Devin Mallory’s heart raced as he stood on the court at Pauley Pavilion last February. The lone man in a group of women, Mallory felt nervous. After dancing helped him feel comfortable in his own skin as a kid, he felt insecure again.
Until the music started.
The slender, 6-foot-1 Mallory glided across the floor like Michael Jackson as “Smooth Criminal” blared from the speakers. Mallory blended seamlessly into the group that was dressed in matching black pants and blue zip-up jackets.
He hit a full straddle jump in the air right on beat as the rest of the dance team members jumped to the floor. It was his extra moment in the spotlight.
As he held his ending pose — his right hand behind his head, left hand extended straight to the side with his left leg crossed behind him — the crowd showered the UCLA dance team with cheers even veteran members had never heard before. Fans rose. A smile stretched across Mallory’s face.
He was right where he belonged.
“It was a shock to me,” Mallory said almost eight months after his dance team cameo, “how normal it felt.”
The third-year dance major is doing more than just making special appearances now. Since joining the team full-time this school year, Mallory is the first male member of the UCLA dance team.
As a yell crew member in 2018-19, Mallory occasionally dressed as Joe Bruin at games. He danced and performed skits in the fuzzy brown costume. But he sometimes wished people could see the face under the mascot head.
Now they’re not only seeing the face of a trailblazing dancer, but his message as well.
“As long as you’re going about your passions with love and grace, and just no sense of hatred, I don’t see why not,” Mallory said during a recent interview on the UCLA campus, his voice raspy from teaching a dance workshop the night before. “You should be able to strive and attempt to do the things that you love.”
UCLA is one of the latest teams, from college to the pros, to add men to its dance squad. St. John’s has multiple men on its award-winning dance team.
The Rams broke ground in the NFL by adding men to their cheerleading squad in 2018. Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, who returned to the Rams dance team this season, performed at the Super Bowl last year. Mallory’s place at UCLA only increases the conversation.
“It’s showing people across the United States that you can be anything you want to be,” UCLA dance team coach Tiphanie McNiff said. “You shouldn’t let other people’s opinions and influences change your decisions as to who you want to become or what you want to become.”
McNiff, a third-year coach who oversaw the dance teams at California and Fresno State before coming to UCLA, never had a male dancer on any of her previous college squads.
During her four years on the Oakland Raiders dance team, she never had male teammates. But she has shared dance classes with boys since she was 3 years old and acknowledged that having male dancers on those teams was never frowned upon.
It was just never talked about.
After collaborating with the dance team on two routines — one in which Mallory was dressed as Joe Bruin and his successful “Smooth Criminal” performance — Mallory and another male dancer brought the topic up with McNiff.
McNiff approached Angela Scales, the acting director of the UCLA spirit squad, who pushed it up the chain to Julie Sina, the associate vice chancellor for alumni affairs. The idea was met with excitement at each level.
“If they make the cut and they fit the bill and they’re as talented and as great as team members as everyone else, I don’t see why we wouldn’t have male dancers,” McNiff said.
Dance team hopefuls must pass a rigorous two-day audition process that includes an across-the-floor technique portion on the first day, followed by a judges’ cut, and a performance day when remaining hopefuls perform a dance to the school fight song and a jazz routine similar to one the team would perform at a game. Then there is an interview.
Men have auditioned for the UCLA dance team in previous years, but Mallory was the only one to make the final cut. This school year, three men auditioned, with Mallory being the only one to last until the final day.
During the interview portion, some dancers were asked about their plans after graduation or who would play them in a movie about their life.
Mallory was asked what his response would be if someone didn’t approve of a male member on the dance team.
“I know that I can’t control how people perceive me,” Mallory said of his answer, “but I know what I can control. That’s myself and my craft. And that’s something I know I can never lose.”
When people yell that Mallory needs poms like his teammates, he laughs it off. (He was offered poms at the beginning of training, but declined.) The majority of the feedback has been positive, McNiff said, but there have been moments of negativity.
When spectators stare or mock under their breath, Mallory is determined to smile even bigger and perform even better. Even in front of a rivalry crowd at the Coliseum at the UCLA-USC football game, Mallory’s dedication earned compliments from some USC fans.
“Devin has handled himself so maturely and so professionally, I couldn’t be more proud,” McNiff said. “And I think once everyone actually sees him dance, they just realize wow, this person is just absolutely incredible.”
Mallory found refuge in dance since he began at 10 years old. The Bay Area native played on a club soccer team, but left the pitch and started competing in hip-hop dance because “it fulfilled something that soccer wasn’t doing,” Mallory said.
“It was just the opportunity to express myself in a healthier light.”
Mallory competed in showcases in Northern and Southern California, including World of Dance before the competition turned into a popular TV show. He was a member of the Golden State Warriors Jr. Jam Squad, a group of young dancers who perform at Warriors home games.
But many of his male friends played sports, and succeeding in sports was an easy way to earn status at school. He worried what they would think of his decision to pursue dance. Sometimes, he still worries what people will think.
“[I worry about] the natural conclusion that some people will have hearing that someone’s a guy and a dancer and what it can mean and how they go about themselves,” Mallory said. “But I think now being older, it’s something that I learned to just accept that that’s who I am and the people that maybe don’t accept it, that’s not in my control.”
“I know that I can’t control how people perceive me, but I know what I can control. That’s myself and my craft. And that’s something I know I can never lose.”
Growing up in San Francisco, a city known for inclusion, Mallory said he was met with compassion and support from his friends when he dedicated himself to dance. He thinks it may have helped that he specialized in hip-hop, a style that seems to earn more street cred for its aggressive moves.
Mallory still believes boys are often discouraged from dancing because dance comes with natural flow and body awareness men aren’t often expected to have.
In a 2009 study that surveyed 75 males 13 to 22 years old who were studying dance in the United States, Wayne State University dance professor Doug Risner found that 96% of participants experienced teasing and name calling and 70% reported verbal and/or physical harassment.
McNiff was nervous about Mallory making his full-time dance team debut this season. She didn’t doubt his ability; every judge on the seven-person panel comprised of NBA, NFL or collegiate cheer coaches was wowed by his impeccable technique. But she knew that doing something for the first time opened the door for criticism.
Following the dance team’s first performance of the football season at the alumni tailgate, a woman in the crowd wanted to speak to the coach.
“She said, ‘I’m so proud to be a Bruin alumni right now,’ ” McNiff said. “ ‘I just think this is a huge step forward and I think he is not only extremely talented, but I think he’s a great role model for so many members in the community.’ That really touched me. ... You can’t deny Devin’s talent.”
From his first dance audition at 10 years old — Mallory performed what amounted to an interpretive dance to Kesha’s 2009 hit “Tik Tok” in which he acted out the words — to dancing at the Rose Bowl and Pauley Pavilion, countless hours in the studio have defined Mallory’s dance career more than his natural talent.
Knowing he needed to get familiar with the UCLA dance team’s style before his audition in May, Mallory spent at least one hour almost every night for three months training in a studio by himself.
UCLA’s dance team does a mix of styles, but incorporates jazz turns and cheer-like arm movements the longtime hip-hop dancer was unfamiliar with.
To practice, Mallory turned to YouTube videos. He filmed himself replicating the skills, determined the necessary corrections and repeated the process for months.
It was the same technique he used in high school at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco when he joined an after-school dance group that first exposed him to contemporary and jazz dance.
He was discouraged at that time because some of the other dancers had ballet training since they were 3 while he could barely point his toe. To catch up, he watched videos and went through a nightly regimen of stretches.
Now he kicks his leg past his head with ease.
“He’s literally probably the most hard-working, dedicated person I’ve ever met,” UCLA dance team captain Sydney Rosen said.
Rosen, who is in her third year on the dance team, said having Mallory has been “an absolute dream.”
After the first men’s basketball game of the season, two young girls asked Mallory for a photo together. They were sisters who were both dancers. Mallory said it was fun and humbling to talk to the young dancers about their shared passion.
With the dance team, Mallory feels invigorated by the thrill of performing in front of thousands. Because he is studying different styles in college, there are fewer opportunities to perform than he had in high school.
Branching out from his hip-hop roots, Mallory experiments with modern, postmodern and contemporary dance. The feeling of releasing himself through dance is fulfilling, whether it’s on the sideline with the dance team or in a slower, more deliberate modern dance piece.
His growing exposure to different styles has only made him more confused about what he wants to do in the future. He could do commercial work, tour in live performances or even join the ballet.
“I think we’re going to be seeing him a lot in the future,” McNiff said. “He’s extremely talented and I’m just happy to be a part of the early stages of his dance career.”