The NBA may be locked out, the start of the 1998/99 season may be in jeopardy, but for the Knicks City Dancers, the show must go on. At nine o’clock Tuesday morning, about 500 knee-padclad hopefuls will sign up for a grueling day of jiggy steps, Power Bars, and hair tossing, all for the chance of being one of the 30 finalists in the Knicks City Dancers (KCD) eighth annual tryouts. In the end, 14 will survive, earning their spot on the Garden floor and a place in the hearts of adolescent Knicks fans everywhere.
“Right now, [the lockout] is not affecting us,” says KCD director Petra Pope. “We’re just moving forward in the hopes that everything is cleared up by November. We have to be prepared.”
She’s not kidding. For a KCD, an average week means two three-hour rehearsals and two to three games, during which they’ll perform about four times. Add to that up to five personal appearances–at raffle drawings, autograph signings, restaurant openings–and “it can get tiring,” says third-year captain, fifth-year dancer Jaclyn Brooke. “But you have to push yourself to be the best. It’s a lot of commitment.” Brooke, who graduated from New Jersey’s Kean College last August with a degree in adult fitness, calls being on the team “very rewarding.”
Intrinsically, that is. It’s certainly not financially rewarding. The (nonunion) dancers get $90 a game, $60 a rehearsal, which might explain all those personal appearances and a team-run summer camp (see sidebar). Yes, they are the NBA’s highest-paid dancers, “but this is New York,” notes Pope, “it’s expensive.” A raise, she says, “is in the works.”
While dancing for the Knickerbockers might not be very remunerative, there are other perks, KCDs say. For one, you can’t beat the exposure. “It’s a little bit easier to get on a list at a club,” Brooke acknowledges, and “it’ll help get your foot in the door of a closed audition.” According to Pope, most KCDs go to school or have other dance-related jobs, so they appreciate the gig’s consistency and flexibility. Plus, says dancer Angela Phillips, “it’s a great way to stay in shape.”
True enough. By the end of the season, the dancers will have 30 different numbers in their repertoire, says Pope. The Knicks fans are a varied bunch–something she takes into account in her musical selections. “Per game, we do one hip hop, one techno, one rock, and one oldies number,” shesays. “We try to appease everyone by mixing it up.”
According to the dancers, public perception is positive.
“They perceive us as high-energy dancers,” says Phillips. “High-energy professional dancers. You can tell the difference when people have technical training and when they don’t.”
And that’s what it takes to be a KCD. “Before we know that you can hip hop, jazz, funk, and get down,” Brooke says, “we want to know you have eight years technical training.”
The Big Apple got its first taste of the KCDs back in 1991, when Pat Riley, in his attempt to bring his Los Angeles “Showtime” to the world’s most famous arena, also brought Pope. And besides her KCD duties, she currently directs squads for the Liberty and City Hawks.
“The initial response was shock,” recalls Pope. “I think there was the fear that it would be just a cheerleading pom-pom squad, not talent. But then people saw how much a part of the community we were and that they were talented dancers. Their popularity is not something that happened overnight, it’s something I’m proud to say we earned.”
Today, says Pope, “we are part of the entertainment package. We’re everywhere–grand openings, bar mitzvahs, schools. We were on MTV’s Road Rules, and when you’re on Road Rules, you know you’ve evolved.”
According to Garden sources, the squad might further its evolution by hiring the first male KCD this year. “Every year we have interest from men,” Brooke notes, “and it would add a lot to our abilities as a team.” It’s a move that would definitely make headlines, perhaps even more so than last year’s Heather Errico debacle.
If there’s a Knicks equivalent to the celebrity status of former Laker Girl Paula Abdul, it’s Errico. While other KCDs have gone on to Cats and The King and I, it was the seven-year vet who made gossip columns after she resigned in March, when a caller to the Howard Stern show announced that Errico was having an affair with Patrick Ewing. As the allegation aired, a stupefied Errico sat silent; Stern ended the interview.
So what about player-dancer relationships? Is there a KCD code? “With any job there’s a certain professional protocol,” says Pope. “It’s made very clear that we’re there for the fans and to be professional. There are no set rules other than to be a professional.”
As captain, Brooke is exempt, as is her co-captain, but the other KCDs wishing to keep their spot on the squad will be at the Garden on Tuesday morning trying out with everyone else. According to Pope, about five new dancers are added each season.
“It’s a long day,” says Brooke of sifting through 500 wannabes. “It can get very emotional–especially toward the end.” (The girl on Road Rules cried when she didn’t make the cut.)
But there are those who persevere. “I remember this girl who didn’t make it,” says Brooke. “She came up to me afterwards and asked why. I said, ‘Truthfully, it’s because you didn’t smile.’ When you dance in front of 20,000 people, you gotta smile.”
Later, at another audition, she’d turned her frown upside-down; she made the squad. “I asked her what happened,” Brooke recalls. “She said she went home and practiced and worked on it in front of a mirror, dancing and smiling at the same time.”
Says Phillips, who auditioned twice before making the squad, “Tryouts are a great experience–nerve-wracking, but great. You learn so much about the squad and yourself.”
A former dancer for the Cincinnati Bengals, Phillips finds the KCDs more of a challenge than high-kicking it at football games.
“The level of dance between the two is different. [The NFL] is more like cheerleading because we actually had pom-poms and did chants on the sidelines. They’re two different styles, neither one better than the other. It’s definitely warmer in the NBA–there’s no snow or rain.”
Full-Mettle Dance Shoes
“For the second straight summer, local hot-steppers had the opportunity to sign up for Knicks City Dancer Boot Camp, a two-day event held in the Bronx, Long Island, and the Meadowlands, taught by actual KCDs. Attendees’ résumés ranged from high school kick squads to longtime professionals looking for a way to break in with the KCDs. All it takes is $175 and a dream ($225 for overnighters).
“Decked in fatigue-style Spandex, the KCDs race through registration, hand out the requisite free crap, and get to work. After just 20 minutes of a warm-up session the feeble trickle toward the back of the dance line while the defeated drop like flies.
“The camp is divided into three “companies” (K, C, and D), according to ability. For the next 36 hours campers attempt to master such KCD numbers as “Raise the Roof,” “Ghetto Superstar,” and “Run, Forrest, Run.” (KCD numbers are frequently named for the accompanying tune, director Petra Pope explains. “Like, if the song is ‘Get Jiggy With It,’ we’ll just call it ‘Jiggy.’ ‘All That Jazz’ was ‘All That Jazz.'”
“In between ball-changes and jiggy steps, the KCDs fill their time meeting campers and discussing everything from how they got started with the KCDs to what makes a good high-carb lunch. “One of the great things is that we’re able to meet our fans one-on-one,” says KCD captain Jaclyn Brooke.
“Only one camper has ever gone on to become a KCD, and she ultimately had to leave the squad when she couldn’t learn all the numbers. “The level of the camp is not as high,” says Pope. “Being a professional dancer is not everything in the world,” says Brooke. “It’s being very well rounded in several areas. I try to get that across. The most important thing is to stay real, to try to be real.” –H.Z.U.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 1998