Auditions rarely fail to deliver on suspense. But this? This was the nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Hayoung Roh and Chelsea McCloskey, both professional dancers based in NYC, had made it through what felt like endless rounds of cuts, both on Zoom and in person. Out of the nearly 500 dancers (from 30 states and nine countries) who'd answered the Knicks City Dancers' open call for video submissions, just 20 remained—McCloskey and Roh among them. "We were separated into six holding rooms, where we kept trying to figure out the math," Roh recalls. "How many girls are there in total? Who was called back?"
Finally, the women returned to the audition room to dance one last time—or so they were told. Instead, KCD head coach Alyssa Quezada dropped her bombshell: All 20 women had made the final cut. They would be 2021–22 Knicks City Dancers: the latest and greatest edition of one of the most prestigious NBA dance teams. "It was the biggest celebration and the coolest moment of my dance career so far," says McCloskey now. And that was just the oh-so-perfectly-dramatic beginning.
Chelsea McCloskey Photo by Tess Mayer
Making the Team
A KCD audition is grueling by design. "A lot is asked of the Knicks City Dancers throughout the season that they're contracted to be a part of the team," says Quezada, a six-year veteran of the squad who's now in her fifth season as coach. So it makes perfect sense that over the course of four long days, aspirants need to show a lot to the all-female KCD leadership team: head coach Quezada, assistant coach/captain Teddi Bircks, co-captains Alexis Tillman and Brooke Fera, and director Amanda Pierce-Martin. (Any returning Knicks City Dancers also have to reaudition each year if they want to claim a slot on the team.)
Between cuts, auditionees are asked to freestyle, learn combination after combination, apply technical corrections and choreographic changes, and perform full-out as one cohesive squad. Extensive interviews play a role too, because KCD members make plenty of media, promotional and charity appearances during basketball season. "We really need articulate, well-spoken dancers who come across with a presence that is representative of New York," Quezada says. "We want independent, chic, passionate, inspiring, ambitious women, who also happen to be great dancers." New York City deserves—and gets—no less.
On Board the Court Ship
Photo by Tess Mayer
Like many dance jobs, being a Knicks City Dancer is technically a part-time gig. In fact, McCloskey says the team roster currently includes a few schoolteachers, nine-to-five office workers, fitness professionals, professional dancers and college students. But that "part-time" label fails to capture the intensity of prepping for the jam-packed KCD performance calendar, which starts with the NBA preseason kickoff on October 5. Roh says that the KCD's thrice-weekly, four-hour evening rehearsals "feel like being shot out of a cannon. We're learning and taking in a lot, but it's been really fun."
"Versatility" can be an overused buzzword in the commercial-dance realm. For the KCD, it's truly a way of life. Guest choreographers—Lacey Schwimmer, Mandy Moore, Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy, to name a few—come in one at a time to set numbers that range from classic Broadway jazz to Latin fusion to hard-hitting hip hop. Every season, the dancers learn, clean and perform up to 60 complete dances. That way, any basketball fans who show up at all 44 home games won't see too many repeats.
And get this: Each production number is staged for 16 dancers, so that on any given game night four women get time off. Keep in mind that the KCD usually rehearse at studios around the city because, as Quezada says, "Madison Square Garden always has the most amazing things going on." All of which means that each Knicks City Dancer gets on the court to learn her track for that night's formations just six hours (!!) before game time. The KCD pull this off for every game with the help of an intricate grid-plotting system, detailed video footage of all dances, and, of course, the coaches' and squad members' brilliant dancer brains. As McCloskey says, "There's a definite science and precision to how everything works on the court. I've never been on a dance team before, so I'm excited to take on all of this new knowledge and skills."
Sparkling Legacy, Even Brighter Future
Hayoung Roh and Chelsea McCloskey
Photo by Brooke Fera
At a time when some NBA dance teams are reassessing their image and purpose, the Knicks City Dancers keep strutting confidently towards the future. "We're really proud to represent the Knicks as a group of women in a way that feels empowering and inspiring," Quezada says. "I think it's very cool that a lot of other teams are going coed, but I feel like we get the best of both worlds when we perform at halftime and in 'T-shirt toss' dances with the 7th Ave Squad." (That's the Knicks' mixed-gender entertainment and hype squad, which includes some dancers who are more breaking-focused.)
For Roh and McCloskey, there couldn't be a more thrilling way to dance into the post-pandemic era. "I don't think I've ever danced for 20,000 people at a time, and I've definitely never danced at Madison Square Garden before," Roh says. "When I was moving back to New York in May of this year, I could not have imagined that I'd be performing in person here, surrounded by such amazing, strong women. So I'm just trying to soak it all in."
Meet Chelsea McCloskey
Photo by Tess Mayer
●Hometown: Exton, PA
●Training: Lionville School of Dance in Exton, PA; BFA in dance and BA in dance education from Montclair State University in NJ
●Favorite KCD dance: Prince's "It's About That Walk." "It's one of the classic, iconic Knicks City Dancer dances."
●When not in KCD mode, Chelsea: Teaches group fitness at 305 Fitness and Club Pilates locations around NYC and NJ
●Random fact: "When I was a senior at MSU, I got MRSA [a serious antibiotic-resistant infection] from stepping on something while dancing. Luckily, I got emergency surgery, but the doctor almost had to amputate my foot."
●What head coach Alyssa Quezada is saying: "Chelsea is very, very good at taking direction and implementing corrections, all with a smile on her face. She catches your attention and is a joy to watch. We always loved Chelsea the three times that she auditioned before this, and we're so excited that this is her year to make it on the team. It's been an honor and a privilege to watch her grow and mature as a dancer and as a woman."
Meet Hayoung Roh
Photo by Tess Mayer
●Hometown: Irvine, CA
●Training: Civic Dance Center in Bakersfield, CA; Orange County School of the Arts in CA; BFA in dance from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in NYC
●Favorite KCD dance: Lizzo's "Juice." "I can't help grooving to it, nonstop!"
●When not in KCD mode, Hayoung: Dances for a few project-based contemporary and modern companies
●Random fact: 'Hayoung' means 'glory to God' in Korean.
●What head coach Alyssa Quezada is saying: "Hayoung's versatility and 'it' factor were obvious right away from her reel. We really wanted to see what she'd bring to the room, and she certainly did not disappoint. It was a breath of fresh air to watch Hayoung knock it out of the park, seemingly without any difficulty. And she has such a sweet, humble and grounded disposition. You want to talk to her as much as you want to watch her dance."
Click here to vote for Iyanna.
The passion that exudes from Iyanna Jackson when she performs is undeniable. Through powerful yet controlled movement, her emotion tells a story, and is deeply felt by audiences.
Photo by Nathan Sayers
Iyanna began dancing in her hometown of Charlotte, NC, at just 2 years old with ballet and tap classes. Between ages 5 and 9, she took a break from formal training, but never lost her passion for the art. In fact, she could often be found making up her own dance routines with her friends at home.
At 10 years old she decided to give classes another try, and was introduced to a multitude of other styles, including jazz, hip hop and contemporary, at local studios like BB Dance Productions, Charlotte Performing Arts Academy and Miller Street Dance Academy. But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows—the other dancers had been training during all of those years that she had been away, and she had some serious catching up to do. Thankfully, this didn't hold her back, but increased her determination to succeed. "It pushed me more than ever!"
Beyond her training delays, Iyanna had to build up the mental strength needed to deal with the issues that nearly every Black dancer faces in the industry. "As an African American in the dance field, when you show up to auditions and you're the only one there, you have to push 10 times harder," she says. "I went to an audition for an intensive and was approached by a girl who asked my name, and then proceeded to tell me how she was surprised I came to the audition, since many 'Blacks' don't usually come," Iyanna recalls. "That particular phrase really caused me to analyze just how biased people can be and how much a Black dancer could potentially be underestimated. I truly believe that had it been a hip-hop intensive, and not ballet, that 'surprised' feeling she had would not have been there."
For Iyanna, moments like these have served as motivators. "Without these hardships I've experienced, I know for certain that I wouldn't be where I am today," she says. But she relied heavily on her support system of friends, family and teachers to keep her feeling encouraged along the way.
Photo by Nathan Sayers
For inspiration, she also looked to examples of resilience and success, like Misty Copeland. "Knowing that Misty started dancing in her early teens and seeing where she is now is absolutely amazing," she says. In 2015, Jasmine Harper taught a master class at one of Iyanna's studios that further supported her faith in her dance dreams. "Everything Jasmine shared about her journey and how she was moving through this industry as a dancer of color was super-inspiring."
Currently enrolled in her second year at NYU Tisch School of the Arts (something she describes as a total dream), Iyanna's future goals include creating her own dance film, performing in an awards show and dancing on Broadway. "I grew up watching so many amazing Broadway shows, and one of my biggest fears used to be singing in front of people, so I'd love to overcome that," she says. With her history of overcoming hurdles, there's no doubt she will be ready to rise to the occasion and live out her dreams.
"Iyanna was a joy to have in class. Her work ethic and attention to detail was so appreciated. She would light up the studio with her unique personality. Not only was she determined, but she was so much fun to be around. She's very deserving of any recognition coming her way!"— Siara Fuller, artistic director of Charlotte Performing Arts Academy
Photo by Nathan Sayers
Fast Facts on Iyanna
Go-to dance power move: "An aerial into a needle"
Favorite Broadway shows: "The Lion King, Aladdin and Mean Girls"
Best advice she's ever received: "Don't be stuck on being perfect, because the more you try, the less you will be perfect." —Miss Denise, Iyanna's late dance instructor at Miller Street Dance Academy
Something you'll always find in her dance bag: "A long pair of socks"
Who she'd love to dance onstage with: "FKA twigs, Sabrina Claudio and Ravyn Lenae"
Hobbies outside of dance: "Making music, writing poems, cooking, baking, shopping, and playing basketball even though I'm really bad at it."
Choreographers she'd love to work with: "Andy Pellick and Travis Wall"
If she weren't a dancer, she'd be: "A chef!"Advice for DS readers: "Comparison is the biggest setback. The more you compare, the more you're trying to be something that you're not. It's OK to support and admire other people, but figure out who you are and don't beat yourself up so much. That's one of the biggest things that all dancers do. Know that it's OK not to have it 100 percent figured out right now. Just relax, take your time and go with the flow."
Iyanna is one of three cover model search finalists—learn more about the other finalists and cast your vote here!
Click here to vote for Reed.
Reed Henry's dancing is a master class on blending contrasting qualities. In contemporary, he plays with resistance and opposition, appearing to float while also remaining grounded. In ballet, he is precise, with a subtle yet striking panache. "He has an appreciation for classicism, but I also know that he can move," says Jason Ambrose, one of Reed's instructors at the San Francisco Ballet School. Beyond his versatility, he possesses the elusive quality that makes someone a star—the "it" factor.
Photo by Nathan Sayers
A natural mover, Reed began dancing at age eight. Despite his renowned talent for concert dance—he became the youngest competitor to win Youth America Grand Prix Boston last year—he initially trained at a commercial studio. But his heart wasn't in it, and he quit. Sensing a need for change rather than disinterest in dance as a whole, his mother suggested trying a new school for a month. The then-13-year-old enrolled at Ballet Central New Jersey. "I had these two male teachers, and it was instantly a click because of their attitude and their goals for me," he says. "It was just the switch that I needed to go fully into ballet."
Three years later, in October 2020, Reed entered the SFB School with a dream of joining the company one day. Ambrose was impressed by his ability to shine even in a pandemic. "We did a virtual showing at the beginning of the year, and he really stood out in many moments," he says. "There were a lot of times where I heard from other people that he grabbed their attention. You can just imagine how captivating [he will be] and how he's going to connect with his audience when he's onstage."
Reed's magnetism as a performer is the result of not only charisma but also diligence and curiosity. His main goal for the upcoming year is to smoothly transition into his new schedule at SFBS, where he will be able to train with the institution's artistically diverse faculty. "Last year, we only had one set teacher that we could visit with because we had pods," he says. "We'll also have a longer dancing day. We're doing Nutcracker performances, too, this year, which will be fun, because I haven't been onstage in so long."
Photo by Nathan Sayers
When Reed makes his case for winning the Cover Model Search, his leadership qualities stand out. "I think I'd be a great cover model because I try to create more of a modern and inclusive dance community," he says. "I think that all body types, races, sexualities and everyone should be welcomed. We shouldn't just go off of stigmas that were created in the 20th century."
The hardest part of Reed's ballet journey has been the realization that perfection is unattainable. "But also, I try to flip it and make that a positive thing," he says. "There's always something to strive for. If I ever do get discouraged, I just think about performing and how I can make the audience light up with my dancing. It brings all of the motivation back."
"Reed comes to class and has this vibrant energy about him. He's such a hard worker—I think he's a leader in the group, and his classmates really gravitate towards him. If he stays on the path that he's been on, and he really puts his mind to achieving something, I think he's going to have no problem reaching his goals." —Jason Ambrose, San Francisco Ballet School
Photo by Nathan Sayers
Fast Facts on Reed
Birthday: September 20, 2004
Hometown: Princeton, New Jersey
When he's not dancing: "I try to hang out with my friends and maintain an active social life, both in San Francisco and in New Jersey."
The song that always gets him on the dance floor: "Party Rock Anthem," by LMFAO
Favorite movie: Pitch Perfect
Favorite choreographer: William Forsythe
Biggest dance inspiration: "Mikhail Baryshnikov. I did a project on him in fifth grade, and I've been obsessed with him ever since."
What he'd be doing if he didn't dance: "I'd probably go into fashion design or modeling. I've always wanted to create an inclusive dancewear line that's unisex and for all genders."
Reed is one of three cover model search finalists—learn more about the other finalists and cast your vote here!