sports

The Dancers Keeping It Old-School in the WNBA

Photo: Courtesy of The Ole Skool Dance Crew

In 2012, Michelle Riggs was directing a group of high-school dancers as they performed during a hockey game in Los Angeles. She was in her mid-30s and newly divorced, but though she’d been a serious dancer since she was a little girl, she hadn’t performed in years. Suddenly, she heard the music of her youth — an MC Hammer mix coming from somewhere inside the arena. It turned out to be the Ole Skool Crew, a 40-plus-year-old dance troupe that performs for the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks and other professional sporting events, rehearsing for the game. Later that night, the crew’s director pulled Riggs aside and expressed an interest in partnering with her student dancers. A few weeks later, the director called up Riggs and asked if she’d ever thought of dancing again. At 37, Riggs was technically underage for the group, but soon thereafter an OSC member quit on short notice, and Riggs found herself rushing to an audition. She learned a few routines and was performing with the crew by the following week.

“Even now, people throw it in my face,” Riggs, now 49, jokes about sneaking in under the age limit. She is currently the team’s captain and longest-standing member and says the OSC reunited her with a deep passion. “Most dancers do not expect to perform after the age of, like, 28,” she says.

For older women who want to stay in the world of dance, teaching or choreography are often the only options. The OSC opens up another route. “It’s an amazing space for dancers to get onstage after the age of 40,” says Ebonee Arielle, the team’s director and choreographer (and a former backup dancer for Nicki Minaj). “It’s almost unheard of, especially here in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of ageism.”

Photo: De’Angelo Scruggs / Courtesy of The Ole Skool Dance Crew

The Ole Skool Crew is one of the longest-standing and most utilized “mature” dance groups in professional basketball, having just celebrated its 20th season last year. Its latest iteration consists of 12 women and four men (the group opened up to male dancers in 2014), though the group recruits new talent and re-auditions dancers before each season. Most OSC members come from dance backgrounds — there are former Raiderettes and Laker Girls in their ranks — but at this stage in their life, almost all of them have day jobs that no longer involve performance.

Still, watching their routines, you’d never guess this was a side gig. When I first saw a clip of the OSC doing a half-time show, I was blown away. They hit, of course, on my nostalgia for the ’90s music (Bell Biv Devoe, anyone?) and the vintage moves I loved so hard, but there was something else — they didn’t seem like an afterthought.

As a rule, older dance groups — the Milwaukee Bucks’ Grand Dancers, for example, or the Washington Wizards’ Wizdom and the Golden State Warriors’ Hardwood Classics — may not get the sponsorship opportunities awarded to younger squads. Those that perform at WNBA games may not get the funding that dancers for male teams receive. But with the Sparks, OSC dancers get two important perks: top billing and respect. Rather than appearing at an occasional game, they split home-game performances evenly with the team’s 18-plus dancers, referred to as “the Crew.” Vaoesea Leota, the Game Presentation and Entertainment Manager for the Sparks, tells me that their fanbase shows up hard for the OSC. Their ambitious routines are one reason: According to Arielle, the OSC isn’t going out on the court and playing it safe.

“Yes, they’re 40 and over; they have back pain or knee pain,” she says, but she doesn’t want her dancers to stop pushing themselves. She wants them to be beloved, and to “shock everyone a little bit — that there’s no way these people are over 40 doing this.” Last season, rather than relying on the “one-two steps” that often characterize the routines of mature teams, Arielle had them twerking in handstands to Lil Jon.

Photo: De’Angelo Scruggs / Courtesy of The Ole Skool Dance Crew

“She’s younger than us,” Adrianne Harris says of Arielle, who is 36, “so she pushes us to our limits. But she’s protective, too.” At 55, Harris — who spent 14 seasons as an NFL cheerleader and gives me a look at her Super Bowl ring — is the second-oldest member of the current crew (the oldest is 56). She’s still doing the high kicks and splits that have become her signature. When she joined the team last year, she was impressed by the level of athleticism she witnessed. “It was challenging,” she tells me, “but I kept up. Even though I had to come home and soak my knees in some Epsom salts.”

When I ask Riggs (who doesn’t have a signature move but is partial to the Reebok) what it’s like to dance at 50 versus 20, she tells me the difference mostly comes down to time: It takes longer for her to get the moves down and longer for her body to heal. But for her, as for many others in the group, this experience has changed her relationship to aging. “I never thought I would perform again,” she says. “But there is so much joy in being on this team that it keeps you young. Especially this season, as I’m getting closer to 50, the bounce back is a little slower. But then you also realize that, really, age is nothing but a number. And if you feel good and you enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter.”

Because the dancers are done with the hustle of their days as pros, and because they have the life experience and perspective that younger people can sometimes lack, Arielle says there is less competition than on a traditional cheer squad. The OSC members are close. They’ve seen one another through career changes, house moves, injuries, and the deaths of some treasured cats. They’re protective over one another when it comes to dating: Riggs told me that she hesitates to invite men she’s seeing to games unless it’s serious. There’s also more vulnerability and nurturing within the squad, Arielle observes, potentially because most of them (herself included) are mothers. “We’re grown. We got bills. We got kids,” Harris explains.

Photo: De’Angelo Scruggs / Courtesy of The Ole Skool Dance Crew

Ultimately, they’re dancing for themselves, each other, and of course, the fans — in many cases, older women like them who feel empowered to love and show off their bodies. Madilyn McFerrin, who joined the team at 52 with no prior professional dance experience and retired at 66, believes her popularity with the audience stemmed from the fact that she never tried to hide her gray hair. “Granny down there dancing!” she once heard a fan shout. But maybe they were just admiring her killer Butterfly.

There are the young fans, too, for whom the OSC provides a vision of dancing into middle age. When Riggs’s students bring their parents to games, they see that dance is a viable career in the long term, not just the short. And thanks to TikTok trend cycles steeped in ’90s nostalgia, it’s not only the parents in the crowd who know the music. “It’s a lot of the younger audience members that are like, ‘Oh my god, you guys are so good,’” Riggs says. “‘I can’t believe you do that. My mom wants to join.’”

For Arielle, seeing what her dancers are capable of makes her more optimistic about her future. “When we say, ‘I’m done learning, I’m done growing, I’m done playing,’” she tells me, “that’s when we lose our light. And the Old Skool Crew, they have light and that’s why they stand out on that court. We don’t need to worry about getting older. We can still be hot and sexy and expressive, playful, and fun.”

Photo: Courtesy of The Ole Skool Dance Crew

Every single OSC dancer I interview exudes this kind of confidence, this belief in both their physical ability and their charisma. For me, that reminder about feeling comfortable in your own skin hasn’t come a moment too soon: I just made the age cutoff for the OSC last year, and since my 40th birthday I have experienced a string of physical ailments. A vertigo attack forced me to cancel my dance-party birthday — devastating because I love to dance, even though my Butterfly has always been mid at best. Since then, I’ve healed so slowly that exercise has been nearly impossible, and I’ve found myself wondering if my best days are behind me. I know, as these women do, that 40 isn’t that old anymore. But in light of my health challenges, it feels like it’s not that young, either.

Talking to the OSC dancers, seeing how they telegraph strength and possibility through their routines and witnessing the extent to which they not only listened to but believed in their bodies, I feel like I can glimpse another version of my future. One in which I am brave enough, well enough, maybe not to twerk in a handstand but to go back out to the club and give it my all on the dance floor. After all, at 72, McFerrin still does that frequently, party whistle in hand.

Maybe I hadn’t hit my peak. Maybe it was somewhere and something I hadn’t even imagined yet. Maybe I could be like McFerrin and the rest of the OSC: “Over the hill,” as she puts it to me, but “picking up speed coming down.”

More From This Series

See All
Meet the Dancers Keeping It Old-School in the WNBA