Here’s what a day in the life of the Utah Jazz dancers looks like

Rehearsals in an empty Delta Center, and performing on the same floor with thousands watching — or, sometimes, not paying attention.

Like most sports teams, the Utah Jazz Dancers have their pre-game rituals.

Team captain Halle Santiago leads 21 other dancers through their warmups, before the state’s NBA franchise hosts the Brooklyn Nets at Delta Center on Dec. 18.

The room where they warm up is also their dressing room, where an hour earlier the dancers sat on the floor, in front of mirrors, curling their hair and applying mascara and the red lipstick that matches the holiday-themed outfits hanging above them in their cubbies. Hair straighteners are shared, gifts are exchanged, snacks are eaten.

The voice of Mariah Carey filters through the room, singing the iconic “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Several dancers sing along, hitting Mariah’s high notes on “yooouuu” — and then laughing.

As the dancers stretch, they keep one eye on a TV set in the corner, which shows what’s going on in the arena as Jazz and Nets players warm up on the court.

Before leaving the room, just before tipoff, the dancers take turns saying what they’re grateful for — with responses including parents, holidays and each other. They share a motivational saying, a prayer and a final cheer.

The rituals are signs of the camaraderie that comes from spending hours working with teammates.

The dancers (the team is officially called the Zyia Active Jazz Dancers, for the Utah lifestyle apparel brand that sponsors them) have been at Delta Center for hours. Earlier that day, they were rehearsing on the same court — which was deadly quiet in the middle of the afternoon.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The dancers practice a routine hours before tipoff.

Not everything is figured out ahead of time, said Ashley Kelson, the team’s director and coach. For example, the dancers’ moves for the 90-second player introductions change with every game, she said.

Standing in the tunnel leading to the court, Kelson — clad in a velvet green blazer for the holidays — dons her headset, which she uses to listen to the Jazz’s director of game presentation, listening for cues to hold before entering the arena.

Kelson tells the dancers that after the first quarter, they will convene on the “porch” — the mezzanine area of the concourse, where fans can see them — and they can watch the game. Before their warmups, some dancers were on the “porch,” posing for photos with fans.

They wait in the tunnel, alongside the Jazz’s stunt team (coached by Summer Wilson, who’s also the coach of Weber State’s award-winning spirit team). Within moments, they’re racing onto the court, and getting the crowd hyped during that 90-second intro.

It happens in a rush, along with everything else that happens on the court before a game starts. Then they’re rushing off to their next task of the evening.

The work behind the scenes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Director Ashley Kelson coaches the dancers through a routine.

During every Jazz home game, Kelson said, the dancers perform intros, timeout routines, longer dance numbers — whatever the situation calls for, and sometimes depending on that game’s theme.

The dancers memorize some 40 or 50 routines every season, Kelson said, sometimes repeating a few. Practice starts in August, and by the first game in October, they will have 25 routines ready to go. The effortlessness displayed during games is the result, she said, of four-hour practice sessions twice a week.

For the Dec. 18 game, with the holiday theme, the dancers were given more time to perform, Kelson said. The halftime performance was longer than usual, set to a playlist of holiday songs that included Mariah Carey, Elton John, Wham!, NSYNC and Britney Spears.

Dancing to Christmas music, and making that performance fun and engaging, is a feat in itself — and being able to do so is one of this team’s strengths, Kelson said.

“With the personalities that are a part of this year’s group,” Kelson said, she’s struck by “how adaptable they are. [They’re] quick learners.”

Kelson has been the team’s coach for seven seasons, and she was a dancer for the Jazz for five seasons. Kelson attended the University of Utah, and trained in the U.’s dance program.

When her time dancing for the Jazz ended, Kelson said she wanted to stay in sports, which led to her involvement with sports sponsorships. She approached Steve Starks, then the team’s president (now the CEO of the Larry H. Miller Company), about growing the Jazz Dancers program. After giving a presentation, Kelson said, Starks asked her to lead the team.

“We’re just trying to grow and evolve the program,” Kelson said. “From where I was as a dancer, I don’t know if I could keep up with half of the routines the current dancers are doing right now.”

Kelson’s rapport with the dancers is evident. During their afternoon rehearsals before the Brooklyn game, the coach and the dancers communicate about what is and isn’t working. They practice their spacing, being careful to stay within a narrow section of the court because space is precious. They refer to lines on the court that aren’t visible from the stands or on TV.

The dancers fine-tune their moves, making sure angles are clean, marks are hit, poses are crisp, as their matching white Nike sneakers hit the floor in rhythm.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The team’s work extends beyond the court, Kelson said.

“There’s a lot that goes in business hours outside of practice and games as well,” Kelson said. “Besides showing up many hours before tipoff on a game day, they are heavily involved in community appearances” — such as volunteering at VA hospitals or with the Boys & Girls Clubs. “The importance of being a role model to youth is so important,” she said.

Meet the dancers

The dancers on the team are young, their ages ranging from 18 to 27. Some are full-time students, while others have jobs outside their obligations as Jazz Dancers. (The dancers are compensated, a representative of the Jazz’s corporate communications team said, but the franchise would not disclose how much they’re paid.)

Jayden Herman, for example, is in his second season with the dance team, helps coach drill teams at Cyprus and Granger high schools, and works as a manager at FiiZ drinks. Herman said dedication, passion and the time commitment are a big part of the job.

“My senior year, I was actually the first boy on our drill team at Granger High School,” Herman said. Though he tried out and made it, he wasn’t able to perform at things outside school events. “They said that I wasn’t allowed to compete because it was a sanctioned only-girls sport, but it was still fun,” he explained.

Herman is one of three male dancers on the Jazz’s squad. Male dancers first appeared on the team in the 2021-2022 season, though Kelson said they were always allowed to join. She said it was a natural next step for where the program is going.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jayden Herman performs with the Utah Jazz Dancers on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024.

“Once they started letting boys on it, it was so inclusive,” Herman said. “You didn’t see, like, ‘Oh, the girls are doing this and the boys are doing this.’ It’s like they’re doing it as a team together.”

For several seasons, the dance team’s racial makeup was — like the state of Utah itself — predominantly white. The team’s first Black dancers joined in 2016; this season’s team has several performers of color. (The Utah Jazz have long been at the center of conversations about Utah’s racial culture. For example, former Jazz star Donovan Mitchell made news in early 2023 when he discussed the pressure he felt as a well-known Black person in Utah.)

“We are always looking for the best dancer — not only dancer, but well-rounded person in general,” Kelson said. “It’s not all about the dance, and it’s not all about looks, per se, but, you know, how is their mental health? Can they handle criticism of what a fan might say?”

Auditions are held every year, before the season starts. This season, 11 team members are rookies, and 11 are returning performers.

“You have to have the skill. You have to have the talent,” said Santiago, who is returning for her third season with the Jazz Dancers, and her second as team captain. “They’re looking for very well-trained professional dancers, but they’re also looking for amazing people.”

(One indication of their dance skills can be seen in a video on the team’s Instagram account — in which dancers try to guess what choreography a teammate is performing behind them, going only by the sound of their feet on the floor.)

Santiago — who’s from Provo and also teaches dance — said she loves that she gets to dance in her home state.

“I grew up dancing collegiately, and so coming from that, my favorite part of that was being at the sporting events,” said Santiago, a former member of the Brigham Young University Cougarettes. “I’ve always had my eye on the Jazz Dancers, just because Utah is known for their dance. They produce such great dancers.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Halle Santiago.

Nicole Thorley, a rookie this season, came out of retirement to join the Jazz Dancers. She attended Pleasant Grove High School, and coached that school’s drill team for a few years.

“My favorite part is just getting to dance again,” Thorley said. “But a huge part of that is being on a team and performing again, and just being a part of something way bigger than me again.”

Kelson added that, “Here in Utah, I would say this is an opportunity … to be a part of, as a dancer [at the highest level].”

‘The bigger picture’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Halle Santiago and Nicole Thorley lead the dancers off the court after player introductions.

The Jazz Dancers also deal with the reality that they are just one part of the spectacle of an NBA game — and that fans may be more focused on the players, or heading to the concession stands, while the dancers are performing.

“It’s always the bigger picture, with entertainment and everything,” Kelson said. “People are coming to see a game, and so we understand. … Yes, unfortunately, we aren’t the main event.”

The ultimate goal for the Jazz Dancers, Kelson said, is to create connections — whether fans see them on the court, on the concourse or in public appearances around the community.

“The more we can build those relationships and those connections,” Kelson said, “we can trick them a little bit to stay in their seats a little bit longer.”

Santiago noted that “no one’s ever going to really realize what it takes to get to this level. They just see the pretty package with the bow tied on top.”

As a dancer, Santiago said, “The work is always more than worth it. … It’s not gratification from the outside. It’s definitely gratification from the inside, and all the work that we put in even when no one’s watching.”

When the Jazz Dancers step on to the court at halftime on Dec. 18, a lot is happening. Bear, the Jazz mascot, is incorporated into the dancers’ routine — acting as the DJ, flipping through the songs they’re dancing to. Those fans who have stayed to watch are singing along to the holiday hits.

It all comes together, with wild waves of hair, dazzling smiles and perfect execution.

During the second half, the dancers return to the court during timeouts, deploying a t-shirt cannon to give out prizes. By the end of the night, fans got another prize: The Jazz beat the Nets, 125-108 — the first of five wins over the team’s last seven games of December.

“When a fan comes in,” Kelson said, “it’s more than just seeing a person in a really pretty uniform. It’s not just about dance — but who these dancers are, even outside of this, and how hard they’re working at their jobs or trying to get an education or helping their families out.”

Santiago said, “People just see the glitz and glam of it all and think, ‘Oh, they’re just these pretty dancers on the court.’ … We’re hard-working athletes. We put in a lot of time and effort and energy outside of practice to get to that pretty picture.”

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