By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
As the Los Angeles Lakers prepare for the 2012 playoffs, one member couldn’t be happier to be a part of all the excitement. Though her name isn’t widely known, her refreshing smile is seen by millions, during games at Staples Center, at Lakers community events around Southern California and nationwide on television.
Jennifer Megumi Albeanu is a member of an exclusive sorority. She is a Laker Girl.
“I would never have thought I could accomplish such a big goal,” said the 29-year-old from La Habra. She managed to catch the eye of the judges during tryouts last year and went on to earn a spot on the roster of dancers who keep the home crowd entertained during breaks in the game.
“The auditions are crazy, because there’s 600 girls here and only 22 make the team,” she explained. “I feel very blessed to have been chosen for the team and to be on an NBA court, to represent one of the biggest organizations in the NBA.”
The tryouts are a logistical madhouse, with each young woman having only a few seconds to make an impression.
“I would hope that they saw my dancing ability,” Albeanu said. “I feel that as far as clean, classic style goes, that’s an area where I’ve been strong. Other NBA teams may have a different style they’re looking for, but I hope the Lakers saw a strong dance background from me.”
Dance was not something Albeanu found interesting at a very early age. It took a fair amount of prodding from a grade school friend to finally coax her into giving it a shot in 1993.
“My parents always encouraged me to dance, but it was my best friend in first grade who approached me to try out for her team,” she recalled.
By the end of her third-grade year, she had made the Squirettes team from Dansations Studio in La Habra, where she continued to dance through high school, college and into adulthood. She also participated in gymnastics and cheerleading at Whittier Christian High School, both of which eventually gave her a skillful edge over other Laker Girl hopefuls.
Albeanu directed much of the credit for her success toward her parents, Japanese natives Jun and Eiko Kawai. She described them as being atypical Asian parents who steered her toward pursuing her dreams, rather than a relentless regimen of academics.
“They encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. They were very supportive of me dancing,” she said. “I also rode horses, and that’s definitely not a typically Japanese thing. They were always supportive of anything I wanted to accomplish.
“They’re fairly Americanized. Of course, they’re still Japanese by culture, but they haven’t fit the super-strict stereotype. They’re pretty normal people, very loving parents.”
They did, however, send her to Saturday Japanese school, which she said she didn’t appreciate much.
“I hated it at the time,” she admitted, “but now I can read hiragana and katakana and a little bit of kanji, so I think it was a good thing for me. I wish I had liked it at the time.”
After earning her degree in journalism from Cal State Long Beach, Albeanu spent several years coaching dance and cheerleading at the high school level, as well as at summer dance camps for young girls.
She had always had the idea of dancing professionally in the back of her mind. “I had seen some of the older dancers at the studio who had been Lakers or Clippers dancers,” she explained. “Looking up to them, I always felt I’d like to do that, and I started feeling in junior high that I wanted to try.”
The opportunity came up in 2010, when she joined an audition to dance for Chivas USA of Major League Soccer, made the squad and danced for two seasons.
As much as she enjoyed her time with Chivas USA, Albeanu said there is simply no higher achievement than donning the purple and gold of the Lakers. After trying and failing at auditions three straight years, she made the cut, and recalled her first appearance as almost dream-like.
“It was a surreal feeling, having grown up in L.A. and knowing the Lakers Girls as such a big name,” she said. “To finally find myself on the court during the national anthem with all these basketball players you see on TV standing next to you, it was surreal. At the same time, I had to focus and remember that this is my job.”
The Laker Girls maintain a roster of 22 dancers, rotating and keeping a squad of 18 on the court. They learn a dozen or so routines for the season, mostly with professional choreographers, but some they arrange themselves.
Albeanu can’t remember any particular mistakes, but said she has made many. She said that fortunately, she hasn’t had a Cinderella moment – in which a shoe goes flying.
“That’s probably the hardest thing, to be reminded that I’m human after all. My goal is to do clean routines, so I practice a lot,” she said.
As with any attractive young woman whose job it is to interact with occasionally unruly spots fans, Albeanu acknowledged there is a certain “creep factor” involved in her high-profile position. The Laker Girls are, after all, professional athletes, but she admitted that most pro athletes don’t wear a skimpy, two-piece uniform.
“For the most part, the fans are pretty good, but we have a few [problems] here and there,” she explained. “Luckily, I feel the organization protects us well, by not putting us into situations that could create a stir.”
She said they need to keep a smile and trust everything is okay, but that it can be critically important to remain aware of one’s surroundings.
She must keep aware of her own skills; Laker Girls are all signed to a one-year contract. To continue, they must audition again – with the hundreds of other hopefuls.
Albeanu hopes to continue advising and coaching cheer and dance after her Laker days are finished, hopefully at the professional level. She also said she is very near her next big step: starting a family with her husband, Tim.
“I don’t want to wait too long. My parents don’t want me to wait,” she said. “My dad’s a big baseball fan and he had a dream about us having a son, so he saw our son in a baseball jersey. I guess that’s a little bit of a hint.”