Many dancers are attracted to life as a cheerleader but they often find themselves disappointed at what they thought would be a dream job
You can deflect leading questions that stereotype you by explaining that this is a hobby
Q: Do you get paid?
A: All dance teams in the NBA get paid, and theres other great perks, like getting our hair and make-up done, tanning, etc
The above is excerpted from a manual on how to talk to the press, given to the 2013 Golden State Warriors dancers by their coaches. It was handed to me by former Warriors Girl turned labor advocate Lisa Murray.
Salaries of NBA and NFL players are, of course, widely available. They are fodder for headlines and talk radio beefs proof that sometimes Cinderella stories really do come true. Until recently, there was little reason to suspect that within these wildly profitable organizations, cheerleaders those archetypal subjects of envy and lust were being mistreated and underpaid.
Lawsuits against NFL teams began in early 2014. In rapid fire succession, complaints alleging wage theft and other serious labor violations were brought by former cheerleaders against the Oakland Raiders; Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Cincinnati Bengals; Buffalo Bills; and settled for as much as $1.25m (the case against the Bills has yet to settle).
Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first NBA team named in such a suit when former dancer Lauren Herington filed a complaint on behalf of she and her team-mates alleging gross underpayment and illegally mandated out-of-pocket expenses. Soon after filing, she shared with me emails, agreements, and detailed notes that she kept during her tenure as a Bucks dancer. If her accusations are true, the team did not treat employees described in the organizations own internal agreement as, high profile members of the Milwaukee Bucks community with the respect or compensation they were entitled to.
Prior to working for the Milwaukee Bucks, Herington too was excited about being treated as a high-profile member of the organization. She equated being a professional cheerleader with being a mini celebrity. As is the case with many professional cheerleaders, she had been dancing since early childhood, and had long dreamed of a spot on an NBA squad.
I thought I still think its a big deal to be able to say youre an NBA dancer, Herington told the Guardian. But I guess thats over for me now.
Salary was not discussed in the month-long unpaid bootcamp Herington attended prior to being hired by the Bucks. This was also the case at a workshop I attended for potential Clippers dancers for another article last year, where we were told wages would be discussed only after we were hired. It was also the case for Murray, who recalled of the Warriors Girls, They have a day where you come in, and you read the contract together, and you sign it. And thats when I found out I was making $10 an hour. I remember just being outraged.
There was no discussing it, Herington said, of her experience signing after shed already relocated to Milwaukee to work on the team. It was, If you have an issue, then you can go ahead and just leave. We werent allowed to take it home, and go through it or anything like that. It was just handed out at practice. We signed it and gave it back. According to the agreement, she would be paid $30 per bi-weekly two- to four-hour practice; $65 per weekly 6.5 hour home game; and $50 per two- to four-hour public appearance.
Hertington was also contractually obligated to adhere to the Bucks taxing fitness standards, which she alleges in her lawsuit amounted to significant hours of unpaid work. Per their agreement, dancers were required to maintain a high level of fitness, which was to be obtained by fulfill(ing) the requirements of the workout program designed by the training staff at Elite Sports Club.
What constituted a high level of fitness would be determined by the Bucks dancers coach Tricia Crawford, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Workouts were monitored by Tony Moro, a trainer at the aforementioned Elite Sports Club, who was in close contact with Crawford. In one email at the beginning of the season, Moro scheduled team members for seven-day-a-week mandatory workouts and noted that the women should always be sure to cc [Crawford] so she knows what is going on. Failure to comply with the exercise and weight mandates set forth by Moro and Crawford would, according to the Bucks policy, result in disciplinary action as deemed necessary by the Dance Team Manager.
According to Herington, discussion about her weight began as early as the teams first appearance in August of 2013, where coaching staff gave her negative feedback about her figure, and subsequently put her on a special workout plan that exceeded the four to five hours of daily exercise she was already engaging in.
Herington also began starving and dehydrating herself to look [her] absolute best. She often felt faint while working out. She experienced severe diarrhea after eating for the first time after days of food deprivation for things like the teams calendar shoot. She emailed Moro asking for additional work outs that might help her lose the extra fat [she had] around [her] hips and waist area.
Despite these efforts, Herington never knew when she would be allowed to dance at games, and when she would be benched (without pay), for failure to adhere to the Bucks fitness standards. On 18 18 November 2013, the week after the Bucks first home game, Crawford explained in an email: This week you will be out. I think you need a little more time to focus on your fitness. I was looking back at my notes and photos from auditions, and I can see a significant difference. At that time, I thought your fitness was close to where it needed to be, but you still had a little slimming and toning to do.
Sometimes, she said, she would learn a routine only to be cut at the end of practice, at which point she would awkwardly leave the studio as her tired team-mates were told they would now have to stay late to relearn formations.
In an email on February 18 2014, Crawford wrote, Saturday will be your first day back, and then Ill make a decision as to the remainder of the season. Id like you to visit Tony on Friday if you could and do one more testing. (Testing here referred to the regular body fat percentage gauging that Moro performed on Herrington and reported back to Crawford.)
Herington developed stress fractures in her shins. She stopped getting her period. At one point, she was refused weight loss medication from a doctor who expressed concerns over Heringtons mental health, and advised her to quit dancing.
By late winter, Herington said, the girls started noticing that my face looked really thin, and they asked if I was losing weight in a healthy way. At one practice, a captain asked Herington why she looked so stressed out. I told her I was on probation for the last two weeks, and if I didnt make improvements I was not going to be on this team any more, she said. Two days later, in the same 18 February email, Crawford wrote: I know you asked [the cheerleader captain] about your status with the team yesterday, but she has nothing to do with this. This situation is between you and I.
Crawford signed off that email with a smiley face.
When Im sitting here now, Im like, wow, that sounds really stupid. Why didnt I just say something? Herington told the Guardian. Why didnt I just stand up and be like, No. This is wrong. But then when I think about how drilled into our minds it was that every little thing we did was being watched You get scared that youll never work as a dancer again.
During a weekend-long retreat at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in the beginning of the season, Herington recalled rooming with a team-mate who told her that any in-room eating she did would be reported back to Crawford. At the same retreat, she said the dancers attended a seminar on how to adhere to their contractual obligation to refrain from posting anything on the internet that could be perceived in a negative light. When they arrived, pictures from their Facebook accounts had been projected onto the walls to be used as examples of photos that made them look like sluts and lesbians.
This retreat was also where each woman received their makeover. A look was chosen for them by Crawford and a team of beauticians from Salon Nova & Lash, where dancers where contractually required to visit, at their own expense, for all hair needs.
I was the a-little-bit-older-than-my-actual-age-one, says Herington. I was the edgy one on the team I had to convey that throughout the season. I had no say in what I looked like. That was part of the brainwashing.
They change your look. They change your personality. They change everything, said Murray, of her time on the Warriors Girls. Murray attributes some of professional cheerleadings bizarre culture to the fact that most women coaching are themselves former cheerleaders. (Crawford danced for the Detroit Pistons prior to her employment with the Bucks.) Professional dancers, like most pro athletes, generally start working at a young age, due to their careers finite arcs. Many coaches, then, have worked in the world of pro-cheerleading since early adulthood. Because of this, said Murray, coaches may accept the view that in this profession, relationships are an appropriate form of compensation.
Something they say a lot of the time, she said, is its a sisterhood. The document Murray furnished me with instructed dancers to tell press: Its such a blessing to be on the Warriors Girls because you get to meet women who have your same passion for dance. It truly is a sisterhood! (When I attended the Clippers workshop, dancers there had also used the sentence, It truly is a sisterhood! verbatim, to describe life on the team.)
Herington also recalled promises of sisterhood when shed attended boot camp. By March, however, when her team-mates hosted what she described as a basically mandatory sleepover, she was treated cooly by the other women, who did not offer her a glass of wine. The other cheerleaders, though cordial at best, were the only people Herington knew in Milwaukee. Working one or two additional jobs on top of her paid and unpaid dancing obligations, left virtually no time or money with which Herington could have socialized.
As soon as shed joined the team, shed gotten a job at Ruby Tuesday. After a couple of months, she took on a third job working early mornings at a doggie day care. Between her three jobs and the online class she was taking, her days generally began at 5am and ended at midnight. After paying her rent, bills, and expenses like mandatory weekly costume cleaning and bangs trimming, she ended each month with about $20 in her checking account. She spent the entire season continuing scrambling for extra income in this way to Jared Jewelers; another restaurant; then back to Ruby Tuesday anywhere that might accommodate the schedule of an employee who had another part-time job wholly consuming them.
The Warriors Girls manual encourages team members to view their additional jobs as a point of feminine pride: Each of you have interests, goals, and talents well beyond being a Warrior Girl In some cases, you are a full-time student, a woman with a full-time job and perhaps a family.
Milwaukee Bucks Dancers were also contractually obligated to fulfill, a minimum of 10 hours of charity/non-paid appearances a year. If team members did not find time during the regular season to complete these hours, they were expected to work off the time in unpaid promotional appearances for the Bucks.
In an email dated 28 May 2014, Crawford wrote, As a reminder, you are all still under contract until July 13th The responses Ive been getting so far for summer events have been terrible. If its because you still need to meet your hours, so you intend on declining all events because you wont get paid, then thats a serious issue that I will take up to my superiors.
It is unclear whether Crawfords superiors would have paid her any attention. In the same email, Crawford expressed insecurity over the very future of the Bucks Dancers, We have no idea what changes the new owners will bring Who knows what could happen to our program.
Women in the coaching position absolutely are afraid theyre going to lose their job, said Murray, based on the pushback and subsequent surrender shes observed when coaches or players have attempted to fight for higher salaries.
Currently, cheerleading teams in the NFL and NBA cannot collectively negotiate their own working conditions. Workers are unable to form unions unless they are direct employees of a company, and cheerleader employment status varies from team to team. Herington was hired as a direct employee of the Milwaukee Bucks, but many teams justify the underpayment of dancers by classifying them as contractors. Incorrectly classifying professional cheerleaders, as was the case in the suit against the Oakland Raiders, prevents all dancers in the league – even those who are direct employees of teams – from unionizing, because teams they would join forces with are not properly classified.
Classifying professional cheerleaders as contractors is, according to California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, not legal. [Cheerleaders] sign an employment contract, she told the Guardian. They clearly represent the team … If youre an independent contractor, you set your own hours. You wouldnt be wearing a uniform for a company.
Gonzalez is the author of California Assembly Bill 202, which was passed in reaction to the classification issues involved in the Raiders case. Per the bill, as of 1 January 2016, professional cheerleaders in California must be hired as employees. Murray was one of the witnesses to testify before the assembly in support of its passage. Gonzalez continues work with New York assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who is attempting to pass a similar bill in New York State.
Thus far, progress in the working conditions of cheerleaders has been made primarily through lawsuits like Heringtons. The situations could be remedied by the NFL and NBA In the snap of a finger said Gonzalez, by introducing league-wide mandates that all dancers be direct employees.
Murray is optimistic that the NBA will be quicker to address the problem than the NFL, citing the associations recent partnership with the equal pay advocacy group #LeanIn. If we dont fix this issue, thats going to look really bad on them, she said.
Herington left the Milwaukee Bucks after her first season. Of her decision to speak out publicly against the team, she told me, Unfortunately, its probably the case [that I wont ever be hired on another team], her voice falling, but I at least hope now that maybe some things will change because of this.
When reached for comment, Milwaukee Bucks spokesperson Jake Suksi gave the following statement: The Milwaukee Bucks strongly disagree with the claims made in the federal lawsuit. The lawsuit presents inaccurate information that creates a false picture of how we operate. The Bucks value the contributions our dancers make to the team. We treat all of our employees fairly, including our Bucks dancers, and pay them fairly and in compliance with federal and state law. We believe the lawsuit to be without merit and will contest these allegations in court.
Herington, Murray, and Gonzalez continue to fight. The majority of American high schools and universities continue to offer cheerleading through their athletic departments. Parents continue to spend hundreds of dollars on weekend clinics where formations are learned. Somewhere, at least one kid continues to do those pull ups even though they hurt, and practice that eight count even though theyre sick of it, because they still think its a big deal to be able to say youre an NBA dancer.