The Rules of Going Pro

It’s 5:40 p.m. on a Tuesday and I find myself weaving in and out of traffic along Route 271, heading toward Cleveland at 90 mph trying to get to practice on time. My two teammates and I perform this routine on a weekly basis; we know the consequences of being even one minute late. Unfortunately, we pull up to the gym at 6:03 p.m., missing the start by three minutes. The following night, after dancing and cheering the Cleveland Cavaliers on to victory, we find ourselves running 10 laps around the humongous top floor of Quicken Loans Arena and sweating through 100 push-ups.

No, I wasn’t at boot camp or reform school—I was an NBA dancer for the Cleveland Cavalier Girls dance team. After making the team, I thought I would instantly be granted celebrity status. I imagined myself hanging out with LeBron James and shootin’ the breeze with Usher, partial owner of the Cavaliers. Instead, on Day One I had to sign a contract with a long list of rules, like “No fraternizing with players,” and “No drastic changes in physical appearance.”

Breaking the rules on a professional dance team can lead to sitting out a game or even termination from the team. While the penalties may be harsh, dancers who are lucky enough to make it into the sports entertainment world have to accept a tough set of standards. Teams insist that the dancers look and act the part. Here are some of the most common violations that can get you benched for a game, a month or an entire season.

Being late to practice or games

While this rule should go without saying, busy dancers still tend to break it. My two teammates and I were still full-time college students at a school almost an hour from where we practiced. However, most coaches insist on punishment for being late, whether it’s running laps, or worse, being removed from a game. And while my punishment seemed a bit severe, I wasn’t ready to compromise my spot on the team by complaining.

Forgetting choreography or not executing it properly

A professional dancer’s job, first and foremost, is dancing. Unfortunately, no matter how well you might know a routine, there’s still a chance the coach won’t put you in front of an audience. Many will test dancers before they ever allow them on the court. It’s like auditioning for each performance, and if you don’t make the cut, you don’t perform. This translates into lots of extra pressure. Not being on the floor for game night is heartbreaking—and you’ll probably be watched more closely on the next routine, so you’ll have to work extra hard.

Not maintaining your appearance

After years of dance training and a cross-country audition, Chelsea H. (pro teams use first names and initials for dancers’ protection) was ecstatic when she was chosen for an NBA dance team. But at the first game, she found herself forbidden to dance. “I was told that I wasn’t living up to my job requirements,” she says. While no one said her weight was a problem, hints were dropped. “When I was being measured for costumes, the coaches said my butt was big.”

“Fitness is part of the job requirement,” says Rebecca Girard, dance team director for the Detroit Pistons Dance Team–Automotion. “You can’t complete the job if you’re out of shape.” Usually, a team doesn’t have a specific weight regulation— it’s more about being fit for your specific body type and looking good in costume. “It’s critical to have expertise available to help figure out what’s considered healthy for each individual,” says Girard, who has a trainer/nutritionist on call for her team.

While the nutritionist can offer advice, the coach ultimately has the final say. This close scrutiny may come as a shock to women who danced in high school or college and were never criticized for an extra five pounds, but it’s a reality of the biz.

Developing an eating disorder

Like any dancer, a dance team member may be susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Amanda D.,* an NFL dancer, didn’t have a problem with belly fat; she was benched for being too skinny. “Being on the team was actually the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. “When my weight began to drop, the coaches got me back on track. Being benched for a game was so horrible that I didn’t want to go through it again.” Thanks in part to that experience, she now maintains a healthy weight.

The fear of being out of shape can push some dancers in the opposite direction. This means dancers often become addicted to weight-loss pills or laxatives to lose weight, and coaches are forced to bench them as a means of intervention.

The Pistons’ Girard tries to head off problems by asking her dancers to keep food logs. The team nutritionist reviews them, and works with dancers whose eating patterns send up a flag. “If I know of a dancer who has a serious eating disorder,” says Girard, “I wouldn’t bench her unless she was too weak or sick to do her job. And I’d encourage her to seek professional assistance.”

Fraternizing with professional athletes

Perhaps the biggest no-no is fraternizing with the professional athletes on the team for which you’re dancing. Talking to, flirting with or hanging out with the players can even get you removed from a team altogether.

“When I was around professional football players I found myself so wrapped up in the stardom image,” Amanda explains. Wanting friends back home to think you’re tight with the superstars they see on TV is reason enough to think the rules can be bent a little. Amanda felt invincible and joined two veteran dancers at dinner with a few players. When management found out, however, the women were dismissed a month prior to the end of the season.

“It was a devastating time in my life, but I was able to learn from it and redeem myself by making the team again this year,” says Amanda. “I realized I’m here to do my job.”

The bottom line

While being benched is humiliating, most dancers don’t find it enough to make them call it quits. “It all depends on the individual dancer’s investment, coping abilities and support from the team and coaches,” says sports psychologist Debra A. Ballinger.

After being out for a handful of games, Chelsea decided to finish out the season with the dance team that benched her before trying out for a new one. She then ended up making the Detroit dance team and has a trainer on hand to keep her body in shape. “Now, when I put on my blue sequined costume,” she says, “I look in the mirror and am proud of what I see.”

As for me, I got to meet some big-time celebrities, have my name up in lights and sign autographs. But those things were simply extras. During the season, I became the best dancer I could possibly be. I performed in front of an audience of 22,000 fans, and it got my heart beating and adrenaline racing like nothing else ever could. My need to dance and desire to perform were fulfilled in an incredible way, and it’s something I will always be thankful for. So, while sticking to the rules may seem like a drag, it will allow you to do what you love—perform.

*name changed to protect dancer’s identity

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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