Globe-trotting dancer earns a great time out

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 14, 2005 8:55 am
By Marcus Thompson II, CONTRA COSTA TIMES
September 14, 2005

NBA dancers are taught to smile throughout their routines. Their pearly whites must glisten even while spinning, shaking and kicking.

Many of those smiles look forced -- and then there's Warriors dancer Sanae Tomita. Hers is the genuine thing, twinkling with the joy of a small child holding a waffle cone full of ice cream.

"She is so happy-go-lucky," said Warriors dancer Nicole King, a captain and one of Tomita's best friends. "She brings life to our team. How can you not smile at her?"

To know Tomita's journey is to understand her glee. It's a story of fighting tradition, overcoming adversity and chasing a dream. She's living hers each time she takes to the court and twirls her 5-foot-1, 100-pound frame.

She spent much of her youth clashing with her culture. Her hometown of Kyoto epitomized Japanese values. Women had defined roles, and children had strict regimens.

Tomita didn't like going to Japanese dance classes as a toddler because the routines were too slow and structured. Plus, the kimono was awfully heavy. She also played the piano but clashed with the instructor because she thought the music was boring.

"When I was little, I often questioned some of the things about our culture in Japan," said 31-year-old Tomita, only the second NBA dancer from Japan.

"I was always impressed with American culture, especially after my family had a chance to host some people from the USA. ... It looked like they simply lived a different way than we did, and I was very curious to find out more. Now that I live far away from Japan, I am more interested in my culture, some of the things that I did not experience or care to explore while I lived there."

When Tomita was 7, she accompanied her family --father Yukiyoshi, mother Tomoko and sister Miho -- on a vacation to Disneyland. While in Los Angeles, her dad took her to a Lakers game, which she spent mesmerized by the Laker Girls.

That day at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Tomita hatched her dream. She was going to be a dancer.

"Dancing really makes me happy. It's my energy," said Tomita, who is in her second season with the Warriors.

Most of Tomita's life has revolved around dance. It became her means of expression, her escape from stress.

When she was 8, she persuaded her mother to rent a few record albums and spent hours in her room dancing to Wham's "Freedom," Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You" and the "Flashdance" anthem "What a Feeling" by Irene Cara. Her father translated the lyrics so she could sing along.

With her parents' reluctant blessing, she moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to live with family friends and attend Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. After completing her daily chores -- cooking, cleaning and studying -- she took a hip-hop dance class to relax.

She returned to Japan for college, attending International Christian University in Tokyo. After college, she began forging a career in marketing. All the while, she never gave up on her dream.

She quit marketing jobs with Reebok, NBA Japan and FIFA and dipped into her savings to fly to the United States for dance auditions -- only to endure cuts by the New Jersey Nets and Houston Rockets. She also was hustled out of a few thousand dollars by a lawyer while trying to secure a visa.

Tomita flew to Oakland in June 2002 to audition for the Warriors. She was told she could call at noon two weeks later to listen to a recording of the winning audition numbers (she was dancer No. 56).

Back in Japan -- 16 hours ahead of Pacific Coast time -- she had to wait until 4 a.m. on the appointed day to make the call. She stayed awake, stressing until the hours passed. She dialed the number she'd scribbled onto a piece of scratch paper. No. 56 was called next to last. She phoned nine more times to be sure she had heard correctly.

"Her hard work and enthusiasm never changed," said president of NBA Japan Hideki Hyashi, Tomita's friend and former boss. "Her dream was always to become NBA dancer."

It was too early in the morning to call her family. But it was too much to keep inside. So she curled up on the bed, the scratch paper clinched in her fist and close to her chest. Her body shivered as she cried.

These days, she buses-and-BARTs her way to the Arena in Oakland, lugging her dressing room in a suitcase from a room she rents in Berkeley. She earns just $65 per game and waits tables to make ends meet.

Former Warriors dance coordinator Shelby Alexander, who hired Tomita, knows how dedicated the dancer is.

Said Alexander: "She has more drive than anybody I've ever met in my life."

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