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Utah Jazz Dancers say they still don’t make a living wage, despite claims of policy changes

Hopefuls try out for the Utah Jazz. According to a Yahoo Lifestyle report, the lucky few chosen will be subjected to weigh-ins, benched if they gain weight, and paid less than a living wage. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

While players on the Utah Jazz sign multi-million contracts, another group of athletes, relegated to the sidelines, says they are struggling to bring in enough money to pay the rent.

The Utah Jazz Dancers, like the basketball players, are athletes in the highest level of their field. And yet, according to a Yahoo Lifestyle report, the dancers say they are being paid so little that they have to work second or even third jobs just to get by.

That’s just one of the accusations the exposé has thrown at the world of cheerleading in the NBA. Jazz Dancers, they claim, are pushed into eating disorders and benched if they gain weight.

Representatives from the Utah Jazz have categorically denied the accusations in the article, characterizing the women’s stories as a thing of the past. In 2012, a spokesperson says, the organization “re-evaluated the program to ensure that it creates a positive and healthy work environment.”

But members of the Utah Jazz Dancers themselves are continuing to report that they have to work a second job to make ends meet.

Inside the world of the Utah Jazz Dancers

Utah Jazz Dancer weigh-in

Jazz Dancer Crystal Armstrong, in 2005, has her stomach measured by a trainer. According to former Jazz Dancer Sydney Sorensen, cheerleaders who had put on weight would not be allowed to perform. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The Jazz are just one of many teams investigated in Yahoo’s report, which interviewed 15 former NBA cheerleaders about the conditions on the job.

Their report is nothing short of scathing, accusing NBA cheerleading coaches of “brainwashing” their dancers, paying them little more than “gas money”, and harassing the women for their weight to the point that some women described throwing up their meals just to keep trim.

Women who’d worked with the Jazz spoke with Yahoo in disproportionate numbers. Of the fifteen women from all over the NBA who came forward, three were former Utah Jazz Dancers, and some of their stories were deeply concerning.

“We got weighed monthly; that’s what messed with me most,” Sydney Sorenson, who danced for the Utah Jazz from 2009 to 2012, told Yahoo.

If a woman had gained weight, Sorenson says, she wouldn’t be allowed to perform. That pressure pushed the dancers into some dangerous behavior.

“I came up with all these methods to weigh in smaller, like not eat anything solid for a week,” she says. “Point blank, I would say that I definitely had an eating disorder.”

Pay was another major point of contention. 14 out of 15 cheerleaders said that they worked a second job to make ends meet, with one former Jazz Dancer, Madison Murray, saying: “I had three jobs. I was getting up at 4 a.m. and working until 11:30 p.m.”

Sorenson, for her part, told Yahoo that she filed for unemployment because she couldn’t find time to make money while working for the team.

“I kind of crashed and burned,” she told Yahoo. “It had a huge effect on me.”

The Utah Jazz has declined to answer questions about the article. When KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic invited a spokesperson to participate in an interview, they replied by repeating their statement, which reads, in full:

The Jazz dancers are valued employees for their work as part of the game night experience and many hours spent as community ambassadors. In 2012, our organization reevaluated the program to ensure that it creates an appropriate work environment, adheres to the fair labor standards act and aligns with our culture. Our dance troupe is now under the direction of a former Jazz dancer.

Dancers still don’t make enough to pay the bills

Utah Jazz Dancer try-outs

More than a hundred Utah Jazz Dancer hopefuls audition for a spot on the team. July 8, 2017. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Despite the Utah Jazz’s statement, however, the words of the Jazz Dancers themselves suggest that, when it comes to money, little has changed.

Alisha, a member of the Dancers’ current line-up, states in her profile on the site that the Dancers still aren’t making enough money to pay their rent, saying: “We all work other jobs or go to school.”

The Jazz themselves seem to back up her claims. Directly on the audition application, they warn that “most girls are students or have other jobs”, making it clear that, whatever these women are being paid, it isn’t enough to live on.

It’s not easy to hold a full-time job while performing on an NBC cheerleading team, dancers say, and it affects their lives. Nine of the eighteen of the women on the team, directly on their official profiles, call managing the time commitment with their other obligations the “hardest part about being a Utah Jazz Dancer”.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much they earn, but in the most recent salary disclosure we could find, released in 2002, Jazz Dancers were being paid just $25 for a four-hour practice and $45 for six hours of work during a game.

As an hourly rate, that worked out to little more than a dollar over minimum wage.

“It’s just crazy,” former Jazz Dancer Jennifer Stagg told KSL TV‘s Caitlin Burchill. “My babysitter makes more money than I made as a Jazz Dancer.”

The Utah Jazz have assured us that those salaries have changed since then. When KSL reporters asked for clarification on how their wages changed in 2012, a spokesperson provided us with this statement:

“Instead of flat fee, we pay an hourly wage for time dancers spend at practice, games, traveling to official events or making community appearances.”

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get an exact figure for that hourly wage. But again, the Dancers’ own comments tell a very different story.

More to the story

When KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic talked about this story, Dave said that he’d talked to Jazz Dancers about the pay before.

“They seemed resigned to the facts,” Dave said, “and that’s terrible.”

If you missed the show live, you can still catch everything they had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast:

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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