High-voltage Entertainment with the Raptors Dance Pak

By Deirdre Kelly
The Globe and Mail

Onto the brightly lit basketball court the 22 members of the Raptors Dance Pak shimmy into formation, shaking their miniskirts for 20,000 screaming fans crammed inside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

It’s early November, just three weeks into the season, and the home team is trying to bounce back from a two-game losing streak. After three quarters, the New York Knicks are proving an even match for the Raptors and the dancers are moving fast to hype up the crowd.

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An NBA basketball game is the funhouse of the modern sporting world: For every stoppage in play, there’s a prize giveaway or a call for the crowd to get LOUD. The DJ fills nearly every silence with booming rock and hip hop. The Dance Pak is the pulsating human embodiment of that choreographed chaos.
The dancers’ two-minute bursts of dancing are the equivalent of an 800-metre run, done with a smile that belies the fitness, talent and dedication required to earn a coveted spot on the squad. (Photos by Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail)

The dancers’ two-minute bursts of dancing are the equivalent of an 800-metre run, done with a smile that belies the fitness, talent and dedication required to earn a coveted spot on the squad. “We are a key element of the in-game entertainment and so all our performances need to be full of energy,” choreographer Amberley Waddell explains.

A Waterloo, Ont., native, Ms. Waddell started with the Dance Pak at 19. She learned first-hand that for dance to succeed on a 94-by-50-foot basketball court, it needs to be big, bold and bootilicious. No pom-poms, though, just bump-and-grind hip hop and big-kicks jazz dance.

New York choreographer Texie Waterman is credited with having created sports-stadium dance when he was recruited to generate explosive on-field routines for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in the 1970s. Ms. Waddell has taken that style and modernized it: The introduction of lunges and squats and the heightened emphasis on muscularity are moves she learned while performing with Beyoncé and Gladys Knight in Los Angeles, and Bette Midler in Las Vegas. Her 40 routines also focus on the little details, such as hand claps over the head, finger snaps and flicks of the wrist and hair.

Since auditions in July, the dancers have been meeting three times a week to prepare for 41 game performances.

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Each routine is drilled into the pack in a downtown Toronto gym lined with mirrors that grow steamy during the three-hour practices. The dancers have been meeting there thrice weekly since passing the audition in July. Throughout the season (which runs from late October to mid-April – and that doesn’t include a playoff run), they will clock between 45 and 50 three-hour rehearsals to prepare for at least 41 game performances plus community appearances – this year, there is even a game in London. The sessions start with a 30-minute warm-up that includes planks, push-ups and ab-crunching sit-ups by the hundreds. The rest is given over to cardio training and figuring out how to dance in the round, a challenge to dancers used to facing front and trained to watch themselves in a mirror.

The talent needed to be a part of the Dance Pak isn’t lost on Kenny Pearl, a former dancer with the famed Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham dance companies who was artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre in the 1980s. Now a senior dance faculty member at Ryerson University, Mr. Pearl has had several Dance Pak members in his classes. “Their bodies can take a beating with the short, high-voltage bursts of energy required of them,” he observes. That they can recover so quickly is another reason Mr. Pearl admires their work.

“I see the Dance Pak as a group of smart, talented, beautiful and powerful women,” says Tamara, a 23-year-old rookie, of why she desperately wanted to join. (Dance Pak members do not disclose their surnames so as to keep overzealous fans at bay.) She is a former competitive dancer who runs her own photography studio. “It is very empowering.”

Even off the court the dancers are tossing giveaways or clapping from the sidelines.

It is also highly remunerative, an attractive prospect for dancers who often make much less in their industry. The Dance Pak are employees of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the company that manages the Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and are prohibited from disclosing their salaries. But “it’s one of the best and most rewarding dance contracts in the city,” says Kalina, an office worker by day who teaches at a dance studio on nights when not performing.

This season, there were 250 applicants and fewer than two dozen made the final cut. Even dancers from last season must reaudition.

“There’s so much talent present,” says Monique, a first-year member who trained as a ballerina. “You have this one opportunity to put it all on the floor for the judges to see or else that’s it, you’re cut.”

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For this 24-year-old, the payoff is maintaining a strong connection to dance while engaged in other pursuits such as, say, pre-med studies at the University of Toronto, where Monique is doing a master’s degree in neuroscience.

Game days – usually a 7:30 p.m. start time – mean a 3:30 on-court rehearsal to work out line formations, which are especially important for crowds watching performances from the upper tiers of the ACC. Next, the dancers proceed to the dressing room to do hair and makeup. Then, it’s showtime.

There are 22 members in the group, who all auditioned from a field of 250 applicants. Even returning dancers must reaudition each season.

The dancers are on even when they are off the court: running into the stands, tossing giveaways, clapping from the sidelines when the ball is in play. Which is what they are doing right now. The Knicks are leading the Raptors by only a few points as the game enters its final minutes. Tensions in the arena run high. The dancers watch nervously on the edges.

They have divided themselves into two squads of 11 dancers in adjacent corridors leading to team dressing rooms. They clap rhythmically, and enthusiastically, urging the crowd to stand and clap along.

If the Raptors can overcome the deficit, the dancers will rush back onto the court to do a victory dance. But in the final seconds, the Knicks hit a succession of free throws and hang on to defeat the Raptors 111-109.

The crowd shuffles home disappointed. The team will regroup. The Dance Pak will strut their stuff at other games.

[Toronto Raptors Dance Pak]

Raptors hold Dance Pak auditions

Veronica Henri
Toronto Sun
July 12, 2014

In fluorescent tube tops, bras and mini-shorts, talented dancers twisted and turned to the beat of Beyonce’s “Grown Woman.”

Two hundred Toronto Raptors Dance Pak hopefuls took to the practice court at Air Canada Centre on Saturday for auditions in front of judges Amberley Waddell, Anton Wright and Steve Benetti,.

The competitors, aged 18-30, gathered nervously in the hallway awaiting their turn — stretching, applying last minute makeup, sipping water and munching on high-protein snacks.

[Photo Gallery]

Jennifer Thiessen, 28, who was voted Miss CHIN, 2014 and is a professional cheerleader for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, an Australian rugby team, smiled and moved in sync to every beat in front of the judges as she tried out for the first time.

“My husband got me to move to Canada by showing me a Toronto Raptors Dance Pak video,” Thiessen said, adding she prepared by taking a dance classes and doing fitness training. She plans to try again if she doesn’t make it this time.

She’s not the only one with dreams of joining the Pak

Jenna Gowland, 20, has attended Raptors games since she was 11 years old, always eyeing the Dance Pak, making that her goal.

“They were so feminine and strong,” Gowland said. “I wanted to become one of them so badly, so I took dance classes, stayed fit and just danced trying to create my own style”

Thiessen and Gowland said they met amazing girls with healthy and positive attitudes and found the experience very “upbeat.” Judge and head choreographer Waddell said she’s looking for “energy and personality” and chooses carefully.

“The girl will be an ambassador of the Raptors organization so the dance team is looking for the total package,” she said. “A well spoken girl with looks, talent and personality.”

The Raptors pick 20 Dance Pak members each year. Dancers from previous years must also audition.

2013-14 Dance Pak

The Dance Pak section of the Toronto Raptors website has been updated to show case this year’s team. Click here to read all about ’em!

Amen, Mariah S., and Leah

LaSalle Dancer Chosen for Raptors Dance Pak

Beatrice Fantoni
The Windsor Star

LaSalle dancer Holly Holmes is headed to Toronto to join the Toronto Raptors’ cheerleading squad.

Holmes garnered the highest number of votes through social media in a two-week competition, after being shortlisted along with eight other dancers, for a one-year contract with the basketball team’s Dance Pak.

Another local dancer, Nicole Nouvion, was among the runners up.

Holmes was on her way home from Toronto on Tuesday night. The squad held its first rehearsal of the season on Monday.

Holmes, who is also pursuing a nursing degree at the University of Windsor and teaches at dance studios in Windsor and Chatham, told The Star at the start of the voting she decided to put her nursing degree on hold to pursue more dance opportunities like this one.

The finalists were chosen from more than 250 Dance Pak hopefuls at a group audition in Toronto in July.

Stouffville Dancer Hopes to be Voted onto Raptors Squad

By Michael Hayakawa
Stouffville Sun-Tribune

Stephanie Addorisio needs your support.

The 22-year-old Stouffville resident is in the hunt to be a part of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak group for the upcoming National Basketball Association season.

A former competitive dancer, Addorisio was among 250 women who attended the group’s inaugural auditions to fill nine open spots in July.

From that group, eight were chosen. Another eight, including Addorisio, are among those vying for one last spot to be determined through a You Pick the Pak contest.

Now, it is up to the public to see if Addorisio can make the final cut.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the courage before,” she said. “When I went to a Raptors game and watched the Dance Pak I said to myself this was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Voting, which began Aug. 6 and concludes Aug. 19, is done online at: http://raptorspickthepak.web.mlsecontests.com

YOU Pick the Pak

The Toronto Raptors organization is looking for a little input on this year’s Dance Pak members. They’ve already selected these ladies to the team:

Now they want you to help choose the final member of the team. The field has been narrowed down to 8 ladies in the running for the remaining spot on the team. Click here to read up on them and cast your vote!

Barrie Dancer Aims to Join Pak

By Leigh Blenkhorn
Barrie Advance

Barrie’s Stefanie Bruno needs your votes.

The dancer is in the running to become the newest member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak, but she needs a little help.

“There are eight of us who are trying to make it,” Bruno said. “The one with the most votes gets the spot.”

The Pick the Pak contest has fans vote for their favorite dancer. Voters are also entered to win prizes.

Bruno, a St. Joseph’s High School graduate, is a business management student at Ryerson University.

The 18 year old has been dancing since age three and has been a competitive dancer since she was nine.

“I saw a notice about the auditions last year, but I was too young to tryout. I convinced a friend to go and she made it into the contest,” she said. “This year, I couldn’t wait to try out.”

About 200 dancers came out on audition day, Bruno said. After learning a routine, cuts were made.

“I was so nervous the day before that I didn’t even sleep,” she said. “But I love the Raptors and I couldn’t wait to give it all I’ve got.”

Bruno said she would love to be a part of the pak just to experience the energy each game offers.

“If you’ve ever even been to watch at Raptors game, you know there is this energy in the building,” she said. “I want to be a part of creating that energy.”

Voting is open until Aug. 18.

“Make sure you vote for Stefanie with an F,” Bruno said. “The other girls are great, but I really want to make the pak.”

Local Dancer a Finalist for Raptors’ Dance Pak

By Beatrice Fantoni
The Windsor Star

A local dancer is in the running for the last spot on the Toronto Raptors dance squad, but she’ll need the public’s help to land the job.

Holly Holmes, 21, is one of eight finalists for the Raptors’ Dance Pak. Starting today, the public can vote online for their chosen cheerleader, and the dancer with the most votes gets the one-year contract that starts this autumn.

“It’s completely up to the public now,” said Holmes, who is also pursuing a nursing degree at the University of Windsor and teaches at dance studios in Windsor and Chatham. The finalists were chosen from some 250 aspiring performers at a daylong audition in Toronto last month. Now, Holmes has to take to Twitter, Facebook and all other manner of social media to get as many people as she can to cast a vote for her online at the special Dance Pak site.

Holmes, who started dancing when she was 11 – late by most dance standards, she said – decided to take a year off from school and teaching to go back to performing.

“I have the time now with my age to travel and do what I want with dance,” said Holmes, who is also among the dancers performing at the International Children’s Games in Windsor this month.

Nursing graduates are expected to start working full-time right after they are licensed, she said, and she might never get the chance to perform once she gets her nursing career underway. So putting her classes on hold for a year makes more sense, she said, and in a year, she can go back to school and focus on nursing.

Holmes said she’s been auditioning for dance troupes on cruise ship lines, too, and decided to try her luck when she heard Toronto’s basketball team was holding tryouts.

A tomboy growing up, Holmes said she didn’t think she would love dancing this much, but she caught the bug after tagging along to a friend’s class.

“I just really enjoyed it,” she said. She’s a naturally energetic person, she said, so dance seemed to be a good fit.

And not only did she like dancing, Holmes said, she was good at it. Despite being already 11 years old when she started, her teachers had her competing and teaching younger dancers soon after.

“Being really good at something made me love it more,” Holmes said. She even specifically chose to attend Villanova high school because of its dance squad, she said.

“I love being on stage,” Holmes said, describing one of her favourite things about dancing.

What the Raptors Dance Pak does is not exactly cheerleading in the traditional sense, Holmes said, so there are no pompoms and herkies involved. Their style is more a combination of hip-hop and “sassy” jazz.

“The style they dance is kind of my forte,” she said. “I have the confidence with that style.” In fact, she said, the choreography at the audition was just like something she would have made up for her dance students.

“I have the confidence with that style,” Holmes said, describing how her audition went alongside 249 other young women. “I was just having fun with it.”

[Pick the Pak Voting]
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What Does it Take to be a Raptors Cheerleader?

By Sarah Ratchford
BlogTo.com

The third floor concourse of the Air Canada Centre is packed with about 200 long-haired, superfit women doing the splits. They’re clad in sneakers, black booty shorts, and sports bras in many different shades of neon. They are surrounded by brightly-colored gym bags, water bottles, and the slightly frantic energy of their own nerves. Of the 200 or so women present, only 18 will land a coveted seasonal position.

They’re here to try out for the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak, which, I’m told, is not to be thought of as traditional cheerleading. This is much more about dance, and less about stunting and jumps. Amberley Waddell is the coordinator and choreographer for the team, as well as one of the judges who will decide the fate of the women who are spending their hot, sunny Toronto Saturday here in the gym. Waddell tells me there’s a range of dancers trying out today, from those who do it professionally to ladies who just like to dance in the club.

As auditions begin, I start to feel like I’m watching contestants vie for a role on a reality TV show. I half expect Tyra Banks to step out and say “I have only 18 photos, in my hands.” Women go in to dance in front of the judges in groups of 50. Long hair swishes through the air in circles. Bodies roll. Legs kick. “I’m Out” by Ciara f. Nicki Minaj blares on repeat. The dancers are learning four eight counts of moves they’ve never seen before. They have to memorize the short sequence and present it to the judges all in one go. Then, they’re broken down into smaller groups so the judges can decide who makes call backs, and the ones who make it will learn another series of eight counts. If they make the team, they’ll get to dance and greet fans at each Toronto Raptors home game, and they’ll rehearse from mid-August onward.

Many people who lack a personal familiarity with the world of this kind of dance tend to assume the women are silly and frivolous, and not especially brainy. That’s absolutely not the case. These women are objectively hot, yes. But they’re also smart. They’re true athletes, and, in many cases, dance is just one aspect of their lives. I get a chance to speak to a few of them, and I find that they’re here for a number of reasons. Alexis Dwyer, for example, got into step dancing while going to university at York, where she studies social work. But now, she’s more interested in getting involved with drama and dance professionally.

And for Kelsi Wighton, this is a calculated career move. She’s just returned from working on a cruise ship, and she wants to run her own studio one day. This is a step in that direction and, in the meantime, she’s studying psychology at Western. Monique Jones has yet another outlook altogether. She’s in her second year of a degree in Humanities at York University, and she’s always been into different kinds of dance, including cheerleading. “I’m just open to new experiences,” she tells me. “I want to expand my options, and I’m open if things go down this path.”

Waddell says she’s looking for the “total package” in the dancers, which includes “looks, personality and talent.” They’ll have frequent contact with fans, so it’s important that they’re well-spoken as ambassadors of the team, she says. From what I’ve seen, lots of these women have it.

The other thing to keep in mind, aside from the fact that dancers can also be intellectually well-rounded, is that to be a dancer is to have a very specific kind of intelligence in itself. It requires, of course, a kinetic wherewithal, a connection to one’s own body in order to do things like hands-free cartwheels or double back handsprings. But it also takes an immense amount of patience and strength just to listen to the same song over and over again without going completely insane. As they practice, most of the women get the hang of the steps right away. Very few flub the steps; these women know what they’re doing. It takes all of about 20 minutes for them to put the steps to music.

Last year’s captain, Ashley Hoy, is there to help teach the moves, and she confirms my suspicion that the judges will have a difficult time choosing this season’s team. “There’s a lot of potential here, a lot of talented girls,” she says, eyes on the court. “It’s going to be hard.”

2013-14 Raptors Dance Pak Auditions Info

Raptors Dance Pak choreographer Amberley Waddell, 2013-14 Dance Pak captain Nina and 2012-13 Dance Pak rookie Mariah give a heads up on what the judges will be looking for at upcoming auditions Saturday, July 13th.

[Raptor Dance Park Audition Info]