Final Exams or NBA Finals? For These Boston Conservatory Students, It’s Both

Two commercial dance students joined the Boston Celtics dancers for a memorable NBA season.

June 12, 2024

Sophie Reynolds and Isabelle Richards didn’t watch much basketball growing up. Committed to their dance training at an early age, they spent far more time dancing competitively than following professional sports. So when the two auditioned for—and won—coveted spots on the Boston Celtics dance team in summer 2023, they were not well-versed in the finer points of the game. And they certainly weren’t familiar with the Celtics tradition known as “Gino Time,” the in-your-face victory dance that accompanies a blowout win in TD Garden.

The 2023–2024 NBA season has been quite an education. Throughout their second year of studies at Boston Conservatory, Reynolds and Richards danced on the parquet—and earned academic credit for it—as the Celtics won 37 out of 41 regular season home games. They watched, courtside, as the team cruised to an Eastern Conference championship and then on to the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. And during a season when the team won 19 games by a margin of 20 points or more, they became very well acquainted with the legend of Gino

As the tradition goes, when the Celtics take an insurmountable lead (but not a moment sooner, because Boston fans abide by jinxes) the jumbotron in the Garden plays a clip from American Bandstand’s disco heyday. The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” floods the loudspeakers, and the Celtics dancers lead the crowd in celebration, as a guy wearing a skin-tight shirt that says “Gino” appears on screen and casually grooves to the music.

“When the music plays, everyone in the Garden knows exactly what’s about to happen, and we run out there,” Reynolds says. “It’s fun because you rub it in the other team’s faces a little bit.” 

But even during a season loaded with lopsided victories, the dance team takes pains not to summon bad luck. “Everybody has their own superstitions, and we’re always like, ‘Don’t say the word “Gino” today,’” says Richards. No lead feels quite safe enough to speak his name aloud—not even this past March when the Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors 140–88, according to Reynolds. “We can have a 50-point lead and there’s two minutes left, but we’re still not going to say ‘Gino.’”  

The Celtics won the first two games of the championship series at home, and will play games three and four in Dallas this week. Although neither student wants to start counting chickens just yet, they can’t help imagining what it would be like to dance in a duck boat victory parade, should the Celtics go all the way. Nor can they contain their gratitude for front row seats to this championship run—while continuing to study for their bachelor’s degree. “I really think I lucked out,” Reynolds says. “What a year to be a rookie.” 

Isabelle Richards, left, dances with her teammates during a Celtics game.

Isabelle Richards, left, dances with her teammates during a Celtics game.  

Courtesy of Celtics Entertainment

In September 2022, Reynolds and Richards joined the inaugural class of a brand new, three-year commercial dance B.F.A. program at Boston Conservatory. As their first school year came to a close, they began a lengthy audition process with the Celtics, enduring multiple rounds of callbacks. Joining the team required a contractual commitment to practice several times a week at the Auerbach Center for the duration of the school year, in addition to 41 home-game performances. To make this schedule work, they devised an independent study, earning credits that would enable them to stay on track to graduate in just three years. 

The commercial dance program’s emphasis on professional preparation was a huge draw for both students. “You can get good dance training from a lot of places, but you can’t get good industry knowledge and mentorships from just anyone,” Reynolds said.

During their first year in the program, both dancers studied with Associate Professor Anthony Burrell, a former principal for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who first crossed over into commercial dance when he choreographed Beyonce’s MTV Music Video Award performance in 2003. During their time in Burrell’s Pop Diva Repertory course, they learned some of his best-known choreography, including steps from Beyoncé’s “Formation” halftime show at Super Bowl 50 and Mariah Carey’s Las Vegas residency #1 to Infinity. 

“I try to be like a sponge in his class…because I only get so much mentorship and critiquing when I’m here,” Reynolds says. “Once you’re out in the industry, you don’t get that; so I’m trying to soak it up while I can.”

Reynolds says her training with Burrell and other Conservatory faculty made her feel equipped for the Celtics audition process. Although she has loved her experience with the NBA, she chose not to re-audition for another season because she wants to spend her final year at the Conservatory focused on her dance studies, improving her technique and laying the groundwork for a career based in Los Angeles or New York after graduation. This past May, the Berklee Career Center connected Reynolds with pop singer MARIS for a performance at Boston Calling, and she intends to pursue more work with touring artists.

Richards did re-audition for the Celtics and made it to the final round in May—along with five other Boston Conservatory students from the commercial dance program. She hopes to stick with the team for at least one more year, and will find out later this summer if she made the cut for 2024–2025. 

For Richards, dancing with the Celtics is a childhood wish, granted. Although she grew up in San Diego, her father’s family is from Massachusetts. She visited Boston often, and when she was 12 years old, her uncle took her to a Celtics game. Enthralled by the dancers and the energy they brought to the Garden, she thought, “I really want to do that one day.” 

Achieving her goal has been a heady experience. To be on the court for player introductions during the NBA finals was beyond exciting for Richards, and almost beyond belief. “We’re standing there, and we hold the pose for the first two eight-counts, and I’m just looking up at the arena,” she says. “Not a single seat was empty, and everybody’s screaming their heads off. It was a dream. It doesn’t feel real, still.”

Learn more about Boston Conservatory’s commercial dance program