It is Tuesday afternoon, and the basketball court is a blur of swiveling hips and swinging ponytails--pregame practice for the Laker Girls.
“And one and two,” counts Lisa Estrada, the team’s petite director, a former member of the squad. “And three and four and stop right there.”
She corrects one dancer’s arm movement, then turns on the music: Lenny Kravitz’s funkified version of the Guess Who classic “American Woman.”
It’s an appropriate selection. You can’t get much more American than this. Now in its 20th season, the Laker Girls dance team is to the NBA what the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are to the NFL. An institution.
For most of the 17 women on the squad, it is also a part-time job--one that must fit with a full-time career.
Karyn Daniels, 28, is a sociology and African studies professor at Long Beach City College. She received her master’s in both subjects from Yale. This is her third year as a professor, her first as a Laker Girl.
“Today I finished teaching a lecture at 2:15, got in the car, got here and will be here all night. I’ll get home around 11 and go to school tomorrow morning,” says Daniels, who often grades papers and prepares lesson plans in the Staples Center locker room.
It’s a grueling schedule, but to Daniels, who performed on the UCLA and L.A. Clippers dance teams, it’s worth it.
“My professional job is so different that it’s a really nice outlet,” says Daniels, who has been dancing since age 6 and, like all the Laker Girls, has a strong dance background.
While Daniels has no problem reconciling two disparate professions, she says her students sometimes do.
“They’ll see me at a game or on TV, and they’ll say, ‘There’s a Laker Girl who looks exactly like you.’ They just can’t place me as that same person they see in the classroom,” Daniels says.
Joelene Walker, a four-season veteran of the squad and fifth-grade teacher in Hawthorne, has had a different experience.
“They’re critical,” Walker says. “They’ll say, ‘Miss Walker, next time I see you on the court, I don’t want to see you messin’ with your hair.’ I love it.”
Such a double life is typical of most Laker Girls.
“We always end up with so many different occupations because this is just a part-time job,” Estrada says. “Most people think they’re just dancers and actors, but I think this says a lot for this organization. It shows that these girls definitely have a head on their shoulders as well as being talented dancers.”
Individually, the Girls are not as well known as the Lakers basketball players. Still, “they add stock to the team,” says Mike Mastandrea, executive director of Dallas-based M.A. Dance, a company that teaches dance camps. “Everybody knows the Lakers, but the Laker Girls have enhanced their name. They up the entertainment value. A lot of people have gotten used to being entertained besides just the basketball game itself.”
We can thank Jerry Buss for that. When he bought the Lakers in 1979, he says, “I thought the game itself was fantastic, but the ambience was really kind of dead. It was quiet and boring, and so I thought what I’d like to do is spice it up with having some dancers.”
Now, he adds, “they’re a very important piece of the puzzle. I can’t imagine the Lakers without the Laker Girls.”
Despite their prestige, few Laker Girls divulge their status to strangers.
“It’s not that I’m not proud of it,” says Becca Sweitzer, 21, the youngest member of the squad. “You just have to be careful with that sometimes.”
But, she says, some men who find out are less impressed with her dancing than with the fact that she gets to see Kobe and Shaq up close, albeit from the sidelines. (Laker Girls, for the record, are forbidden from “fraternizing” with the players.)
Walker says she became a Laker Girl simply because “I love basketball.” She says she always has been a Lakers fan, even though she was raised in Dallas and danced for the Dallas Mavericks before winning a spot on the L.A. squad.
For Sweitzer, it was the dancing.
“It’s about getting to perform a lot,” she says.
A dancer on scholarship, Sweitzer moved from Michigan to Los Angeles three years ago to attend the Edge Performing Arts Center in Hollywood. She has trained in everything from jazz and hip-hop to tap and also studied with the Joffrey Ballet.
Sweitzer and 16 other women were selected for this year’s squad from about 500 applicants during auditions in July. The only qualification is that they be 18 years or older. Estrada also recommends they have eight years of dance experience, stressing that the Laker Girls are a dance team, not cheerleaders.
“We don’t use pompoms,” she says.
In addition to dancing ability, strada and five other judges selected the squad based on personality, style and how well the women blended into a team.
Like the city itself, the Laker Girls are ethnically diverse but, says Estrada, that is unintentional.
“We don’t do it with looks, we do it with their talent,” she says. “I want different-looking people, sure, but give me good dancers.”
The music, however, is deliberately selected to appeal to a diverse audience, she says.
“We have to be aware that these girls are performing not only to teenagers or people that just love hip-hop but people who are in their 60s, as well as in their mid-20s,” Estrada says. “We try and pick a range of music that everyone will like, so you’ll get anywhere from ‘Proud Mary’ and old Aretha Franklin to someone a little more rapper-ish.”
This season, the Laker Girls are performing to Ricky Martin’s “La Bomba” and Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West,” among others. Now, one month into the season, they have practiced about 10 routines. By the time the season goes into playoffs in June, they will have mastered 30 acts--and worn every one of their 10 outfits, which range from crop tops and mini-shorts to fringe skirts, halters and sequined mini-dresses.
“This is a family show,” says Estrada, who selects the gear. “However, you do want to show a little sex appeal.”
The squad performs at home games only, during timeouts and quarter breaks. The number of times they perform varies, but it is at least six times per game--in 70- to 90-second routines. Depending on the team schedule, the weekly time commitment varies. The Girls practice a minimum of six hours each week but may work as many as 40 hours if the team plays more than three home games a week.
Clearly it is a labor of love, since Laker Girl pay is more in league with that of McDonald’s than with that of the team’s big-name players--$40 for a three-hour practice and $85 per game (which includes a 1 1/2-hour rehearsal beforehand).
“We’ve had weeks where I swear it was nonstop--rehearsal, game, rehearsal, game,” says Shannon Roy-Steen, 28, of Anaheim Hills.
She danced with the Clippers for three years before joining the Laker Girls in 1994. With five years’ experience, Roy-Steen is one of the squad’s longest-lasting members (the record is nine years).
“This is my outlet to be able to perform and do something that I like without having to have the agent and go to the auditions every week,” says Roy-Steen, who works as an employers’ representative at unemployment hearings but who once tried to make a go of it as a professional dancer.
For some, such as Michelle Boehle, 26, that is still the dream. She is pursuing an acting career and already has performed in a couple of movies, including “Bowfinger,” where she played a Laker Girl.
Being a Laker Girl has held a certain of cachet since ’88, when Paula Abdul, a former Laker Girl herself, rose to the top of the pop charts with her single “Straight Up.”
But, says Boehle, her status is no guarantee she’ll get a job.
“You get attention,” says Boehle, on the squad three years. “In the dance world, it’s great to be a Laker Girl, but there’s a lot of people working that aren’t Laker Girls.”
Susan Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com.