On March 6, Tara Rappleyea was on the floor of Madison Square Garden performing to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” with her fellow Knicks City Dancers as the team took on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Less than a week later, her dancing gig was on ice when the NBA postponed the season due to the coronavirus. But the 27-year-old has hardly been idle. Her day job is working as an ICU nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset in Somerville, New Jersey.
“It seemed like it happened overnight. Our unit went from regular patients to COVID,” said Rappleyea, who lives in South Amboy and became a registered nurse almost two years ago. Before all this, she logged three 12-hour overnight shifts per week; now, she is working around 60 hours a week.
Whenever a COVID-19 patient is discharged, The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” plays throughout the hospital. “You just get the chills,” Rapelyea said. “It reminds you why you are there.” The Jersey native, who graduated from Rutgers, joined the Knicks City Dancers in 2016.
In the past 14 months, eight of the 30 NBA teams have replaced their all-female dance teams with co-ed groups. It’s a trend that some dancers say reflects a fraught societal response to the #MeToo movement: If there’s any chance you could be accused of sexism, just distance yourself from women. Others wonder if franchises are eliminating all-female squads because of prior pushes for better pay and working conditions.
On May 15, an executive with the Sacramento Kings told 48 female contract employees on a conference call that the team would be “evolving” their dance squad, and the women’s contracts would end June 30.
Kellie Jackson and Mariah Palmiter, both Kings Dancers since 2016, were on the 30-minute call. Palmiter asked if the April hiring of the new Kings head coach, Luke Walton, had anything to do with eliminating the all-female dance teams. Just a few weeks earlier, former Spectrum SportsNet reporter Kelli Tennant had filed a civil lawsuit against Walton accusing him of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room in 2014. Walton has categorically denied the allegations. Palmiter found the timing suspicious, wondering if the organization was worried about showcasing young female dancers while dealing with the accusations against Walton
“The night I made the team, management pulled me aside to say they were concerned about my weight,” says Alanna Sarabia, who danced for the San Antonio Spurs from 2011 to 2012 (the year the Spurs decided to disband their dance squad, opting for a “family friendly” alternative). “We were given a bin of uniforms from the year before, and I might be a solid size 6, but the girl before you might be a 2 or a 4, and that’s your uniform now — so, good luck.” Madison Murray, who danced with the Phoenix Suns from 2012 to 2015, shares a similar story. “Right after I made the team, they told me I had to lose 10 pounds,” she says. “I was probably softer than I should have been, but it still eats at you. I never felt good enough.”