While the team is certainly a step in the direction of gender equality, the organization was a little insensitive in their handling of the old squad. (Image via NBA)

The San Antonio Spurs’ New Co-Ed Dance Team Might Not Be As Equitable As It Seems

You can usher in the new without trashing the old.

On Sunday, Aug. 5, the San Antonio Spurs held the final round of auditions for their brand new hype team. Dancers must be available to work about 25 games per season, 10 community events, evenings, weekends and holidays. The team will consist of 35 dancers, and the Spurs have announced the squad will be both co-ed and family friendly. The Spurs’ management is looking for “well-rounded performers with both character and charisma” and “people who’d shine as ambassadors” for the team.

The forthcoming squad doesn’t have a name yet, at least not one as recognizable as the Spurs’ Silver Dancers, the team’s former elite female dance squad. Disregarding the namelessness, the team’s website proclaims that “a new hype is here.”

This sudden and considerable change from the Spurs’ management comes on the heels of many recent events in the professional cheerleading world, and cultural shifts in general.

Cheerleading is notorious for being labeled as a sport exclusively for women. Uniformed female cheerleaders are a widely used trope that dominates popular culture, and the sheer popularity of all-female cheerleading squads in both the NBA and NFL have contributed to the widely accepted custom.

Unfortunately, as is inevitable in any profession that puts female bodies in the spotlight, cheerleaders at any level are intensely sexualized beyond their control. The New York Times recently exposed the 2013 Washington Redskins’ nightmarish publicity trip to Costa Rica in which the NFL team’s cheerleaders posed topless for ticketed spectators and were asked to escort the team’s male sponsors to a nightclub.

The Redskins’ trip is only one of countless examples that came to light in the midst of the #MeToo movement in which the completely unequal and unfair power dynamics between women and men in professional environments were revealed.

Besides those that take issue with the sexualization of cheerleaders by a sector of fans, the femininity associated with cheerleading is hotly debated as well. In 2014, British MP Helen Grant came under intense fire for labeling cheerleading as a feminine sport and praising it for its ability to highlight participants’ beauty. The backlash intensified as female Olympic gold medalists called out Grant for furthering the stereotype that women should avoid traditionally male-dominated sports because they cannot athletically excel in ways men can.

Accordingly, the switch made by the Spurs seems like a win for feminism and gender equality. The apparent view at hand is that spectators will no longer be able to ogle the group of exclusively female dancers as they perform courtside. Beyond that, abolishing an all-female dance team will undermine the stereotype that cheerleading is a female-only sport with the sole objective of glorifying the beauty and physical attributes of women.

However, upon further examination, the Spurs’ decision might not be free of negative consequences. The all-female Silver Dancers were not treated fairly by the management in transitioning to a new hype team.

Only a few days before the Spurs’ management announced the co-ed, family-friendly hype team, all of the Silver Dancers were swiftly fired without much explanation. Rumors have circulated that because NFL and NBA cheerleading teams have recently been shrouded in controversy, the Spurs were nipping potential lawsuits in the bud.

Those suspicions might not be off base. In addition to the accounts of sexual harassment within the NBA and NFL cheerleading world, cheerleaders have spoken out against wage inequality. In 2014, a petition on Change.org made headlines for demanding that cheerleaders be paid a living wage. And only last month, former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Erica Wilkins filed a suit against the team, stating that they paid her less than minimum wage and much less than Rowdy, the team’s mascot.

Be that as it may, the Spurs’ monumental shift with regard to the Silver Dancers was not well executed. A group of accomplished, hard-working and dedicated women were let go without any explanation. The Spurs had an opportunity to incorporate the Silver Dancers into their new hype team, or at least offer them a chance to audition, but they denied the former all-female squad any job security.

On top of that, firing the Silver Dancers by branding the new dance team as “family-friendly” implies that the former squad was not. Whether or not this was the management’s intention is beside the point. The fact that the dancers might have been labeled risque is no fault of their own. The way the transition was handled wasn’t fair and the management clearly should have been more careful.

The Spurs Silver Dancers celebrate the Spurs diversity! #SpursGlobal

A post shared by San Antonio Silver Dancers (@silverdancers) on

Although the method of firing of the Silver Dancers was a misstep by the team’s higher-ups, the co-ed hype team still possesses egalitarian potential. As stated, the management could include the Silver Dancers in ways that they feel line up with the new hype team’s brand without denouncing the former girl squad.

With regard to the inner-workings of the new team, members should be paid equal wages regardless of their gender identity. If the Spurs were worried about wage lawsuits, a surefire way to dodge legal issues would be to pay all dancers equally and above minimum wage.

And on the outside, the Spurs’ new dance squad is able to change the face of NBA cheerleading. The hype squad will celebrate dance as a legitimate profession regardless of gender. After watching the new hype team dance court-side on TV, children that identify with any gender will feel unashamed and inspired to dream of being dancers when they grow up.

Subsequently, perhaps the new dance team will be de-sexualized as well. Although its family-friendly label implicitly marred the Silver Dancers, it can definitely work in the new squad’s favor.

In terms of long-term reforms, perhaps making courtside dance crews co-ed will inspire the teams playing the games to be inclusive of all genders as well.  

All in all, I hope that the Spurs make progressive reforms to their courtside crew despite the strange mistreatment of the Silver Dancers. And, moving forward, it’s clear that any recognition the new hype team receives is thanks to the legacy forged tirelessly by the skilled and committed Silver Dancers.

A new hype is certainly in, and I look forward to the Spurs making the best of the opportunities they have for equality and fairness in the future.

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