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Come for the Game, Stay for the Knicks City Dancers

The moment just before is the scariest. The strobe lights snap to darkness, and the arena, filled with nearly 20,000 rowdy fans, goes quiet for a second, maybe two. A promo video plays above, shouting lofty phrases like “Change the game” and “KCD have arrived” at the faceless crowd. The veil drops: Eight dancers outfitted like glitzy superheroes regain their humanity, pulses racing, eyes flitting to the crowd, then back to the ground, scanning and praying that everything is in place, that the grueling hours of labor will translate. The first beat booms onto the court, and the moment passes. The women spring to life changed as if by alchemy. For nearly two minutes, the court belongs to them.

Since 1991, the Knicks City Dancers, in one form or another, have entertained crowds of New York Knicks fans on the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden. The sisterly institution has its distinct eras: the originals, the jazzy pop group, the Rockette-inspired showgirls. But this era, conceptualized by Fatima Robinson, an Emmy-nominated choreographer who’s worked with Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Britney Spears, is known colloquially as the “rebrand.” Sacrificing none of its signature, old-city glamour, a 20-person team shrank to a nine-person pod of commercial dancers selected from a pool of nearly 400 hopefuls, a mix of college students, working artists, and at least one beauty-pageant winner. A part-time employment opportunity became a full-time salaried job replete with health insurance, dental insurance, a 401K, and weekly access to a dedicated athletic trainer. To the relief of the Knicks organization, it’s working: With or without basketball, these women are stars in the making with more than 100 million views on TikTok alone. Or, as Brooke Fera, the specialist for digital content for KCD, puts it: “There’s so much more here than a minute-and-30 routine during a break at a basketball game.”

Over the last two years, the steady elevation of this team has been meticulously documented by the Knicks City Dancers’ dedicated photographer, Tess Mayer. Having spent six seasons with the KCD, Mayer started to bring her film camera to games, focusing more on portraiture and what she calls the “in-between moments” of the dancers’ days spent in the industrial bowels of the Garden. The photos didn’t always showcase the easy beauty the women projected on court: They were gritty, raw, and sweat-soaked. They captured the dancers waiting around on court, splaying sore arms and legs over the arena’s rickety folding chairs, and filming TikTok trends. There were moments of high-octane performance followed by moments of silence, isolation, and meditation. And, more than anything, the photos showed nine women who love each other, and their jobs, fiercely — who are desperate to honor the legacy of the dancers who came before them.

For decades, the subtle messaging around all-women NBA dance squads (never mind their growing fan bases and social-media influence) has been as follows: You serve as an accessory to the main event. While NBA teams bring in an average of $350 million in revenue each year, resources for entertainment teams are often scant. Historically, the women have been constrained to their on-court duties and rarely given opportunities to display their full personhood. And despite hiring highly skilled performers and artists, the dancers’ stardom is rarely expected, let alone encouraged, to eclipse that of the male athletes occupying space on the same court. Not so at the Garden: A contemporary marriage of high fashion, athleticism, women-led tradition, and production value, the Knicks City Dancers are proof of the notoriety that follows when teams invest in and prioritize dancers and their creative labor.

“On other dance jobs, you’re often dancing behind an artist, and you’re just there to accentuate the picture or the visuals,” rookie Stephanie Mincone tells the Cut. “I honestly feel like this job is one-in-a-million in that we get to be the show. I joke all the time, ‘Yeah, it’s a game day. But it’s also our show.’”


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Emily Leibert , 2024-03-13 12:00:22

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