An inside look at how the Raptors’ kid dancers went from novelty act to regular showstoppers

The video is grainy but you can see the joy on Azada Rahi’s face as she dances, an enormous Raptors T-shirt draped on her tiny frame. It is Nov. 2, 1995, and she is hyping the imaginary crowd that will soon fill the SkyDome for the first regular-season Toronto Raptors game.

“I love that move,” she says, laughing. “It was all hype moves in those days.”

Rahi’s mother and a friend of the family were taping the rehearsal in the stands. The nine-year-old was part of an entertainment onslaught meant to win over the crowd in a hockey town. The expansion franchise knew there were basketball fans in Toronto, and knew Canada had a rich basketball history, but it also knew the team wouldn’t be a contender right away. (Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted no more than 16 wins in the 82-game season.)

Clip from Rahi Family, 1995. Digitized and shared by Azada Rahi through Home Made Visible at the Regent Park Film Festival.

When the team lost, the crowd still needed to have fun, “because we knew there was going to be a lot of losses,” says Brian Cooper, then the team’s vice-president of business development and operations.

Opening night was wild. Four shirtless men in loincloths carried a dinosaur egg on a plinth. (The Star’s Mary Ormsby wrote that they looked like Chippendale dancers, but Cooper says they were meant to be Paleo-period men.) “Welcome to history in the making,” announcer Herbie Kuhn said, and the dinosaur mascot emerged from the egg punching the air and flipping on the court.

It was a louder game than Toronto was used to. Rap, Motown and pop music blared strategically during the game, and the Temptations performed at halftime, along with a Scarborough teen belting out Whitney Houston, rhythmic gymnasts, and the dancers. An assorted crew of ’90s VIPs watched the spectacle, including Premier Mike Harris, actor David Hasselhoff, Blue Jay Paul Molitor and swimsuit model Kathy Ireland.

Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot was there, too. He had worked at the paper since 1952, and he knew his history: how military pipe bands announced the Maple Leafs’ arrival at the Gardens in 1931, and how Anne Murray anointed the Blue Jays back in 1977 for their snowy opener. He wondered if the over-40 crowd knew that the Barenaked Ladies, singing an a capella “O Canada,” were a musical act and not associated with a strip club. The NBA, he wrote, was “as fresh as cybernetics or the latest in rap.”

“If you get a migraine just thinking about two hours of unrelenting cacophony, better forget about the Raptors,” he wrote about the game he found to be “noisy,” but also irresistible and “occasionally exciting.”

Cooper said game operations staff threw all their ideas on the court that first year. There were dancers, of course, a bleacher creature, Mirvish performers at halftime, comedy shorts produced in house. They also threw a lot of stuff into the stands, because “free s–t is friendship,” Cooper says, reciting a Year 1 mantra.

The Lil Ballas rehearse a 76-second routine to a medley of Drake songs. The Raptors were one of the first NBA teams to field a junior dance troupe but no one thought it would last.

Not everything stuck, but some of the first-year ideas would endure, even as the team got better. The children’s dance troupe was meant to be a one-off, Cooper says, but the crowd loved the energy so much, they came back for a dozen or so games. Two decades later, those kids from the grainy video are in their 30s, the Raptors are NBA champions, and a new generation of kids is dancing at the commercial breaks.

It is 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and the game is three-and-a-half hours away. At centre court, Courtney Drake is watching the Lil Ballas practise their 76-second routine to a medley of Drake songs. She sets the formation, watches for movements that aren’t crisp enough and big moments that aren’t popping, and makes adjustments. “Jab, get lower, sharp, sharp, get there, get there, get there, strong, strong, strong,” she says to the beat of the music, as she walks around the dancers.

Amberley Caroli, MLSE’s manager of game presentation talent, pauses in front of the junior team. “I think it would be more realistic if we can get the beard on him,” she says about Sekhai Smith, 9, who is standing at the front of the group in a We the North tee, prop cellphone in hand — a mini-Drake for tonight’s game.

Watch the junior dancers practise their moves before a Raptors game.

They go through the routine a couple more times, and then Fred VanVleet comes out to shoot a few pre-game baskets with a trainer. This sometimes happens when they have a later rehearsal time, and the kids always perk up. Kyle Lowry is known to copy the moves, Courtney Drake says: “The kids just think that’s hilarious.”

As VanVleet sinks a few baskets, a little girl mouths his name to a chaperone. Then, improbably, one of his rebounds rolls toward the group, which is frozen in place for the big finish, some kids kneeling, squatting, others standing. VanVleet walks over. “Sorry,” he says as the Lil Ballas remain professionally still while the tantalizing opportunity rolls into their midst. “I took a step back and looked at them,” Courtney Drake says later. “Who wants to pick up this ball and throw it back to Fred? Here’s your chance.”

Will Saraza, 12, passed the ball to VanVleet, who said “thanks,” sending a current of joy through the group. Saraza went back into his crouch, smiling. A friend from the back piped up. “Dude, you touched the ball.”

Azada Rahi remembers how tall the Raptors all seemed when she was a kid. The team’s first draft pick, point guard Damon Stoudamire, was known as “Mighty Mouse” for his five-foot-10 stature. Rahi shared an elevator ride with him once. She remembers thinking he went “all the way to the top,” even if she now knows he was one of the shortest guys on the team.

Rahi was one of those kids who was always dancing, the last one standing at family weddings.

Dance was expensive, but the Cabbagetown Youth Centre, tucked in a laneway behind Parliament Street, was affordable. Rahi had been dancing there since she was five, with other young people of colour and other working-class kids. Dance teacher Martin Samuels was in his 30s, and he knew how to keep them engaged, she says. “That’s why it felt even luckier to even be situated in that tiny little pocket,” she says.

In 1995, Samuels says he got a call from Clarence Ford, a dancer he had known for many years. Ford was busy in the ’90s choreographing commercials, music videos, figure-skating routines, Cirque du Soleil, and he was also very involved with the entertainment plans of the nascent Raptors. He pitched Samuels on an idea to bring studio and community dance kids together to perform for a pre-season charity fundraiser. Samuels had plenty of strong dancers, including Azada Rahi.

“Oh my God, she was amazing,” Samuels says. “They all were amazing.”

The charity performance was a hit, and the kids returned for opening night alongside an enthusiastic crew of young adult dancers like Tamara Mose.

Mose had been hired by the Raptors as the dance team co-ordinator and choreographer before the draft, and she was on the poster for the adult dance team auditions. She was 21, with a resumé that included being a “fly girl” on the “In Living Color” dance troupe. (“For a hot second,” she laughs.) Now she had a full-time job, and one of the first orders of business was coming up with a name.

Tamara Mose was hired as the Raptors' first dance team co-ordinator and choreographer before the draft in 1995. She was also the poster-woman for the team auditions.

Since Raptors were known to travel in packs, that pre-season they became the Dance Pak and the Junior Dance Pak. (“We wanted to be a little funky,” the Brooklyn College professor says about the dropped “c.”) The film “Jurassic Park” had been a hit in 1993 and the movie’s raptors had shown notable teamwork skills as they terrorized humans inside the park.

Mose can’t remember how they researched the details pre-internet, but it turned out to be pretty good intel. David Evans, a dinosaur paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum (and a big Raptors fan), says some of the studies that informed the movie’s depiction of pack-hunting raptors have been questioned, but recent discoveries of skeletal material and footprint sites suggest group behaviour.

In an email, he explained: “I think there is enough evidence out there to suggest that at least some raptors may have travelled together in social groups, and may have even hunted together.”

Rahi had the stomach flu for the home opener on Nov. 3, 1995, but she made her parents take her.

“I was like ‘I’m good,’ eating crackers on the side of the court and puking in the garbage bin,” she says. “My parents, they were immigrants, but they were like, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They were like YOLO.”

There was so much excitement, nervousness and hard work leading up to opening day. “We were in the offices until 3 a.m. getting everything ready,” Ford says. Cooper, the former VP, said the crowd’s reaction to the Junior Dance Pak made it clear they had something special.

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The Raptors are believed to be among the first in the NBA to have a regular children’s dance crew. (An NBA spokesperson noted that Knicks City Kids debuted in the 1998-1999 season, which the Raptors predate by three years. The NBA says there are now about 18 junior dance crews in the league.) The Junior Dance Pak came to a dozen or so games that first season.

The Raptors Junior Dance Pak and the Dance Pak co-ordinated their routines for the home opening game, and the two groups are seen rehearsing here before the game.

Martin Samuels — who continued to coach the kids until the Raptors brought that role in house, and Mose took over — remembers their ecstasy when Michael Jordan came to town. Samuels was near the Bulls bench and heard the superstar tell teammate Scottie Pippen to move so he could watch the performance.

As the Raptors struggled, it was “entertainment first, basketball second” for Cooper’s team. The game operations staff had a lot to overcome. The scoreboard was purchased used, and it looked small suspended from the cavernous SkyDome ceiling. The seats were at a steep grade. The top-down acoustics were “ridiculous” for basketball and needed to be helped by on-court speakers.

They couldn’t do a dramatic lights-out open with spotlights, Cooper says, because back then, after you turned out the lights in the dome, they took 20 minutes to reach full power.

It was part of the Dance Pak’s job to show the audience how to react, Tamara Mose says. The adult dancers were usually on the concrete strip between the court and the stands, hyping the crowd with a routine when the score was close, going quiet and still as announcer Herbie Kuhn said “Now shhhhhhhhoooting for two,” leaning heavily into the shush whenever the Raptors were at the foul line. Music was essential. There were beats, songs, and sounds they relied on during live play to get people out of their seats, Cooper says.

It was different from other Toronto sports, like “drinking a million coffees and taking steroids,” Ford says with a laugh.

As the team sank in the standings, the hype moves didn’t stop, and neither did the free merchandise.

Cooper remembers the advent of “60 seconds of madness.” Between the whistles, they would throw T-shirts into the crowd. (There was no T-shirt cannon yet.) “In the last game of the first season we went into the locker room, we got everything the players weren’t going to take with them — I’m talking about shirts and shoes and socks and jocks — and we threw them into the crowd.”

The Raptors won 21 and lost 61 that year, but the Star called it a “wildly successful first season.”

Rehearsing for a recent game.

On a recent November afternoon, the Lil Ballas (rebranded in 2013) return to the dressing room, where pizza, chicken fingers, popcorn, chips, doughnuts and a vegetable platter await. Azada Rahi always liked this part, hanging out before the game. Will Saraza is about to call his mom about VanVleet. The 12-year-old has shot the ball on court but never passed to a player. “That warms my heart,” he says.

Saraza has been dancing with the team for three years. He is wearing a Pascal Siakam jersey but soon the kids will change into their uniforms, a variation of hoodies, loose-fit hiphop pants, and ball shorts not that different from Rahi’s day. Awaiting tipoff, they make TikTok videos, watch TikTok videos, and tell me I’m not too old for TikTok, because there are 70-year olds on there. They debate which YouTube channel is more important, PewDiePie or T-Series.

About an hour before the game, Sekhai Smith is taken to another dressing room for a beard application so he can transform into Drake.

A beard ? actually dark eyeliner along the jawline and upper lip ? renders Sekhai Smith, 9, virtually indistinguishable from Drake.

A makeup artist looks down at the photo of the entertainer on her phone, and dabs dark eyeliner along Sekhai’s jawline and upper lip. “Is this going to look real?” he asks.

When he ducks into an adjacent bathroom to take a look, his “Wow” travels through the closed door. He’s all swagger as he walks through the tunnels, high-fiving security guards. In the dressing room, the Lil Ballas fall into camps of: “You look like Drake” and “You do not look like Drake.” It’s an hour before tip-off and the kids have one last practice in the hallway.

“It never gets old,” says Tania Ward, from Caledonia, as she watches her daughter Reese perform. Courtney Drake notices they’re not quite hitting the signature move from the “Hotline Bling” music video. “Bobblehead, bobblehead,” she says. “I try to think of terms that will make them smile and laugh,” she says later. Bobblehead clicks, the move tightens.

Courtney Drake has been with the Raptors since 1998, when she became a member of the adult Dance Pak. She became dance co-ordinator and choreographer in 2000. After she had her daughters, she stepped away from the adult side to focus on the junior squad.

Every September, she holds auditions, drawing about 200 dancers between eight and 12. The level of talent has “skyrocketed” over the years. Kids come with all kinds of tricks, breakdancing, tumbling skills. They rehearse every Sunday, and perform at about 15 home games a year, plus playoffs.

Courtney Drake, who was a member of the adult Dance Pak, runs the junor rehearsal before a recent game.

Last spring, they met Barack Obama before a game, and performed on “Good Morning America” during the playoffs. Back in the ’90s, Azada Rahi performed on a YTV awards show with the Junior Dance Pak and met Jeff Hyslop, the mannequin from Today’s Special. “He was so cool,” she says.

The rehearsal footage is one of the few videos she has of herself dancing as a child. When she saw the Regent Park Film Festival was offering to digitize home movies in exchange for archiving portions of them for their Home Made Visible Project, she went digging for the tape at her parents’ house.

The cross-Canada project was inspired by a need to ensure that 20th-century experiences of Indigenous and visible-minority Canadians were preserved in Canadian archives. “Maybe if we look at ourselves, and see images of joy — maybe that will be part of the narrative that we give life to in the future,” said Ananya Ohri, the artistic director of the project.

Rahi still dances, and she could probably figure out that opening-day routine. “Some of those moves, you can’t take those out of your muscle memory,” she says.

The Lil Ballas rehearse and perform to a pair of Drake songs in November at Scotiabank Arena.

At the Raptors-Knicks game, the first timeout happens after a Raptors run. It’s 7:45 p.m., and the Lil Ballas dash onto the court and start dancing as Courtney Drake stands a few rows up, recording the performance on her phone to share with the parents in the group chat.

The moves are crisp, the bobbleheading looks good, the crowd loves it. It lasts 76 seconds, and then the kids run off the court, where Courtney Drake tells them they did an amazing job.

For the Lil Ballas, hours of hard work go into these fleeting moments, usually only seen by those at the live show. “We may be small,” Will Saraza says, “but we make the crowd go wild.”

For those watching the game at home, this is likely a commercial break, but occasionally, a few seconds might make it to the broadcast. The game continues, but the kids head home right away. They don’t stay to see the reigning NBA champions pick up another win. It’s a school night.

Katie Daubs

Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs

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