NEW YORK TIMES


March 11, 2012


Courtside Troupe Seeks Dancers Who Defy Age and Other Stereotypes By HUNTER ATKINS

As she stood in front of a dance studio mirror, Shirley Koehler struggled to keep up with a barrage of instructions from the choreographer: spin, stomp, twirl, nod and flex. And finally, slap your backside.

Ms. Koehler was not alone in her discomfort at the audition; others strutted with herniated disks, shrinking spines, degenerative knees and hearing aids.

At stake was a spot on the Timeless Torches, a dancing troupe tied to the New York Liberty of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Ms. Koehler, 71, has performed with the Torches for the last six years, but current members have to reaudition every year, and neither she nor any of the other hopefuls were guaranteed a position on this year’s squad.

“I’ve been a nervous wreck all week,” Ms. Koehler said, complaining of an upset stomach. “I’m fighting for my spot.”

The Timeless Torches make roughly 10 appearances a year at Liberty games and at other sports events, and have been featured on the NBC comedy “30 Rock.” The 11 dancers, men and women, differ from the ubiquitous and scantily clad dancers at N.B.A. halftime shows. The current Torches are almost all around 60 years old, and do not possess the figures of typical courtside performers.

“Our main thing is shocking the audience and showing them that no matter what size you are and how old you are, you can still dance and represent,” said Margaret Hamilton, 42, a dancer in the group since its debut in 2005.

“I was representing all the heavyset people, to show that fat people can move,” she said.

The Torches capitalize on unsuspecting fans.

“They like to see this humungous guy do the moves,” said Luis Jimenez, 47. He said that his stature (he weighs more than 300 pounds) has made him a crowd-pleaser in the five years he has been on the squad, showcasing his salsa steps and signature belly rub. “I feel like I’m in my 20s. The energy that I feel with the fans and the players, that’s all I talk about on my job.”

All the dancers have day jobs, some that allow more time for the Torches than others. Mr. Jimenez drives a bus for the city; Beverly Borsi, who has been with the group since last year, works in real estate and works some nights at a grocery store.

Ms. Borsi, 60, came to the audition in Manhattan from Clifton, N.J. She slept one hour the night before, the only time she could spare between finishing her overnight shift and getting in her vital dance preparations. The audition was at 1:30 p.m., so Ms. Borsi began soaking in a tub at 7 a.m.

“Physically, it’s a lot of pain,” she said. “There’s constant aches.”

The aches and pains are a common refrain: Mr. Jimenez complained about being bedridden some days; Ms. Koehler’s legs once stiffened up so badly, she said, that she had to be assisted off a bus; Ms. Borsi commiserated with others over the unsavory odor of Bengay and the blessing of Epsom bath salt.

Another performer, Denise Bellog, 59, lost her hearing 16 years ago. She wears hearing aids but cannot make out song lyrics, so she has relied on copying other dancers in her four years with the Torches.

But at the audition, the results of which will be announced on Friday, the camaraderie gave way to competition. The 14 women and 2 men tried to keep pace with the choreographer, Amanda Rebisz, a member of the Knicks City Dancers, the dance team for the New York Knicks. Fast-paced hip-hop blared, and Ms. Rebisz raced through 16 moves, including a conservative overhead finger snap and a flamboyant backside gyration.

The two rows of dancers were motley and clunky for the first hour. Wearing jeans and a Rutgers football T-shirt, Ms. Borsi stumbled. Mr. Jimenez, in blue sweat pants hiked up above his stomach, lacked the mobility to dip low, but compensated with panache, batting his eyes and thrusting his hips out wide.

Ms. Rebisz looked for smooth executions, but more importantly, she wanted to see individuality — a trait not usually tolerated on the highly synchronized routines performed by the Knicks dancers. The Torches have the freedom to take ownership of a dance and steal the spotlight.

“You can have any look, any hair color, be any weight,” Ms. Rebisz said. “There’s no stereotype that they have to look and dance the exact same.”

In the second hour, smaller groups danced for five judges, and the experienced Torches shined. Wearing a baggy orange Liberty shirt and calf-high pants, Ms. Koehler finished a flawless rendition with some personal touches. She struck a pose and swiped her hand down her right side, slowly shaping her figure. Then she stared at the judges and mouthed the final song lyric: “I’m sexy and I know it.”