The Golden State Warriors’ dance team director Sabrina Ellison has spent most of her life in the professional dance team ecosystem. From the National Basketball Association to the National Football League and Major League Baseball, she has brought joy, enthusiasm, and ultra-precise choreography to adoring sports fans. Through her commitment to this niche area of the dance industry, she has developed an iron-clad approach to coaching dance teams. Read on to hear how she gets spectators on their feet night after night.
A love for movement is in the DNA of Ellison’s Filipino and Pakistani family, and it was shared often during her upbringing in Southern California. “We always had music and dance celebrations at family parties,” she says. “It was very natural to me.” But it wasn’t until she auditioned for her high school’s pom/song dance team that she began to train somewhat formally. “My best friend at the time was a studio dancer, and she would teach me jazz walks, double turns, and kicks outside in our cul-de-sac,” Ellison says. “I practiced my skills daily and was able to make the team when I auditioned.”
After high school, Ellison attended college at the University of San Francisco, where she developed a dance team. “At the time there was an all-in-one program with dancers and cheerleaders performing on one team,” she says. “I saw an opportunity to create a more focused program to allow the different performance teams to level up in their specific talents (dance versus stunting/cheers), so I proposed starting a dance program from the ground up as its own entity. They allowed me to, and the dance team is still performing to this day.” During her summers off, she would return home to dance for the Anaheim Angels spirit team. She then danced in the NFL for just shy of eight seasons—six with the San Francisco 49ers and one and a half with the Seattle Seahawks. While Ellison was working with the 49ers, the team coach recommended that she look at dance team coaching for her next career. “She could see my passion for the work and for my teammates,” says Ellison. “She said that if the opportunity ever opened up later in life, I should take it.” So, when she decided to wrap her performance career, she started a dance team for The Shock, an Arena Football League team in Spokane, Washington, until a position to coach what was then the Supersonics NBA team in Seattle opened up. “It felt like the natural next step for me,” she says. “I knew I was good at it, and I fell in love with creating a safe space in the community. Watching dancers gain confidence and turn into butterflies is beautiful.”
When the Supersonics were bought by a new owner and became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, Ellison and her family moved with the team. As one of a handful of full-time employees who relocated to get the Thunder brand started, she helped reestablish its dance program before relocating back to California to raise her first-born daughter. Within a year, in 2011, she was offered a job with San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Now, she coaches four different dance teams associated with the organization, including its all-female squad, a male hip-hop team, a kids team, and a senior dance team, for performers 55 and up. “Our crowd goes crazy for all of our teams, but there is something about our senior team that really ignites our fan base,” she says.
Beyond her standard coaching, in 2020 Ellison created a business with fellow former NBA dancer Amira Mourad called The Cultivate Code, in which she supports dancers in their journeys to joining professional sports dance teams. “When I was auditioning, there weren’t a lot of resources, and I wanted to change that,” she says. “We help dancers become comfortable with job interviews and working with the community, as well as learning, cleaning, and setting choreography so they’re ready for professional work when the time comes.”
Here, Ellison shares her teaching tools, including her approach to cleaning choreography, her go-to energy-booster food, and her favorite teaching attire.
Game-changer teaching tool: “I created a tool for perfecting dance pieces called ‘LCS,’ which stands for learn, clean, and set. On average, it takes 12 to 15 hours to get a piece performance-ready. Before rehearsals, we talk to the dancers about having a proper mindset when learning a routine. We teach them to closely watch the choreographer and mimic how they do the movement. Then, when we begin cleaning, we set up a value system in which we break the team into two groups and test how well they know the choreography. If they aren’t prepared, they won’t get to dance in the piece. But, of course, they all have high standards and show up ready to go. Then we clean eight-count by eight-count to make sure they are executing all the pictures as one unit. During the final practice, we set the piece and layer in formations and roll-offs and fine-tune the musicality and textures.”
What she loves about being a dance team coach: “I love pro sports because of how it brings diverse communities together, and I really enjoy the fan-base element. I love to look for ways to level up our dance teams because I think the entertainment show within a game is just as important [as the game itself]. We can use our dancers to share messages about the beauty of dance as well as messages about different themes, like Pride, women’s empowerment, Black history, etc.”
Her go-to energy booster: “Coffee, but if I really need a mid- to end-of-night boost as we practice, I will drink a Celsius.”
Must-have teaching attire: “I’m a big Nike Jordan fan—I like their cool vibe and how they feel. For clothing, I like Fabletics, Lululemon, Alo Yoga, and Kadyluxe. Our dancers wear Nike, Fabletics, and Kadyluxe for their practice gear.”
The food she can’t live without: “Sushi!”
Favorite activities and hobbies outside of dance: “I love watching live music because I can appreciate all that goes into a live show; running outside because it gives me energy and is a time to focus on myself; and traveling because I love to learn about other cultures.”
Her ideal day off: “My ideal day would consist of me working out and then spending time with my husband and three girls.”
Recommended reading: “The Alchemist—it’s about being true to yourself and following your own unique inner journey.”
Her guilty pleasure: “Crème brulée or key lime pie.”