The last thing you expect to see at a basketball halftime show are middle-aged women at center court shaking their tail feathers. But that's exactly what fans of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks are cheering at every home game at the Staples Center. Ole Skool Crew is a dance troupe featuring 12 women of different sizes, shapes and ethnicity — all past the age of 40. "From jamming with James Brown or bustin’ a move with MC Hammer," says the Sparks' website, "these hot ladies bring an energetic, sassy, confident and entertaining super show for the Sparks fans.”
The crew is directed by Traci Hawkins, 50, a former Soul Train dancer whose passion has kept Ole Skool going strong for the last nine years.
Gina McGalliard recently talked to Hawkins about her vision and how the dancers inspire women of all ages. (To see Hawkins and the Ole Skool Crew performing to James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing" click here.)
What kind of music do you dance to?
You have to be old school and know old school moves, old school music: the Temptations, the Spinners, Rick James — all the cool people that we loved. We’re able to take people down memory lane.
How did Ole Skool Crew begin?
The original owners decided back in 2004 that they would like to do a new entertainment type of idea, just to try it on for size: a mature dance team.
What were the requirements to get hired?
It didn’t matter if you were tall, short, skinny, fat — everybody was welcome as long as you were able to energize a crowd. You had to be fabulous and over 40, and you had to know all of the old school moves from the '70s and '80s — back in the Soul Train days — like the Electric Slide, the Cabbage Patch, the Running Man.
Why older dancers?
It is a bit controversial because people look at someone over 40 and immediately see it as a novelty-type of entertainment. When I became a part of this team I showed people that we are not a novelty or something to poke fun at. We are actually a serious dance team that can do the same things that an 18- to 20-year-old can do — at 40 and 50 years old. We have the same amount of energy or even more. So I was very proud to be able to show people that. It took a lot of doing and hard work, but when people see us they’re like, "Oh, my God, you’re 40, you’re 55, you’re 60, you’ve got to be kidding!” So it’s very inspirational, especially for people who have been through trials and tribulations like myself.
What motivated you to audition in 1994?
I was at a very difficult point in my life where I had gone through a terrible breakup, was clinically obese, was suffering from depression and had my gall bladder removed — a lot of health issues. I was just basically a couch potato. My kids were very worried about me having a heart attack or sinking deeper and deeper into depression. And my son said: "Mom, you know, I want to see you smile again — I’m worried about you. I think this might be what the doctor ordered. Why don’t you try?" And I said, "Well, I have asthma, I have an inhaler and they’re probably going to laugh at me because I’m so big." And he said: "Mom, you always taught me to believe in myself. And you need to do that for yourself and go in there and just do what you do. And I know they’re going to love you as much as I do."
How did the audition go?
I ended up making the first cut, the second cut and then I was introduced as an original member of the 20-piece team for the L.A. Sparks, which was an amazing honor.
How did you become the director of Ole Skool Crew?
After the first year it was announced that the Sparks were disbanding the troupe. I was so devastated I went to the owner and pleaded with him to change his mind. In desperation, I offered to direct it myself. I didn’t know anything about directing or running a team. The only thing I knew was that I didn’t want it to end. The owner agreed, but said I was in charge of everything from audition venues to music to running rehearsals.
You say Ole Skool Crew has changed your life. How has it affected other dancers?
I’ve had ladies that joined the team because they went through terrible divorces, domestic abuse, health issues, breast cancer — basically, we’re trying to rise from the ashes. It’s about boosting self-esteem and doing something you really love and learning how to love yourself all over again.
(MORE: Singing the Praises of a More Satisfying Life)
How do younger audiences respond?
You would think our demographic would be 40 and up. Instead, children, tweens, teens and twenty-somethings all love us. Younger people are sometimes the most inspired by the idea that there’s no such thing as being too old to dance and entertain crowds.
Besides entertainment, what is Ole Skool Crew’s message to audiences?
You can do anything you want to in life if you believe in yourself and put your mind to it.
Do you have an example of how you’ve moved people?
A woman who was paralyzed from the waist down approached the team after the game. She said: "I was feeling down, like I wasn’t worth anything. You know what? You made me feel so much better about myself and you reminded me of things I forgot. Thank you." And it dawned on me that day that this is more than a novelty dance team. These are people who really, really need us. So I want people to know: Get out there, because life is not a given. It’s a gift. We don’t even know if we’re going to wake up tomorrow morning, let alone be here next week. So live your life and enjoy it. Don’t hurt people. Don’t hate. Bring out love, try your best, help as many people as you can and project a positive energy. Because you don’t know whose life you’re going to touch.