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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Move It or Lose It: Despite its attempt to distance itself from the fallout over the Spartan dancers' sexy routine set to LL Cool J's 'Move Somethin',' it was actually the university that pushed them into it—at least according to suspended dancer Tarah DiNardo.

Uncover Up

The SJSU athletics department literally shook its finger at the Spartan dancers' racy routines. But dancers say it was the administration that pressured them to sex it up.

By Najeeb Hasan

THE STORY OF Tarah DiNardo's confrontation with the San Jose State University athletic department—a pretty cheerleader caught on tape going toe-to-toe with two older white men—was just too much for the media to resist. She made the front page of the Merc (though it was the university's Spartan Daily that broke the story); Inside Edition and Fox's Hannity & Colmes came calling; even Australia's Sunday Telegraph saw fit to print DiNardo's story. She would have made it onto Good Morning America, too, had the owner of a tape of the incident, the father of another dancer, not tried to gouge the show for extra cash (according to DiNardo's father, Good Morning America stopped bidding at $3,000).

During a March 5 Spartan basketball game against the University of Nevada, DiNardo's squad was doing what it normally did, in this case, grooving to LL Cool J's "Move Somethin'"; meanwhile, in the stands, 74-year-old San Jose insurance magnate Ray Silva—also a university booster and whose wife, interestingly enough, is also a former dancer and dance teacher—lost his head, or, in his words, came "unglued." According to DiNardo, Silva, appreciating neither LL's beats nor his lyrics, called her "trash"; according to Silva, the word was directed at the dance team's routine. An argument erupted, and John Glass, a senior associate athletic director who supervises athletic fundraising, interceded. In a scene caught on camera and, later, widely aired on television, Glass grabbed DiNardo by the arm for a good three seconds before she was able to wrest her arm away; then, shaking his finger at her, Glass attempted to follow a backtracking DiNardo, who, likewise, shook her finger back at him. Campus police were able to photograph bruises on DiNardo's arm that were consistent with where Glass had latched on to her.

The fallout of the incident, so far, has been DiNardo getting herself a lawyer; the university suspending the entire dance team for obscure reasons mostly having to do with DiNardo failing to follow an established protocol of complaint-making; the athletic department, aside from a written statement, clamming up about the entire incident; and a wealthy San Jose State alumnus, repulsed by the university's handling of the affair, writing San Jose State out of his will.

But what all of the vaguely titillated news organizations failed to follow up on in this story was an allegation by DiNardo—buried at the end of the Merc article and immediately shut down with a denial from associate athletic director Mark Harlan—that the university's athletic department, despite its supposed outrage, actually encouraged the dance team to sex it up as a strategy to boost flagging attendance, then covered up its own attempts at uncovering when the scandal broke.

"They did not want girls with turtlenecks, the pony tails, and the long skirts—the typical cheerleader," says DiNardo. "The crowd could barely see us when we were cheerleaders. They wanted to turn us into a dance team that was more NFL-style, like the Raiderettes and the 49er Goldrush. They wanted more hair, more makeup, more cleavage, sexier uniforms. They wanted more sex appeal to get more people to come to the games."

Grin and Bare It

When then-freshman cheerleader Rechelle Sneath fell during a January practice session in 2004 while performing an airborne cheerleading stunt and fractured a vertebra, the San Jose State athletic department effectively "grounded" the cheerleading squad. Instead, the university opted to focus on its new dance team, introduced in the 2003-2004 season. DiNardo claims that the former cheerleaders who were recruited to become dancers received an email from their then-coach, Jenise Mills, a SabreKitten dancer in the Arena Football League, that informed the women that the athletic department was pushing for a sexier dance team.

"She said that they [the athletic department] were going to try to make it better so people would come to the games," DiNardo recalls. "She said that the athletic department told her that they would have to do this. Of course, Jenise also wanted to do the dance team because she was a dancer herself."

When reached in Modesto, Mills, who got married and resigned as coach during football season, refused to comment. Michelle LaHerran, a friend of Mills who took over as coach, also declined to comment.

However, Chuck Bell, San Jose State's former athletic director who resigned earlier this year, was indignant about DiNardo's claim when reached on his cell phone. "I think that's a ridiculous assertion," he said huffily. "I don't recall them being in any racy outfits."

But, interviews with other current and former members of San Jose State's dance team indicate that, if nothing else, many of the members of the dance team were also under the assumption that the athletic administration wanted a decidedly sexy product out on the floor. None of the women, DiNardo included, claim that they were forced to do anything that they didn't want to do—"We're all adults who knew what we were getting into," is the mantra—but they also agree that a racier dance team seemed to be a strategic goal of the San Jose State athletic department. Indeed, the dated bio of Coach Mills the SabreKitten on the San Jose SabreCat website shows photographs of Mills posing, Victoria's Secret style, in not much more than her skivvies.

"I don't know if it was coming from Jenise or from athletics, but our impression was that we were trying to get a new hot little dance team to try and get students to come to the games," says Erin Kiefer, a former member of San Jose State's dance team, now 22. Kiefer, who is a trained dancer, also noted that the most skilled dancers were not necessarily the ones recruited for the team. "It was about girls who have nice little bodies who wear these itty-bitty uniforms. You don't go, 'Wow! These are really good dancers.' ... To me, it wasn't traditional college dancing. Our perception was this is what athletics wants."

To ensure their routines were sufficiently sexy, the women went through several different costumes, some of them put aside only after complaints by alumni or feminist-leaning faculty members. One of the tops that were laid to rest was a full-sleeved, midriff-baring purple top with no buttons or zippers—instead, the women were required to tie the ends in a knot in front of the chest area.

"It showed a lot," says a blushing DiNardo.

The women were also required to sign what DiNardo calls "look-contracts," or written contracts that ensured they keep up a certain appearance; the contracts, much like contracts that professional dancers for NFL football teams sign, dictated the particulars of the dancers' looks, how much blush to wear, how much eye shadow, how to keep their hair. In contrast, when the women were regular cheerleaders, DiNardo says, their general contract simply stipulated that the cheerleaders stay healthy and not drastically change their appearance. DiNardo, who at 5 foot 1 is not even close to being overweight, was actually benched because of the dance team's look-contract and told to lose 10 pounds.

"I was devastated," she admits. "Athletes and people in the audience were coming to me asking why I wasn't at the games. Oh my God, I'm not even fat. When Jenise told me, I started crying."

There were also other measures the women were told to take.

"We were told to wear two bras, to make our boobs look bigger," says DiNardo. "People would see us at schools and say you guys' boobs are not so big. You guys stuff your boobs. We would say, we're told to do that. The girls would buy padding from Victoria's Secret. Some of the girls really needed them, but not me."

Crazy Schemes

That San Jose State University has been having problems putting warm bodies in seats during athletics events is no secret. In a white paper arguing for the elimination of the university's football program drafted by Dr. James Brent, a San Jose State political science professor, a number of often ludicrous schemes to boost attendance and ticket sales were highlighted. Included among them was a 2002 promotion in which an F-16 was scheduled for a flyover during a Spartan football game; the hiring of Home Town Sports, a marketing firm that received a 33 percent cut of the revenue of any new ticket sales; paying Louisiana's Grambling State University $275,000 for its assurance that it would compete in the Literacy Classic; a "Festival de Footbal Americano" that was engineered to attract 2,000 Latinos to a Spartan game (Brent concluded that 50 Latino supporters arrived to cheer on the Spartans as a result of the festival); and a massive campaign of advertising and free and discounted tickets.

San Jose State University's athletic department, not surprisingly, has refused to comment on the dance team. Bill Penrod, an athletic official who, unlike many of the new faces of the department, worked with the dance team since its inception, didn't return calls or emails, even though Penrod, according to DiNardo, was one of the first to try and intervene personally with DiNardo after the March basketball game.

"Penrod told me to come to his office," says DiNardo. "He said it was me and you and that you're not in trouble. Let's talk in my office. Then he called me and said, 'When you come, will you bring your coach because we need to talk to you.' I said, who is 'we'? He said me and John Glass. I said, I don't want to be in the room with the same person who assaulted me."

Nor will athletics talk about the initial vision of the dance team. Lawrence Fan, the university sports information director, remained terse after faxing over the university's official statement, declining to explain any context.

However, the university's athletic department, it seems, does have a past history of using pretty girls to reach its objectives—and of hushing it up. In 2001, Wiggsy Sivertsen, the director of counseling services at San Jose State, got wind of a football recruiting program introduced by coach Fitz Hill, the former Spartan football coach. The program initially had the apt moniker of the Spartan Jewels.

"Fitz Hill saw we had no real welcoming committee for football recruits," relates Sivertsen. "So he started the program. These were young women who applied to be Spartan Jewels. Their job was to escort players around campus. The idea would have been all right, had the idea been anybody. But it turned out to be young women. I found out about it because somebody brought me a flier, because they were recruiting these young women for Spartan Jewels. I am one of those people who doesn't think it is a good idea to objectify women. I have a number of football players I come across from time to time. I said, Why do you think this program is important? They said, We gotta know whether the honies are good enough for us to come here. It is really taking women and dangling them in front of testosterone-driven young men. I think it's shameful."

The issue of the Spartan Jewels went to the university's academic Senate. According to some faculty members, in exchange for not having the program publicized, the athletic department agreed to change the name to the Spartan Ambassadors and include men as escorts. Interestingly, the program was killed soon after the switch.

The athletics officials who were consulted about the program, including Fan, the sports information director, and Bell, the former athletic director, claim the program was always open to both men and women. When asked if the program was recruiting men when it was named the Spartan Jewels, Fan, without missing a beat, answered in the affirmative. Sivertsen, quite obviously, is not buying it.

"Absolutely not," she said. "The only reason they don't have the Jewels anymore is because I went after them."

Coach Hill, meanwhile, told Metro that similar programs exist in other universities, but would not discuss the program further.

Meanwhile, DiNardo is left isolated by the university, with no one of any weight, it seems, in her corner.

"Dancing is not easy to do," she says. "You have to have six to eight girls dance in front of thousands of people. We're young people; we're insecure about our bodies, so it's hard to have people staring at you, saying you're trash. At the time, my teammates were very supportive. But they all got suspended, basically because of me."

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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