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Dancing for the Knicks Is a Coveted Opportunity, but the Salary Is a Secret

The Knicks City Dancers held a clinic last week at Alvin Ailey Dance Studios in Manhattan.
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
The Knicks City Dancers held a clinic last week at Alvin Ailey Dance Studios in Manhattan.

There were no rabble-rousers among the aspiring Knicks City Dancers who poured into a dance studio in Midtown last week. There was no rebellion amid the shoulder shimmies and high kicks as dozens of young women prepared for an upcoming audition for a coveted spot on the squad.

But at the end of the practice and information session, some prospective dancers noticed that a key question remained unanswered: How much would they get paid if they made the team?

In this long season of economic discontent, we've seen protests from fast-food workers and lawsuits from unpaid interns. Now it's the cheerleaders' turn: In recent months, former pompom performers for the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone to court, accusing their teams of violating labor laws by failing to pay them minimum wage.

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What about the N.B.A.? Well, there was certainly plenty of talk about money last week with the announcement of a new Knicks coach, Derek Fisher, and buzz about a $25 million contract. And so, with the Knicks City Dancers' audition scheduled for this Saturday, it seemed only natural to ask: How much will the women be earning this coming season?

Unfortunately, silence reigns supreme on this subject at Madison Square Garden.

When I posed the question to the Garden's public relations shop, I was told that the information was not public. When I reached out to former dancers to discuss their working lives, some circled back to corporate communications at the Garden before responding.

The non-answer answers to my salary questions came almost in unison: The pay is just fine, according to a captain of the dance team, two former dancers and a spokesman for the Garden. But no, we won't say how much it is. Besides, how can you put a price tag on such an incredible opportunity?

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"Being able to live your dream," said Criscia Richardson, a captain for the squad, "it's an amazing experience." She says her work for the dance squad had led to an appearance on the television show "Glee" and a spot in a video with the singer Pharrell Williams.

The highbrow among you may look down your noses. (We're not talking Alvin Ailey or the New York City Ballet here.) Feminists may worry about the objectification of the young women. (No one denies that some fans view the dancers as eye candy, not serious performers.)

But many of the women who plan to audition for the Knicks' dance team have a decade or more of training. For them, Madison Square Garden is a grand, rollicking stage, a steppingstone to a full-time artistic life.

When they swing their hair and swivel their hips, many dancers are dreaming of Broadway and Hollywood and beyond.

"It's a step in the right direction to get your name out there, to get to bigger and better things," said Michelle Caputo, a former Knicks dancer who traveled to Milan and Paris with the group and owns her own dance studio.

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That's all fine and good, says Sean E. Cooney, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills. But we still need to ensure that these women are compensated. Since when did our labor laws apply only to unfulfilled employees?

"You don't have to hate your job to get paid," Mr. Cooney said.

During the season, the Knicks dancers practice at least twice a week for three to four hours at a time. They typically perform at about 30 home games and make dozens of promotional and charitable appearances throughout the year. And there's no doubt that the job is in demand: Last year, 300 women applied for what usually amounts to only a handful of open spots.

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Ryan Watson, a spokesman for the Garden, said the dancers work about 22 to 25 hours a week during the season and less during other times of the year. They do not receive health insurance. Many work full-time jobs.

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"They are compensated for everything they do for the Knicks," he said in an email, "including game performances, rehearsal times and community events away from the court for the Knicks, but their salaries are not made public."

The Knicks didn't always keep these salaries secret. In 2003, the founder of the dance team told The New York Times that dancers were paid "over $100 a game and a little less for rehearsals."

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Alexa Peragine, 20, who attended the practice session last week, said she was struck by the fact that no salary was discussed. But getting on the team is far more important to her than money: "Even if I didn't get paid, I would still want to do it."

I understand how she feels. But I still think that Ms. Peragine should get paid for her work — all of it — whether she's on a basketball court or in an office.

And I hope that the Knicks will break their silence on the subject, so that we can cheer on the dancers in the world's most famous arena and feel confident that they're earning their due.

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Rachel L. Swarns, The New York Times

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