled to find their rhythm at times, the Mavs Dancers have been in championship form since Day 1.
That’s largely because of the leadership of Mallory Mills, a former Mavs dancer in her second year as director. She has definitely upped the ante for the squad. In her first year, Mills chose 15 rookies for the team of 20 dancers. And all but three have returned, surviving what rookie Grace Sells calls a “nerve-racking roller coaster ride” of auditions and training camp.
“The audition process this year was more stressful than last,” says Bonnie Ohlig, in her second season. “Not only do we have to be better than the girls trying to come in and take our spots, but we have to prove to Mallory that we have grown and improved.”
After an NBA championship, the Mavericks’ popularity is at a high point, and the dancers are becoming celebrities in their own right. They makes public appearances, host watch parties and represent the Mavericks at charity events. Some have mentioned being recognized at restaurants, the grocery store and even NorthPark Center. And this summer, they were featured in a Web series on their website called Making the Team, in which cameras chronicled the audition process. Cameras also followed them on their trip to Barbados for the annual calendar shoot.
And while the Web series was nothing like what most of us have come to expect from “reality TV” — no Snooki-like fights or tantrums — it did provide a look at the women beyond the pom-poms and glittery outfits.
The dancers come from all sorts of backgrounds and places — Jenna Zmolik is from Forney, and Natsuki Kaito is from Tokyo; Meghan Hodge went to the University of Arkansas, Paige Jones went to TCU. Some are full-time college students, others have full-time jobs, ranging from registered nurse to tax associate to personal trainer. Yet they all feel part of the Mavs Dancers sorority.
They have movie nights and team dinners, and some are already talking about being in each other’s weddings. “We are all like a family,” says second-year veteran Rachael Harpe, who is a senior at UNT studying to be a teacher. “It already makes me sad to think about what I will do when my time here is over.”
Much like being a pro athlete, being a member of an NBA dance team is a limited-time-only job. But it also provides once-in-a-lifetime experiences and exposure. Former Mavs dancer Lexy Hulme appeared on Glee and toured with the cast. Mills, who was a Mavs Dancer for seven years before becoming director, recalls being selected to the first NBA All-Star Dance Team and performing at the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas. She has also traveled to Milan and Rome for her job and recently Barbados for the 2012 calendar shoot.
“The girls loved it and it was a lot of fun,” she said. “But it was hard work getting up at 3 a.m. after going to bed at midnight.”
When the dancers were not being photographed, they were doing community service, including a trip to visit children at the Nightingale orphanage. The 12-month calendar features all 20 of the dancers in locales throughout the coral island, with rookie Meghan Hodge (who moved to Dallas after graduating from Arkansas to be a Mavs Dancer) appearing on the cover.
“Getting the cover was the most thrilling thing ever,” says Hodge. “I found out at practice ... I was so excited and the first thing I did was call my mom with the news.” She says it has been her dream to be on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. “I’ve done some swimwear modeling, and that would be amazing. I don’t think it’ll ever get that far, but I can dream.... I never thought I would get this.”
But being a Mavs Dancer isn’t all glamour all the time. On game nights at the AAC, the girls arrive at their locker room two hours before tip-off. While the fans file into the arena, the dancers hone routines they’ve practiced over and over again at Elevation Fitness Club. They take the court for player introductions, and then again after the second timeout in the first quarter.
“My favorite part is being out on the court with the energy of the crowd,” says third-year veteran Lauren Castillo. “I am always challenging myself to do better. There is a different level of confidence in the fans, players and the dancers. We have new routines and have done more choreography so everybody is more on top of their A-game because of last year’s success.”
At halftime, they head back down to the locker room to change uniforms and rehearse their next performance, which follows the second timeout in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, the dancers take their customary spot along the rail in Section 109. Depending on the flow of the game (the fourth quarter is always an impromptu decision based on the vibe of a particular night), the girls will perform multiple “tags,” mini-dances that get the fans involved.
Whitney Foster, in her fourth year and serving as a co-captain, came to Dallas after three years as a cheerleader at the University of Houston. For this daughter of a pastor, it has been a journey.
“When I first tried out, I did not know anything about dancing and did not even make it my first year,” she said. “Since I came from a cheerleading background, I did not know what to expect. I always tell girls now that are trying out: Do not get nervous — get excited.”
As the regular season winds down and the Mavs battle for a playoff spot, every game is magnified. The Mavs, the oldest team in the league with an average player age of 30.3 years, will need every shot of adrenaline they can get from the capacity crowds. And the Mavs Dancers are a big part of ratcheting up the energy level inside the arena.
Nobody knows that better than Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun,” Cuban wrote on his blog, blogmaverick.com, late last year. “I want [the fans] always looking up [not at their phones] ... at the game and the entertainment in the arena. You can’t cheer if you aren’t watching. It’s my job to give you something other than the game to look up at.”