Fil-Am dance director brings out the best in Warriors cheer team
OAKLAND, California – Cheerleaders are an important component of a basketball team, professional or otherwise. They’re the ones that sustain the enthusiastic participation of the crowd even when a team is losing.
Yet, cheerleading teams usually are not given their proper recognition every time a team wins. Players and coaches get the encomium while cheerleaders quietly go back to their locker room and ready for their next engagement.
This does not seem to matter for Sabrina Ellison, a Filipina-Pakistani-American dance director of the National Basketball Association champion team Golden State Warriors (GSW).
She would rather “enjoy being right on the floor, be in the action and watch the amazing Warriors players perform at Oracle Arena in front of the best fans in the NBA! To be a part of that journey is very, very exciting.”
Ellison admits though that she does not think people realize how much work goes into being a professional dancer.
“The women that are part of the professional dance industry are smart, beautiful and talented. They make dance routines look easy and effortless when in reality they are performing at a high-performance level just like an athlete,” Ellison says.
“They are humble and giving of their time to not just perform for their favorite sports team but to make an impact by working at special events in the community. They are also smart, driven and women that come from all walks of life,” she adds.
“In my years in the pro dance industry I have worked with dancers who are now dentists, business owners and executives, and all of the women I have encountered have been amazing people. I feel blessed to have danced and coached women who become part of this industry,” she says further.
Ellison has been at her work for quite a long time now as a self-made achiever with no formal dance training at that. She has been University of San Francisco (USF) dance team captain, National Football League (NFL) San Francisco 49ers Cheerleader/Captain and six-season Pro Bowl cheerleader and two-season NFL Seattle Seahawks cheerleader.
She became dance team director for NBA teams starting with Seattle Supersonics before going to the Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC) for four seasons (sh founded the OKC Thunder dance team). She is now on her sixth season as the dance team director for the Warriors.
But before all these achievements, this spunky Filipina finished her BA degree in communications, minor in business at the University of San Francisco. With determined time management, she learned the intricacies of being pro dancer while having a full time job and full academic load.
“In your first year as a pro dancer you’re learning to dance at a pro level, which means high expectations for each member’s performance skills, choreography memorization, formations and fitness. But all these challenges later make a beginning dancer a stronger, more well-rounded individual on and off the dance floor,” explains Ellison.
Ellison and her cousins had their share of being asked to perform dances during Filipino gathering which always featured music, singing and dance and servings of Filipino food like sinigang, pansit, lumpia, adobo, kaldereta and tocino, she recalls.
Her mom, Ofelia Ochoco, was born and raised in the Philippines in Tondo, Manila. Her parents separated when she was young so she was raised by her mother and the Filipino side of her family as a child.
“I was fortunate enough to have my Lolo and Lola live with us, so I was submerged in the Filipino culture at a young age, became very family-oriented, hospitable, love celebrations (music and dance), thoroughly enjoy Filipino food and learned how to understand and speak Tagalog. My mom took me back to the Philippines almost every year up until my early teenage years,” Ellison intimates.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Ellison’s family loved the Los Angeles Lakers, so she grew up watching basketball and having Paula Abdul, the number one Laker girl, as her role model and inspiration.
In football, her inspiration was Teri Hatcher of “Desperate Housewives” fame, who was originally a San Francisco 49ers cheerleader. The role models of both Abdul and Hatcher were responsible for making her more passionate in her love for performing at sporting events.
“My biggest influences, though, are my parents. They both came from their countries to the US as teenagers and seeing them create a life they dreamed of through hard work, determination and strong spiritual belief is what gives me the strength and drive to follow my inner journey,” says Ellison, who is a mother to seven-year-old Phoenix and two-year-old Willow.
Not a disadvantage
In her early struggle to prove herself, Ellison didn’t think being a Filipina was ever a disadvantage for her.
“I think everyone goes through struggles and challenges no matter what ethnic background you come from, and I actually think that being Filipina was an advantage because of the strong support I received from my family,” she explains.
“I was always empowered to take on challenges head on and to never give up or be afraid because I always had family backing me and supporting me,” she proudly adds.
Ellison currently has two Filipinas, Clarice and Jackie (Warriors management asked that their last names be withheld for security reasons), on her team of cheerleaders. Clarice at first had no idea Ellison was a Filipina although they had been in touch since Clarice was in junior in college. “It made me feel more welcome and has a closer bond with the coach” when she joined the Warriors team.
“An advantage is that she understands my past because we had a similar upbringing being that we both have Filipina mothers. And Filipina mothers are very strict, they keep you disciplined and they teach you to be a hard worker, which Ellison understood right away,” Clarice shares.
Meanwhile, right at audition, Jackie knew it was going to be a lot of hard work being on the team as Ellison was very committed in forging a really professional team of cheerleaders.
“I was really inspired to do my best on my audition because Ellison’s energy made me want to dance harder and better than I ever did before. She definitely became my mentor as she is really inspiring with what she says and in how she pushes us to be better individuals. She makes us try our best and give our all,” Jackie discloses.
Longing for Philippines
As a leader of Warriors cheerleading team, Ellison feels fortunate that two seasons ago she and members of her dance team were able to go to the Philippines for the NBA 3X tournament.
“If asked to go back again, in a heartbeat I would certainly go, as I consider the Philippines my second home. The Filipinos are super welcoming, super loving, and super down to earth aside from the many breathtaking places to go like Boracay. I love going back and submerging in the culture,” Ellison gushes as her eyes glisten.
“I also feel blessed to work for a franchise that embraces the Filipino culture and hosts multiple Filipino Heritage Nights each season where I am able to speak with different media outlets to share my story as a Filipina working in sports.”
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