Number 1

So Take Off All Your Clothes

The quick-change artists who dominate the NBA halftime circuit.

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Quick Change Pro basketball nostalgists are forever insisting that the game is in decline, and has been since roughly Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals. They gripe that the golden age of the fast break ended with Magic Johnson’s retirement, or that today’s shooters make more bricks than a Lego factory. But even the grumpiest fan must admit that one aspect of the NBA has improved markedly since the days of crotch-hugging shorts: the halftime shows.

The high-school drill teams and free-throw contests of yore have largely been replaced with more eye-catching fare—acrobats, break dancers, contortionists, even hypnotists. The No. 1 act, however, is David & Dania, a married couple who put on a spectacle that’s one part magic show, one part ballroom-dancing exhibition. Popularly known as “Quick Change,” the performance features nearly a dozen costume changes in the span of a few minutes, as Dania sheds one dress for another quicker than the average human can remove a single sock. It’s an astounding example of precision artistry, and one that the NBA’s game-operations directors have voted the league’s most requested halftime attraction. How were David & Dania able to nose out such noteworthy rivals as Team Acrodunk, The Bucket Boys, and Bill Camp’s Flying Dogs for that coveted honor?

Credit the duo’s unrivaled professionalism, a quality that wasn’t apparent in the NBA halftime acts of yesteryear. Game breaks used to be dominated by fans, as spectators were invited onto the court for free-throw contests; there was also the occasional drill team or dance troupe to break up the monotony. Some teams didn’t even go that far—Red Auerbach, the longtime chief of the Boston Celtics, was famously opposed not only to cheerleaders, but to halftime entertainment as well.

But in 1984, David Stern was named the league’s commissioner, and he worked to repackage NBA games as family-friendly entertainment “experiences”—a makeover that became all the more advisable during the 1986-1987 season, when the Phoenix Suns became embroiled in an embarrassing cocaine scandal. The league’s business philosophy shifted from marketing basketball, a product that appeals primarily to males between the ages of 18 and 35, to offering a more complete night out on the town.

Game-ops directors began to experiment—using gymnasts in lieu of cheerleaders during halftime, for example—and found that fans rather liked the diversion. The new halftime shows also offered yet another attraction that could be sold to sponsors—that wasn’t just an acrobat tumbling around, but an acrobat brought to you by a local restaurant chain. The expansion teams added to the league in the late 1980s were particularly adventurous with their halftime shows, working on the theory that fans of the lousy new squads needed another reason to pay for seats. Pat Williams, the Orlando Magic’s inaugural general manager, was celebrated for adding bear wrestling to halftime.

The problem with hiring acrobats, gymnasts, and wrestling bears, of course, is that something could go awry—a missed somersault, a mauled courtside spectator. (One infamous game of musical chairs at a 1991 Magic game, for example, almost ended in a fistfight when one finalist knocked the other to the ground.) Game-ops directors are the sorts of front-office employees who are noticed only when they goof, so it’s imperative that every halftime go off without a hitch. As a result, they prefer to work with known quantities, performers who will show up on time, not grumble, and execute their routines flawlessly on the floor. No one fits that bill better than David & Dania, the ultimate hire-it-and-forget-it act.

Their perfectionism is a habit developed during decades’ worth of circus work. Russian-born Dania Kaseeva debuted with the Moscow Circus at 14, simultaneously spinning myriad hula hoops around her waist, neck, and limbs. (NBA teams often book Quick Change for one game, then Kaseeva’s solo hula-hoop act for the following one—a twofer package that makes David & Dania all the more attractive.) David Michael Maas was juggling on a tightrope at 8 and later became an accomplished ringmaster.

David & Dania launched the first incarnation of Quick Change in 1996, a year after they met. They’re by no means the first practitioners of quick-change magic; the trick dates back to the 19th century, and the first English-language manual to describe the art was published in 1911. Back then, magicians connected the various layers via hook-and-eye fasteners; today, the literature describes no fewer than 15 different methods of pulling off the trick, using such devices as Velcro, magnets, and “fish bone pull fasteners.” What separates David & Dania from the pack is not just the number of “transformations” they execute, but their use of ballroom dancing steps as segues—their routines have been expertly arranged by a professional choreographer. The result is a show that not only dazzles—particularly the move in which Dania’s dress changes from plain red to one with an American-flag motif beneath a shower of silver glitter—but is also planned to the hilt. Night in, night out, a game-ops director is guaranteed to get the same show, right down to the hand gestures. About the only thing that changes is the jersey that David dons in one segment—in a recent addition to the show, he now does a transformation into the home team’s uniform.

Popular as the act may be with the NBA, basketball engagements alone do not a career make. Jeff Wohlschlaeger, game-ops director for the Chicago Bulls and David & Dania’s booking coordinator for the NBA, refused to reveal how many halftimes David & Dania play every year, or what their fee might be, but he admitted that it’s not a living unto itself—especially since travel costs usually aren’t covered by a team. Fortunately for David & Dania, pro basketball provides only one of their revenue streams; they’re also a summer fixture on ships operated by Royal Caribbean Cruise International, and they have a huge following in Europe. They’ve recently branched out into product endorsement, too; Dania has her own line of aluminum hula hoops, and David sells a color-changing top hat for a cool $325.