The air conditioning at the West High School gym was out, and the room was thick with heat.
No matter. When you have to dance, you have to dance.
That Saturday morning, more than 100 women lined the hardwood floors, sporting gym shorts, yoga pants and some even with sequins. They kicked and flipped their hair in sync, trying to maintain picture-perfect smiles on their made-up faces.
On a platform in front of the room, a woman sported a blonde ponytail tucked into a ballcap. She shouted instructions — or what passed as instructions: “Swoopy, swoopy, double swoopy, hit, up, down, hit, hit!”
If any of this sounds appealing, or even makes the least bit of sense, then you might have what it takes to be a Jazz dancer.
“It’s definitely a nerve-wracking process,” says Ashley Kelson, the incoming dance team director and a former dancer herself for five years. “You’ll mess up. But the best ones just stay comfortable and own the floor.”
JAZZ DANCERS’ ROLES
The Jazz dance team aren’t just a bunch of pretty faces. Some of the requirements of the job:
• Perform routines during timeouts and maintain energy in the crowd
• Meet with fans before, during and after games
• Attend outside events, including Jazz community outreach
• Teach and supervise dance clinics for children
The Jazz Dancers held tryouts early last month for their 16-woman squad, which has been a mainstay of Utah Jazz games for decades. It was hot. It was difficult. No one, not even a returning dancer from the previous year, is exempt from tryouts.
And yet the ranks for tryouts swell every year, packed with women aiming for a part-time job as a performer and representative of the Jazz organization. For many who try out, it’s about pursuing a long-held goal.
“I would say in the dance world, it’s kind of their dream,” said Meikle Lahue, the Jazz’s vice president of game experience. “They have a lot of drive and motivation to reach it, and they’re also often Jazz fans, so that raises their commitment level.”
Lahue oversees all in-game entertainment, from the dunk team to the Jazz Bear to DJ Juggy. There’s a lot of options for how to keep fans engaged in stoppages during games, and the NBA has no set rules or guidelines on how franchises can do that. There’s no rule requiring that each team has a set of dancers.
But dance teams like Utah’s endure in part because of both the expression of dance — there’s not many bigger stages for dancers — and because of the personability of the dancers themselves. Many of the women on the team grew up either watching the dancers at games, or met them during a community outreach event. In many ways, the closest fans can get to the Jazz organization is through the dance team: They’re there for pictures, they teach dance clinics, they shake hands and give hugs, particularly to younger fans.
Kelson grew up in Utah and danced throughout her childhood. When she reached a point in college where she had reached the highest level in amateur dance, she didn’t want to be done.
“I wasn’t ready to give it up,” said Kelson, who joined the dance team in 2008. “At this level, it’s a huge stage to be on.”
What makes a Jazz dancer? Energy and enthusiasm.
There’s a baseline of physical skill required — if you can’t keep up with the moves, you can’t make it. But beyond that, there’s a certain character quality that makes some stand out in the audition process. A true Jazz dancer radiates on the floor, Lahue said.
Not to say that the other women who fall short don’t have their admirable qualities, she adds.
“You have to be really brave, quite honestly,” she said. “Getting cut is never fun for anyone. I have a lot of admiration for anyone who does something like that.”
To be clear, it’s a ton of work. While the Jazz Dancers don’t disclose compensation, for most, it’s a side hustle — either a part-time job for school, or a supplementary income around another career. They practice two nights a week for four hours per practice, and on home game days they might work for six hours at a time.
There’s a temptation to view the dance team as anachronistic, as a somewhat awkward gender dynamic of female athletes existing to cheer on the men. But while it’s true that the Jazz Dancers are a supplementary part of game days, Lahue said the team and the Miller organization view the dance team’s role as larger than that particular niche.
“We’ve moved past the cheering aspect of it,” she said. “They’re very athletic. They do things most people can’t. They’ve been training, and I feel like talent has moved us outside of the typical gender mindset. And beyond that, they’re also ambassadors for the team. They’re kind of the outward face for the Utah Jazz.”
Kelson said her five years with the team were among the most rewarding in her life, even though the hours were long and sometimes thankless. She was able to parlay her experience into a career with the Miller organization before returning to the dance team this year as its director.
She’s excited to dive back in.
“We’ve had all kinds of people be Jazz Dancers, from people in college, to married moms,” she said. “The bonds you form with the other girls are like nothing else.”