Friday, November 16

Bruin talent anchors Laker spirit


The Laker girls know how to dance "“ and much more. UCLA World Arts and Cultures students make up a quarter of the world-famous squad that has mastered balancing academics and dancing.

It’s strange and unexpected. But a quarter of the Laker
Girls have a UCLA bachelor’s degree in world arts and
cultures.

On one hand, with their gold and purple short shorts and tight
midriffs, Laker Girls don’t exactly embody the archetypical
image of academics, even though most (80 percent) of them are
full-time college students or have already graduated.

On the other hand, most people would never think about the Laker
Girls and WAC in the same breath. What Laker Girl Manager Lisa
Estrada considers diverse (“hip hop … jazz … cutesy-fun
little numbers like Elvis Presley”) is a far cry from what
the world arts and cultures department would consider diverse
(flamenco, polka, Polynesian). A few of the Laker Girls even grew
up idolizing J. Lo when she performed in the early “˜90s as a
Fly Girl dancer on the television show “In Living
Color.”

Believe it or not, many Laker Girls have graced the UCLA
hallways beside other highly accomplished UCLA students. These
girls embody hard work and accomplishment, and bend the cheerleader
stereotype.

“You would never guess that I was a Laker Girl at
school,” said third-year world arts and cultures student
Shelby Rabara. “I don’t wear any makeup. You’ll
find me usually in sweats and a hat. When my friends in world arts
and cultures are like, “˜Oh she’s a Laker Girl,’
people are like, “˜Really?!’ It’s just
funny.”

The Laker Girls from UCLA are all extremely driven individuals.
After all, just getting into UCLA is tough enough (in 2003 more
than 45,000 students applied for admission but only 4,390 were
admitted). Now imagine beating out 500 of the top dancers in Los
Angeles for a dream job performing for one of the best NBA
teams.

“I’m really big on meeting goals,” said 2003
UCLA alumna Nicole Rush. Rush is currently in her second season as
a Laker Girl and has been dancing since age 3, a time when most of
her peers were probably finally perfecting their walk.

Once the girls have made the team, the next challenge is
maintaining their busy schedules, which often also include UCLA
classes and other jobs.

“There’s some 40-odd games as well as rehearsals in
between and appearances,” Estrada said. “It is grueling
in the sense of their schedules.”

Last year, 2004 UCLA alumna Charlene Bittinger was a part-time
Laker Girl, full-time UCLA student and film production intern at
Sony Pictures. And when current Laker Girl and 2003 UCLA alumna
Lindsay Dennis cheered for the Clippers for two years while
attending UCLA full-time, she also completed work-study at the UCLA
Medical Center.

“I barely had a life,” Dennis said.

Sometimes study time comes whenever there are short breaks in
their schedules.

“If we get ready early before the games,” Rabara
said, “and we’re already stretched, you’ll find
some of us studying.”

On game days Rabara will often go directly to Staples Center
after a full day of classes for Laker Girl rehearsal, hours before
the actual game, and leave after the game ends at about 10 p.m.
From there, she may travel to rehearsal for a separate professional
non-profit dance company that lasts until 1:30 a.m.

Sleep time revolves around her hectic schedule.

“I pay for parking at school,” Rabara said.
“If I have an hour and a half break, I’ll be taking
naps on campus or I’ll go to sleep in my car. I’ll try
to sleep any place I can sleep, except for lecture.”

With all the sacrifices they make and their irregular sleep
schedules, the girls still find supreme fulfillment in their
lives.

“My inspiration comes from my mom,” Rabara said,
“because she’s a single mom and she’s managed to
support three kids by herself. She never gave up. She really
instilled in me hard work.”

Needless to say, the Laker Girls are an accomplished bunch.
That’s partly because Estrada and the Lakers organization
don’t only look for a great dance audition, they want a good
job interview as well.

“We do want someone who is going to be articulate, who is
going to be intelligent,” Estrada said, “and also has
the knowledge of how we want a Laker girl to act. We’re also
looking for a role model for kids.”

Dennis can attest.

“At the tryouts, at the point where it reaches 60 girls,
everyone is an amazing dancer,” she said. “You have no
idea. It really is about then how they talk and whether (Estrada)
feels we can represent the team well.”

So if most of the Laker Girls are driven academics, why are the
girls from UCLA majoring in WAC?

UCLA’s only dance program is a dance concentration in WAC,
which focuses more on cultural rather than commercial forms of
dance. For some Laker Girls, like Dennis, who graduated with a
degree in sociology after switching from WAC, this fact was hard to
come to terms with.

“They didn’t offer any jazz classes, which I wanted
to be more involved with,” Dennis said. “They had more
cultural dances, which is cool, but it just wasn’t my
thing.”

Other Laker Girls are more outspoken when it comes to the WAC
program and its focus.

“I had to struggle all four years,” Rush said.
“The fact that I only had a jazz year for my fourth year of
college is absolutely ridiculous. I’m not going to knock the
culture aspect of it and analyzing a lot of parts of dance. I just
don’t understand why you would accept someone into a program
knowing their background (in more commercial dance).”

World arts and cultures professor of choreography/performance
Victoria Marks acknowledged the majority of WAC students do come
into the major with backgrounds in jazz, ballet or cheer, but she
also admitted that jazz has not been a focus of the department. But
according to Marks, the department is at least making strides to
have more hip-hop classes.

The Laker Girls tradition actually began with girls from UCLA.
In 1978, a year before Lakers owner Jerry Buss bought the team for
$67.5 million, he invited pom girls from UCLA and USC to perform
with band music at Laker games. After the initial setup went over
extremely well, the Laker Girls became an official part of the
Lakers organization when girls selected from the auditions were
hired as part-time employees.

Today the Laker Girls have become what many would call the best
dance group in the NBA.

“The Laker Girls is the most respected dance team in the
NBA,” Rush said. “And I know that many people feel that
we’re at the top of our game.”

Each summer anywhere from 500 to 800 girls, from both inside and
outside of the state, meet to audition for the prestigious position
of Laker Girl. Even professors like Marks can appreciate the
dancers.

“Having seen the Laker Girls, I think they’re
extraordinary,” Marks said. “To be a Laker Girl is a
real achievement. It’s a measure of an enormous amount of
success.”

Part of the Laker Girls’ success is due to the success of
the Lakers basketball team itself. With a string of championships
in the past few years, the Lakers have risen to the forefront of
NBA basketball.

Practically everyone already knows the Lakers, so naturally it
would seem that more people would know about the Laker Girls. And
as Estrada pointed out, if people are Laker fans, they’ll
probably be Laker Girl fans.

Laker Girl Nicole Irving, a 2004 UCLA graduate, was recently
surprised by the great number of international fans the Lakers have
while she was performing in NBA Madness, an NBA touring event, in
the Philippines.

The girls themselves are also huge fans of the sport and,
specifically, the team.

Before Rabara ever thought about becoming a Laker Girl, she
wanted to be a Laker, while Irving grew up going to Lakers games at
the Great Western Forum with her father.

“My dad was a season ticket holder,” Irving said.
“I remember going to Laker games from a very, very young age.
And I come from a very Lakerish family, very strong Laker fans. The
first thing they asked me (when I made the team) was, “˜Do you
get tickets?’”

The girls, most of whom started dancing at about age 4, are also
obviously passionate about dancing and performing. In her first two
seasons as a Laker Girl, Irving, who graduated this past June, was
also a full-time student. Rather than seeing it as a part-time job,
Irving saw being a Laker girl as an outlet from the stresses of
school.

“During finals when I was really busy or stressed,”
Irving said, “it was a really good outlet for me to be able
to go and just enjoy performing for that amount of time.”

Los Angeles also happens to be, next to New York, an epicenter
of dance. Most of the best dancers in the nation are either located
in Los Angeles or New York, so the girls auditioning to become
Laker Girls are the best of the best.

The Laker Girls also like to say the success is due to their
clean reputation in the community. They serve as an arm of the
Lakers organization, participating in many charity and non-profit
events year-round and have helped in events of the YMCA, Boys and
Girls Clubs, Special Olympics, March of Dimes and the Make a Wish
Foundation among others.

Keeping a clean reputation also involves close surveillance of
one’s own behavior at all times while in public view.

“I was at the airport (recently),” Rush said,
“A lady stopped me and asked me if I was a Laker Girl. So you
really need to worry about how you carry yourself. We’re
ambassadors so you need to carry yourself with the utmost respect
and dignity and know that people are looking up to you as a role
model.”

Paradoxically perhaps, the Laker Girls are known just as much
for their clean reputation as their sex appeal.

“I think that those women are considered to be very
beautiful,” Marks said. “There’s a kind of allure
to that and even a sexiness about that.”

But the girls don’t see themselves as necessarily
sexual.

“There is definitely a public perception (of us as
sexual),” Rush said. “But we all see ourselves as
artists. Not everyone can remember steps and coordination.
It’s a talent. My senior piece was on the empowerment of
women. You could look at it as exploitation. You could look at it
as being sex symbols. We live in a society where sex dominates most
of the entertainment industry, so it’s not weird to hear,
because it’s reality, but we’re not there to ooze sex
appeal. We’re there to dance and we see it as an art
form.”

And while some cheerleaders, Dennis admitted, are there to ooze
sex appeal, the Laker Girls are different.

“You could compare the NBA to the NFL,” Dennis said.
“I think people look at the NFL as having very good-looking
girls like the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, whereas the Laker Girls
are actually very respected for their talent. I want to
perform.”

Bittinger was also quick to brush off whether the Laker Girls
receive any extra attention from men.

“I guess so … and it’s a really good sports
team,” she said.

According to Irving, the Laker Girls also have maintained a good
reputation for not crossing the line between players and
cheerleaders. Contrary to what most people would believe, the Laker
Girls rarely even talk to players, except at charity events.

Furthermore, the Laker Girls seldom receive special perks or VIP
access with their positions.

“We don’t get any perks,” she said. “We
don’t get invitations to certain parties or clubs. But as
Laker Girls, when we’re doing certain events, especially if
we’re working at a benefit for children’s research for
a hospital, we’ll get credentials to go sign autographs in
the VIP lounge. But that’s just because we’re working.
It’s not because we’re socializing there. So
that’s the only perks we get, I guess.”

Of course, that’s excluding performing with OutKast and
Beyoncé at the NBA All-Star Game, meeting Magic Johnson and
being cheered on by Denzel Washington and Jack Nicholson.

Laker Girls receive perks all right, but they don’t want
to make people jealous.

Despite enjoying some of the perks of being a Laker Girl, the
girls still see themselves as normal.

“We still are known as the “˜world famous Laker
Girls’ and that’s huge,” Dennis said. But also
people may look at us as maybe more celebrity than we really are.
If you talk to them, they’re like “˜Oh wow, you’re
actually kind of normal.’”

So how do the Laker Girls muster up all the energy needed to
study and dance? It’s part passion for dance and part passion
for the sport of basketball.

“When it’s fourth quarter, twenty seconds left, or
.4 seconds for Derek Fisher, you can just imagine the adrenaline
rushing,” Rush said. “The experience is amazing. The
audience is one. If you don’t feel any energy, I don’t
know what’s wrong with you.”

And sometimes the excitement of the audience doesn’t even
come from the game.

“People will do anything to get on the jumbotron,”
Rush said. “When little kids see themselves on the jumbotron,
it’s a life-changing experience.”

The most important support, of course, comes from their families
and friends.

“(My mom) asked me if I was going to school,” Rabara
said. “That’s the first thing she asked me, which is
funny. She was really excited for me. She’s my number one
fan.”

Being a family member of a Laker Girl and getting free tickets
can’t possibly hurt either. Especially if a loved one is just
as much a Laker fan as you are.

“Just to see a Kobe shot in the second game of play-offs
is worth while. (My family) definitely appreciates that. And my dad
definitely has a (Lakers) flag on his car,” Rush said.

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