A little after 4 p.m. on Saturday, Lauren Dillingham greeted me on the hardcourt at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center with the first of more than a thousand smiles she’d flash over the next several hours.
Smiling is, after all, a key job responsibility for the 22 members of the Charlotte Hornets’ dance team, and – as Saturday’s home opener against the Boston Celtics would mark her regular-season debut as a Honey Bee rookie – the UNC-Greensboro senior was working on making a strong first impression.
“When I was younger, I was like, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that one day,’ but I never thought I’d be here,” said Dillingham, a 2013 Providence Day School graduate who grew up dancing for Rhythm Dance Studio in Matthews and wearing Hornets jerseys to games at the old Charlotte Coliseum. (Her godfather, T.R. Dunn, was an assistant coach for the Hornets from 1991-97.)
Now she’s one of eight new Honey Bees – along with Simone Alston, Kendall Bruton, Devin Gant, Alexis Leatherwood, Laura Little, Pamela Peters and Brittany Thornton – and Saturday’s game was their official coming-out party, in front of 18,708 fans.
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That’s a big jump in crowd size from the 8,424 that attended the preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 10, the rookies’ only prior experience on this floor. And a gigantic leap, for the 21-year-old Dillingham, from her days of cheering to crowds of “maybe a thousand” at UNCG men’s basketball games at Greensboro Coliseum.
So, understandably, there were some pre-game jitters. In fact, Dillingham – who splits her time between her parents’ home in Charlotte and her apartment in Greensboro – was dealing with those jitters the night before.
“I actually had a dream that I was late,” she said, laughing. “We have on-court rehearsal at a certain time and ... I woke up thinking I was late. I was like, ‘Nooooo!’ ”
After she excused herself to get into the group formation, the team did a very quick run-through of the planned second-quarter dance – to Fitz and the Tantrums’ “HandClap” – under the watchful eye of 10th-year head coach Brandii McCoy.
Most of the Honey Bees then retreated to their locker room beneath Section 115 to get ready to fan out into the arena to meet and greet fans, but two remained courtside to give me a veteran perspective: Victoria Vesce, now in her third year, and newlywed Laken Hill (formerly Laken Cass), who is in her fourth.
Now, you can pretty easily find gossip-y write-ups on the Internet about extreme pressure for NBA dancers to be thin, low wages for lots of work, and cattiness behind the scenes. But to hear Vesce and Hill talk, it’s clear that 1) they love being Honey Bees, and 2) they wouldn’t keep trying out every year – yup, they have to re-audition every year – if they didn’t.
It’s almost like drinking an energy drink before a game and having it last the whole time.
Victoria Vesce, on what it’s like to be a Honey Bee
Over the course of 20 minutes, between the two of them, they mentioned the word “family” 20 times. (I counted.)
“It’s not the glitz and the glam, it’s the family aspect,” said Vesce, an N.C. State alumna who plans to pursue a master’s degree in communications from the same university starting next semester. “I feel like I’m coming home every time I come to this arena ... and it’s something you just don’t want to leave.”
“After you’ve been doing it for more than a year,” said Hill, who works full-time in sales at ADP, “the fans you see at meet-and-greet, we know their names, we know their families, they constantly keep coming back.”
They also have much more interesting ways to describe being a Honey Bee than just “fun.”
The first game of the season? “It’s like Christmas,” Hill said. Added Vesce, referring to the experience more generally: “It’s almost like drinking an energy drink before a game and having it last the whole time.”
I then followed them out of the tunnel, through the catacombs, to the entrance to their locker room and – after they forged ahead to make sure everyone had clothes on – I was invited inside.
But in spite of how a typical male might fantasize about this scenario, it’s a fairly mundane experience; in fact, it’s probably as uneventful as being in the players’ locker room before the game.
Honey Bees prepared envelopes containing tickets for friends and families that would be taken to will call, munched on plates of food, ran brushes through their hair, applied lip gloss, mugged for selfies, and listened as Coach McCoy reviewed a whiteboard outlining the game plan for the evening.
Though most of the dance team’s outfits are traditionally midriff-baring or otherwise skimpy, the women were deployed for the pre-game meet-and-greet in modest attire: white sneakers, black leggings and special T-shirts to honor TNT broadcaster Craig Sager and his ongoing fight against cancer. (This was a movement observed throughout the NBA over the weekend and can be referenced on social media by searching the hashtag SagerStrong.)
As the Honey Bees worked the concourse, I did see one or two men who seemed overly fixated on them, but there wasn’t as much ogling as you’d think – although frankly, the less-revealing outfits may have had something to do with that.
And over the next hour, the Honey Bees’ affection for Hornets fans showed.
Wherever you saw one of those garishly wacky tees, you saw smiling faces. Alexis Davila, Alexis Leatherwood and Lauren Turner smiled as they helped crafty kids create signs to take to their seats. K.T. Giraldo, Simone Alston and Kendall Bruton smiled as they posed for photos with fans as they walked through the gates, then smiled as they helped get email addresses entered onto iPads that would send said photos to said fans.
Helen Ann Woodard smiled as she autographed a sign for a young girl; Devin Gant – the reigning Miss North Carolina, who joined the Honey Bees this summer – smiled as she followed suit.
We’re not doing rocket science. It’s freakin’ fun to be in here, you know what I mean?
Brandii McCoy, head coach of the Honey Bees
Off to the side, Brandii McCoy was smiling, too, because they were doing exactly what she reminded them to do right before sending them out of the locker room: “Go make a memory for someone.”
“We’re liaisons between the Hornets organization and the fans,” said McCoy, who also is director of the Charlotte Checkers’ CheckMates dance team. “People coming into our building, they’re not gonna see the players first, they’re gonna see the girls. Making a lasting memory for them and representing the brand that we’ve built is really important.”
But McCoy was a Hornets dancer herself, from 1997 to 2001, so she speaks from experience when she adds: “We’re not doing rocket science. It’s freakin’ fun to be in here, you know what I mean? It takes them away from their normal job. It’s like a part-time job where you get paid to do all the coolest things in the world.”
In this case, she’s not so much referring to the twice-weekly practices and community initiatives required of her dancers as she is the potential opportunities for stamps in their passports.
In Fall 2015, the Hornets sent 20 Honey Bees to China with the team for the NBA Global Games. In June, six went to the Dominican Republic to help host an NBA Finals party. And in August, five were selected to travel to Brazil for a week and a half’s worth of performances at the NBA House, a hospitality venue at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Among that group was Lauren Dillingham, who said getting the invitation was “one of the craziest days of my life.”)
At 6:30 p.m., the women wrapped up the meet-and-greet and headed back to the locker room to change into teal-colored uniforms for the game. Less than 20 minutes later, they were at the mouth of the tunnel that leads to the court, where – joined by other members of the Hornets entertainment team – the Honey Bees formed a giant circle and bowed their heads in silent prayer.
Following one last pep talk from McCoy and one last pregame group photo, it was time for player introductions.
“Aaaaaaaand nowwwww, Buzzzzz Cityyyyy!” boomed Pat Doughty’s voice over the public address system. “Get on your feet aaaaaaand greet... yourrrrr... Charlotte Hornets!” As Doughty bellowed the “Aaaaaaand,” the Honey Bees skipped onto the floor waving their arms to the crowd, amid swirling spotlights and flanked by Hugo the Hornet, who wielded a honeycomb-shaped sign imploring everyone to “Get Loud.”
As Doughty shouted dramatic readings of the names of Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Nic Batum and Kemba Walker, the 22 dancers whirled, swayed, whipped and nay-nayed to the beat of an electronic drum. Then they waved as they sauntered cheerily back to the baselines, clearing the floor for tip-off.
The rest? Well, if you go to a Charlotte Hornets game this season, you can see exactly what they do and how they do it for yourself. The choreographed performances. The relatively tiny stage they perch on, and cheer from, for the majority of the game. The T-shirt tosses and promotional giveaways.
Particularly during the latter, as the women bounded their way up staircases and shook their short-shorts-covered rears just a few feet from spectators, I did spy several men who couldn’t keep their eyes “up here,” so to speak.
But Dillingham, like the veterans, had little to say when I asked her about leering fans. “I just try not to think about it,” she told me.
They all just focus on staying upbeat, and on keeping smiles on their faces – whether the Hornets are winning big or losing (as the team was for most of its 104-98 loss to Boston).
And after the final buzzer sounded on Saturday night, the dance team took to the floor one last time, to wave to fans as they headed for the exits. When I caught a glimpse of Dillingham, she was smiling like a veteran.
Upon leaving the court, though, she told me a secret: “Sometimes,” she said, “my cheeks get really cramped because I’m smiling so hard. But I just kind of massage them and they settle down.”
Then she smiled one last time.