In any walk of life, it is rare to find someone as welcoming, enthusiastic, positive, efficient, and hospitable as Jeanine Klem-Thomas, Director of the Magic Dancers, the dance squad of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. How nice is Jeanine? Well, in her rookie season as a Magic Dancer, she jumped up and cheered when an opposing team’s player made a great play; that is how nice she is. But more on that later!
Jeanine’s association with the Magic started with the simple wish to dance with a friend for one season. Jeanine remembers, “I had a high school friend who was a Magic Dancer and she was planning to dance one more season with the Magic. With a little prompting, we both decided it could be great to dance another year together if I were to make it, and so I packed my dance bag and headed to Orlando for the audition! I did make the squad the first time I auditioned, which was a whirlwind of a year since my first season was the year after the Magic made it to the NBA Finals for the first time and during the Shaq era! I was hooked from the moment I stepped on-court and sixteen seasons later, I’d suffice to say I’ve found my home!”
Seeing that one could have a life of dance was a gift that came from Jeanine’s mom. “I have been surrounded by dance since the moment I was born,” Jeanine recalls, “My mother was actually a professional Polynesian/Hawaiian hula dancer, and continued dancing well into her later thirties! I loved nothing more than going to rehearsals and shows with her and now it’s come full circle as my three and a half year old daughter loves coming to rehearsals and games with me. I knew very early that to be truly happy, dance would always need to be part of my life and I’m just thrilled that I’ve been able to make a career doing what I love, very few people can say that!”
Prior to joining the Magic organization, Jeanine attended Florida State University, and was a member of their nationally ranked FSU Golden Girls squad. Jeanine graduated with a degree in Nutrition and Fitness, and soon was headed south to Orlando. Soon after graduation, “I auditioned to become an Orlando Magic Dancer in the summer of ’95, and when I made the team it solidified Orlando as my new home. Little did I know it would be the start of a great long-term career with the Orlando Magic as well!” During this period, Jeanine also taught for NCA Danz for many years traveling around the country teaching dance camps.
Jeanine’s Magic Dancer days are filled with memories, but a few remain especially notable. One shows her still ever-present spirit and enthusiasm, as Jeanine recalls, “In my rookie season, I remember sitting under the baskets and we were playing Chicago. This was while MJ was still playing and having been a long-time Michael Jordan fan, I just couldn’t believe that he was running down the court towards me. He made an incredible play and I jumped up cheering for him only to find my captain yelling at me, ‘Jeanine, that’s the wrong team, sit down.’” She recalls, “I was mortified and thought ‘Oh boy, they’ll never keep me after that,’” Jeanine laughs, injecting, “Still here in my sixteenth season!”
World traveling opportunities continue to be a big part of Jeanine’s life, and created have memories from the start. In Jeanine’s second NBA season, she traveled to Tokyo for pre-season games, remembering, “And at this point in my life I’d only been out of the country twice, ironically enough, I had been to Tokyo with my college dance team in 1992! What were the odds that my first two times out of the country would be to the same place?”
But, perhaps, most memorable was going from center court, which would be nerve-wracking enough for most people, to hanging and dropping from stories above the court for a routine. Jeanine states, “In one of my more daring moments, I was one of the first six Dancers to ever train to rappel from the ceiling of the Arena! We debuted our new talent during a ‘Mission Impossible’ routine in the ’96 season, and it was such a hit we rappelled through the end of our Playoff run in ’97.”
One year with her high school friend on the Magic Dancers progressed into Jeanine’s second and third seasons on the squad, which included being team captain both years. But during that time, not only was her role increasing on the squad, but Jeanine also was on a path on the Magic corporate side that would take her to be part of a wide spectrum of responsibilities in a diversified organization. Jeanine reflects, “The only part of our company I never worked for was the Solar Bears, the IHL hockey team we once had!”
In 1996, Jeanine began working in the Magic corporate offices, which lead to a full time job in 1997, working for the RDV Sportsplex (a sports complex built by the Magic ownership) while it was still under construction. Jeanine says that being part of the 365,000 square foot sports and recreation complex , “offered the perfect opportunity to put my Nutrition and Fitness degree to use.” When the Sportsplex opened in 1998, Jeanine was first their Event Sales Manager, then soon promoted to Sales Manager of the complex.
So Jeanine was becoming an important part of the Magic corporate side, but her love of the Magic Dancers never waned. Her first season after completing her time on the sidelines, and the same year Jeanine was promoted to Sales Manager, Jeanine was co-directing the Magic Dancers with another former Magic Dancer. Later the same year, Jeanine’s ability to multi-task really hit its stride when her city added a WNBA team, the Orlando Miracle, which needed its own dance squad. So, Jeanine started a co-ed hip-hop dance squad for the Miracle, and directed it all four seasons prior to the Miracle moving to Connecticut.
For two seasons, Jeanine concentrated on the WNBA squad and her Sales Manager position, and her co-director took the reins of the Magic Dancers, but as Jeanine notes, “I missed my NBA Dancers terribly those two seasons.” When the WNBA Miracle relocated, Jeanine returned full-time to the Magic Dancers in 2002, and says, “I never regretted leaving the Sales Manager position to return to the role I was always most passionate about! From this point forward, and to this day, I committed to a complete focus on growing and improving our program to new heights!” And new heights, literally! From Magic Dancers dropping from arena’s ceiling, to now, flying through the air dunking.
This high-flying Magic Dancer innovation occurred towards the end of the 2004 season. Jeanine recalls, “Our Mascot Coordinator approached me about the idea of having the girls train to trampoline dunk; I thought it was a fantastic idea and added it to our rehearsal schedule!” Jeanine continued, “We had several Dancers who really took to it, and decided to put together a dunk show for closing night of the regular season that year. And let me just tell you, the fans went nuts! From this night forward we created our newest entertainment team with a ‘team within a team’ where the Dunking Dancers were made up of actual Magic Dancers! Here we are eight seasons later and our Dunking Dancers continue to be one of the most popular game night entertainment acts!”
The Dunking Dancers were trend setters once the rest of the league had a glimpse. Notoriety spread, Jeanine remembers, “As the first team in the NBA to debut Dunking Dancers, one of my most memorable experiences was the honor of having our Dunking Dancers invited to perform in Houston at the NBA All-Star Game in 2006. This was the first time everyone around the league had an opportunity to see our talented Dunking Dancers and then we started quite a trend around the league with a lot of teams training their very own Dunking Dancers.”
As Director, the world travel for the Magic Dancers continues. “Another gratifying moment was being invited on our first Armed Forces Entertainment Tour to Bosnia and Kosovo,” Jeanine recalls, “It had long been a dream to take our team on a tour to serve our Armed Forces and give thanks for all they do to protect our freedoms. This particular trip fell during the holiday season in December of 2004 and it was such an honor to spend our holidays with the troops!”
The checklist of countries visited is impressive, as Jeanine states, “We’ve been incredibly fortunate to travel the world with the NBA and through our Armed Forces Entertainment tours! I have personally been to Japan, mainland China (four times), Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Spain on trips with the NBA and then on three Armed Forces Tours to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland, Poland, Norway, Austria, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In addition, we’ve also traveled to Taiwan, Turkey, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and Okinawa, but those trips happened while I was pregnant or right after my daughter was first born so I missed those particular ones.”
Since the rest of the world flies into Orlando when they want to have the time of their lives, where does an Orlando family go for their vacations? Jeanine responds, “My husband and I love to go to Las Vegas when we’re able to get away. I’m a huge Cirque du Soleil fan and with so many Cirque shows out there, it’s like heaven! When we’re not able to make it across the country, we’re pretty much happy relaxing on any beach! “
And with Jeanine’s responsibilities, some relaxation is certainly needed, as her multi-tasking continues to this day! Jeanine oversees six squads that entertain at Magic games: The Magic Dancers, which have been in existence since 1988; the Dunking Dancers (debuted in 2003-04 season); the Dancing Dads (debuted in 2004-05 season), comprised of the dads of current and former Magic Dancers; the Silver Stars (debuted in 2005-06 season), comprised of residents of the retirement community at the Villages of Lady Lake; the Junior Jammers, a junior hip-hop team (debuted in 2009-2010) and is a partnership with Julie Johnson and the performers from Extreme Cheer and Dance in Melbourne, Florida; and the Magic Minis, a junior dance team partnership with Starz Dance Galaxy which began in 2007-08. This is the latest incarnations of ‘Junior Magic Dancers,’ and some have been managed internally, but this is their most current partner in their fourth season.
And there is a new home for all of their performances, as the Magic now plays in a beautiful new arena, the Amway Center. Jeanine reflects, “The new Amway Center is just absolutely unbelievable! I still have to pinch myself every game night and ask ‘is this really our new home’?! There’s truly no comparison to the old Arena; the new Arena is simply AMAZING in all that it has to offer from fan amenities, to food selection, to luxury suites, to Stuff’s Magic Castle, and then to things as simple as our locker room which is about four times larger than our old one! I can’t wait to attend my first event in the building as a fan so I can actually enjoy it when I’m not working!”
If you have attended a Magic game either in Orlando or on the road, and get there early enough to see warm-ups, you will see a player having as much fun as you would expect all players of all sports to have. I wondered if Dwight Howard’s boundless enthusiasm trickles down, up, and around the entire organization, and Jeanine replied, “There’s no doubt that Dwight’s smile and energy is just infectious! He’s an incredible athlete and franchise player both on the court as a powerhouse player and off the court with his community work! I know Orlando Magic fans are proud to have Dwight Howard call the Magic ‘home’!”
But once I was in Orlando, I saw another example of the effect that one person can have on an entire group. The South is known for hospitality, but ebullience, generosity of time, authentic positivity, and friendliness permeates the totality of the Magic Dancers squad and staff. The Magic Dancers reflect the all of the traits that Jeanine brings to her work, and her life, and her family. The value Jeanine places on those around her are expressed when asked what was her most memorable experience as Director, to which she responds, “Every single Dancer I’ve coached along the way, but more specifically, bringing over 110 Magic Dancers back for our 20th Anniversary reunion halftime performance weekend during the 2008-2009 season. It was incredible to have everyone come together, reminisce, perform, and see their true enthusiasm for their team even after they had long retired in most cases!”
Jeanine’s Magic career started with the seed of an idea to dance with a friend, and over sixteen years, this seed developed into an expansive field of friendships that have flowered under her attentive care. And continues to grow everyday!
We thank Jeanine so much for her extensive cooperation and sharing photos, and most of all, just being Jeanine.