They rehearse at night and learn choreography with breathtaking speed. They dance for crowds that extend into the thousands.
Sure, New York City is home to lots of dance troupes, but if you’re a dance fan these two groups may not even be on your radar. Don’t be a snob. The Brooklynettes and the Knicks City Dancers perform intricate choreography during the breaks between quarters of pro-basketball games, in arenas with 360-degree views. And they are not messing around.
“I’m like, you just think we appear and it’s perfect?” said Alyssa Quezada, the coach of the Knicks City Dancers, with a laugh. “Do you know how much work goes into it?”
Hours before the players show up, the dancers measure their spacing on the court. (They use cracks and lines on the floor as a map for their spots.) And they must know their steps.
At a recent Knicks City Dancers rehearsal, Ms. Quezada had a firm message: “Carve this into your muscle memory because we don’t have time to go back over this a million times on Sunday” — game day.
Ms. Quezada runs a tight ship because she has to. The dancers are part-time, so they have a lot of choreography to churn out. Her position as coach is part-time, too. “I asked for that,” she said, “because I want time to pursue other dance opportunities.”
The Brooklynettes, established in 2012, perform at Barclays Center; the Knicks City Dancers, who have been around since 1991, appear at Madison Square Garden. Each team has 20 dancers and performs at home games only; the Brooklynettes do two routines a game; Knicks City Dancers one or two.
In 2014, the Knicks City Dancers changed their approach, from 50-second routines rooted in pop, street jazz and hip-hop, to 90-second numbers aligned more with Broadway or the Rockettes.
Now the group’s goal, Ms. Quezada said, is “to create a production — a show — in the middle of a basketball game.”
The Brooklynettes, with unabashed athleticism, stick (with certain exceptions) to choreography that lands in a hip-hop and street jazz vein. The spirit is Brooklyn, and the routines range from one minute to 90 seconds.
As for the tone? It depends. At a recent rehearsal, Adar Wellington, the Brooklynettes’ coach and choreographer, brought more than high kicks for a new number. She brought a theme — female empowerment. “For this one,” she said, “I would like us to get into a character.”
She gave them a back story: You’re a woman. Your boyfriend is bad news. “You think, what’s the worst possible time to end this?” Ms. Wellington said. “Nets versus Knicks finals. Game seven. All his boys are over. You go to the bathroom, you gather your emotions and you come out and break out into this dance.”
Set to Ciara’s “Like a Boy” — a song that explores double standards for men and women — the choreography simmers with force and power. It’s also forthright and sexy, especially when the women remove their sweatshirts by hooking a foot into their hoods and yanking them over their heads.
But as Ms. Wellington explained during rehearsal, “The only thing that should be feminine” — she marked the word with air quotes — “is this.”
She turned to profile with deeply bent knees and rose while arching her back. “Everything else should be grounded,” she said. “A more masculine approach.”
Though one is a glamorous throwback, the other urban and modern, the Knicks City Dancers and the Brooklynettes share a problem: How do you make a basketball crowd pay attention to dance?
“Dynamics is huge here,” Ms. Wellington said. “Because of the arena setting and it being in the round, it’s important that the choreography reads from the very top row. A lot of choreographers that are very established — they’ve worked in theater, in movies — don’t realize that it’s just very different here until they get in and are like, Oh wait — no one’s going to see this little movement unless they’re in the front row.”
She encourages outside choreographers to create big movement and prefers that transitions into new formations take as little as four counts. “There should never be any sections that are breathers,” she added, referring to less strenuous moments when a dancer can catch her breath. “The entire thing should be jam-packed.”
Marc Bauman, senior vice president and executive producer for in-game entertainment at Madison Square Garden, was formerly the supervising producer at “Live from Lincoln Center.” Early into his job at Madison Square Garden, he came to the conclusion that the choreography needed improving. “Before me, it had been two or three people rotating through,” he said. “Sort of rinse and repeat.”
Now, higher-profile choreographers work with the Knicks City Dancers, including Mandy Moore who did the dances for “La La Land” and Serge Onik of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Mr. Bauman, who knows the dance world, would love it if Susan Stroman or Mark Morris would consider creating dances for the group. Ryan Heffington, who has choreographed Sia videos as well as the Netflix series “The O.A.,” is on his wish list.
With his theatrical background, Mr. Bauman has made other changes, like incorporating blackouts before performances to capture the crowd’s attention. “It’s all of it: The lighting, the costuming, the music selection,” he said. “It’s concise. The dance team has to have a shape.”
For him, shape refers to the choreography’s point of view. “Some of that is precision, grace, the beauty of the line,” Mr. Bauman continued, noting that for the great choreographer George Balanchine “the most beautiful part of the dancer’s body was the hand.”
Fittingly, gloves were used to striking effect in Mr. Onik’s recent jazz number, inspired by Bob Fosse and set to “Feel It Still” (by Portugal. The Man). In it, the dancers possess “that strong confidence that Bob Fosse’s choreography is filled with,” Mr. Onik said. “I really enjoy that kind of 1950s swing vibe, but then I wanted to give them a badass character on top of it. They’re strong, healthy, super talented, independent women.”
And so, even though they’re the Knicks City Dancers, he doesn’t see them as a team that is supporting the Knicks. “There’s equal opportunity there,” he said. “They’re there to create just as much of a show as the basketball players.”
That’s also true of the Brooklynettes. All 30 N.B.A. teams have some form of entertainment group, whether a dance team or cheerleaders. But dance teams, at their best, can elevate entertainment to art. “There is a sport element too,” Ms. Wellington said of what her dancers do. “But it’s art, full swing. It really is both. It can be.”
Mr. Bauman said that including dance in the middle of a basketball game raised the level of the experience for the viewer. When he was a boy, his parents owned a performing-arts camp; he credits his philosophy to James Waring, the influential modern dance choreographer who was an instructor at the camp.
“Back then, he was really avant-garde and weird,” Mr. Bauman said. “He had a phrase: That what he did in his choreography stretched your aesthetic. That’s always been in my head. What can I do that will stretch people a little bit?”
One way, both teams know, is through choreography with something to say and dancers who perform it with intention. At one point during the rehearsal for “Like a Boy,” Ms. Wellington told her team “to be internal a little bit more, even though we’re never internal.”
In the contest between subtle and strong, strong usually wins out when you’re preparing for an arena show. Much of the dancers’ attention is focused on performing stylized precision at breakneck speed rather than on nuance and details. But Kathryn Mulcahey, a Brooklynettes dancer and one of its three captains, said that there’s another fundamental ingredient.
“We want the energy and the vibe to be more important than our spacing,” she said. “We have to feel each other. At the end of the day, we say to each other: ‘Just dance.’ ”
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