In the cafeteria of a St. Louis Park senior center, Athenia Elie raised her hands in the air and gave her wrists a sassy twist. She was demonstrating a move from the routine that her charges would soon be performing on the court at a WNBA finals game.
“I know those joints hurt,” said the 35-year-old Minnesota Lynx dance coach, “but you can do it.”
One of the dancers shot right back: “How do you know our joints hurt?”
When the dance line’s membership requirement is senior citizen status, it was a valid hypothesis.
The Minnesota Lynx face a winner-takes-all game for another WNBA championship Wednesday, and the team’s biggest cheerleaders are an unlikely crew: a dozen women, ages 59 to 78, who shake their booties to hip-hop on the arena floor. They are the Senior Dancers, a Target Center favorite during Lynx and Timberwolves home games.
With professional sports competing for audience attention among digital extras and home viewing, more teams are bringing in community performance groups, notably those on the older end of the age spectrum.
The Senior Dancers, wearing bright lipstick and fingerless gloves, shaking their hips and making duck lips to the crowd, create a rare moment where everyone in the arena is focused on one thing, adoringly.
“They’re wildly popular,” said Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a Lynx season-ticket holder. “I think what people love is that it provides a visible proof that women can be physically active across the life span.”
The dancers are one of several volunteer performance groups that take the court a few times each season. Elie says that serves a dual purpose: pure entertainment, of course, and connecting with the community. “In the NBA, we want to relate to all ages,” she said. “It’s become a thing with all of the teams.”
Lynx fans in particular are drawn to the Senior Dancers, she said, “because we have an older crowd, so it’s seeing yourself on the court.”
Luring a live audience
The first NBA team to adopt a senior dance troupe, more than 10 years ago, was the Miami Heat. Since then, about half of all teams have brought in senior performers.
The striking juxtaposition of sweet grandmas doing salty moves captures the attention of the audience, something that’s becoming harder and harder for sports to do, said David Hollander, a sports marketing expert and professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media and Business.
“In this day and age, you go to the game and there’s every type of electronic amplification, media connection, apps where you can find out all kinds of enhanced information,” he said. “But with these senior dance troupes, there are no special effects. There is no multimedia. It’s just people of a certain age doing a certain type of activity that everybody of every age really appreciates. I think it humanizes the entire place for the three minutes that they’re on.”
And it’s something unique that audiences at home can’t get: The Senior Dancers go on during commercial breaks.
“What professional leagues are having to contend with is making the in-game experience worth coming to the arena for,” said LaVoi of the U. “Otherwise, people will stay home and watch the game on their big-screen TVs, which is certainly cheaper.”
During a typical performance, audiences stand up and scream for the Senior Dancers as if they were shooting three-pointers left and right. Their latest routine, a hip-shaking mashup of Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” and Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” draws the kind of all-out enthusiasm the troupe is now used to. But there was a time when that came as a surprise.
“At first, we thought it would just be polite clapping,” said Barb Brauch, one of the youngest members of the troupe at 65. “We could not believe the crowd would respond so favorably to these gray-haired ladies going out there and doing hip-hop.”
The Senior Dancers got their start performing for pro sports about eight years ago when the Minnesota Timberwolves, the men’s basketball team, tapped a local tap-dancing troupe, the Satin Dolls, for quarter and halftime performances. The Satin Dolls performed around town at senior centers and in nursing homes, mostly on carpeted floors. When they asked if they could tap on the pristine Target Center court, however, the answer was no. Instead, they got the idea to try something a little more modern.
At first, the rebranded group would work out routines based on YouTube videos. Then Elie, who manages all performances for the Lynx and the Timberwolves, came on board and “we decided to give them more edge,” she said. “They will shake their shoulders, their chest or their booty, and do current steps that kids watching music videos and concerts can relate to right now.”
Are there any limitations?
“They sometimes tell me that a step is going to be hard on the knees,” Elie said, “but I want to keep them young, so I tell them they have to do it and they do.”
Winning their own fans
At a run-through in the Target Center corporate offices, the Senior Dancers collided with one of Elie’s other groups: the official Timberwolves dancers. As the seniors got into their line and waited for their music to start, the twenty-somethings next to them dropped to the floor and jumped like frogs for a warm-up. Some of the older dancers’ mouths dropped open, while others busted out laughing.
They might not be as flexible as their younger counterparts, but they are just as admired.
“We appreciate them,” said Karrie, 22, a Timberwolves dancer who is prohibited from giving her last name for privacy. “They’re really good performers. We all say we’re going to come back here when we’re in our 70s and perform like they do.”
The rewards for the Senior Dancers are abundant. They get an adrenaline-spiked moment of fame, for one thing.
“It’s like dancing at Madison Square Garden,” said Mare Saffee, 72, a former Senior Queen of the Minneapolis Aquatennial and a stand-up comic. “We’re on YouTube!”
They get to expand their vocabulary.
“I didn’t know the word ‘twerk’ before we started doing it,” said Joanne Hed, the group’s oldest dancer at 78, about the provocative hip-thrusting move. “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
And they have a way to bond with younger relatives.
Pat Chancellor, 73, a Barbra Streisand fan, said she’s developed a new interest in the contemporary music she dances to, tracks such as “Gangnam Style,” “Uptown Funk” and “Thrift Shop.”
“My granddaughter said, ‘Grandma, do you know the words to that song?’ and I said no,” Chancellor said. “She said, ‘Ohhh-kayyy.’ ”
At a recent game, the women lined up and waited for the players to clear the court at the end of the first quarter. The announcer welcomed “the infamous Senior Dancers,” and they were on.
Some audience members who had started toward the aisles for a break stopped in their tracks. They watched, cheering and flinging their white Lynx towels in the air, while the dancers shimmied, smiled, skipped and opened their arms wide until the final “Baby, I’m worth it” had rung through the arena.
As the dance line ran off the court, beaming, to deafening applause, Jessica Guistolise, 32, reached out from the audience for high-fives with the stars.
“That was amazing,” she said after the Senior Dancers had left the arena. “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”