The past few years have seen an increase in attention paid to the only women who are a visible part of men’s professional sports: cheerleaders and dancers. But this visibility is less for the work that they do as much as for how little they’re compensated for that work; being a cheerleader for an NFL team or a dancer for an NBA team means you are notoriously paid very little, to the point where lawsuits have been filed (and won) over the low wages.
This backdrop makes E!’s new reality show LA Clippers Dance Squad, which follows in the footsteps of shows like CMT’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team by profiling the women of the Clippers dance team Clippers Spirit, either particularly timely or particularly tone-deaf, depending on your perspective. The show—which was picked up in November—follows a traditional reality format that E! utilizes on shows like Total Divas: hot, athletic women who spend a lot of time together, making them personally and professionally competitive.
As the voiceover explains at the beginning of the premiere episode, which aired Tuesday night:
This is the world of the LA Clippers dance squad, where the routines are fierce, and the women are elite performers. Here in the heart of Hollywood, they perform for thousands, and are surrounded by glamour and fame. These ambitious dancers must be perfect 90 seconds at a time. They come from all walks of life, and are ambassadors of a two billion dollar brand. The Clippers have been reinvented under new ownership, and now the team’s dancers are more visible than ever. This year, the dance squad has a new creative director, and she demands the best.
In August, Jezebel published a piece by Tess Barker, who auditioned to be part of the Clippers Spirit’s new team. She couldn’t figure out how much they were paid, but she did confirm that it wasn’t impressive.
Audrea Harris, a petite African-American woman, stepped in front of us, and the music shut off. We stood. In head-to-toe Clippers gear, she moved with authority, but spoke with a nervous hesitance: “I just want you guys to have fun. This is supposed to be a fun day.” Later, in the Q&A section of the workshop, she would tell us, unexpectedly timid: “We do pay you. It’s not much. But we do pay you.”
In the first episode, we meet some of the women Barker met—only they’re in the final rounds of auditions. Some of them are returning veterans of the team, who must re-audition, but a fair number of them are newbies. All of them, when profiled, speak of the other jobs they hold, though none quite acknowledge that they hold those other positions for financial reasons.
Instead, their work is treated as part of their hustle to get to the top, though it’s never clearly stated that there is not really any higher up a Clippers Spirit performer can move (at least within the organization) than the job she has. Though the women are required by California law to be paid minimum wage, it does not seem as though they’re paid much more than that. What are they hustling towards? The reality behind this reality TV show is slightly bleaker than the glitz and glamour it displays.
“The whole, ‘I’m a Jamaican, I have three jobs thing’ is no joke,” veteran and returning performer Candace explains, who also coaches a college dance team and works at a theme park full time. Dancer Megan works as a cocktail waitress. Several of the girls—whether for the show, for ease, or for both—live together, two of them sharing a room in a three bedroom.
Hannah, we learn, has moved from New Orleans, where she was a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints. “I’m excited to put away the pom poms and actually showcase the technique I’ve been learning my whole life,” she says of her switch to dancer from cheerleader. “The Clippers right now are going through a rebranding of their organization and I feel that’s what’s happening in my life now, I’m rebranding myself in the sense that I’m following my dreams.”
During episode one, we see a number of former veterans get cut; while it’s never quite outlined what new vibe the team is looking for, fresher dance moves seem to imply needing a younger set of women.
“Coming in as a veteran in this particular year was tough,” Candace says, and in the previews for the rest of the season, we see fellow veteran Natalie (a former Survivor contestant) struggle to keep up with newly hired team Creative Director and task master Petra Pope, who left the Brooklyn Nets to join the Clippers.
“I feel I have a huge responsibility when I work with these women, and what I want to give them is a sense of empowerment. Proud about what they’re doing,” Pope says in the episode, working alongside their choreographer Jaclyn Alterwein. “We always want to be seen as mature women, not girls,” she adds during a practice session.
“You know what, I’m not supposed to comment on that,” dancer Athena said this week, when asked by a TMZ cameraman about her pay. “You know, I think that it would change the stereotype of NFL dancers and NBA dancers if they did get paid more. There’s a stereotype that’s made fun of in a lot movies that they’re a little bit trashy, and I feel like if we were paid more, we wouldn’t have that same stereotype.”
When prompted that, “It’s not like they can’t afford it,” Athena responded, “Right? $2 billion company, right?”
LA Clippers Dance Squad must walk a fine line between being dramatic and gossipy enough to hold onto viewer attention, while also not weighing down the brand that’s working on rebranding itself with actual life issues or bad press. “The women of the Clippers dance team embody the physical and spiritual essence of the modern woman,” Pope said in a press release when the show was picked up. “These athletes come from various ethnic backgrounds and dance training. We look to them to be aspirational ambassadors to all those they encounter.”
It’s difficult then, if these women are expected to behave as fully-grown adults, to quite understand why the Clippers organization thought this show would be a particularly good idea for the brand overall, given the in-fighting we’ll likely see this season. (Perhaps Pope’s mantra in bringing the team some modern day pizzaz is “All press is good press”). And lurking behind each shot is the feeling that they are not quite getting out of it what they put into it—at least, that they’re not getting monetarily compensated as adults should be for their work.
If anything, that the show itself exists seems like a gift the Clippers organization is giving to the women, allowing them, for once, to promote their personal profiles above that of the brand’s. Plus, we can (hope) appearing on it dropped some much-needed extra cash into their bank accounts as well. As they’ve acknowledged themselves, the Clippers definitely have enough.
Image via E!