MIDTOWN — A halftime dance routine at a WNBA game at Madison Square Garden was cut short by the venue because organizers didn’t approve of their racially-loaded song choice, the dance troupe’s leader claims.
More than 50 dancers from Union Square's PMT Dance Studio performed a routine set to Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” during the Connecticut Sun vs. New York Liberty game on July 17, planning to close the performance with a dance set to a portion of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” instructor Pavan Thimmaiah explained.
But when the first song ended, the second track never played — leaving the dancers frozen in place before an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
At first, the PMT instructor — who founded the studio at 69 W. 14th St.— was told the music hadn’t played due to a technical glitch, he said.
Later on during the game, however, the Madison Square Garden employee with whom Thimmaiah had been in touch about the performance suggested the venue’s management "didn't want the second song" because it didn’t approve of the choice, he said.
The song makes reference to police brutality and uses some “strong” terms like “skinhead” and “deadhead," Thimmaiah noted. But the section of the song he chose for the dance didn’t include those terms and had already been pre-approved by the venue, he maintained.
“That dance was created to put out a message of unity, harmony, love, tolerance. It was not meant for any particular movement or anything,” the 38-year-old said. “[But] they probably thought that the song or the dance that went with the song represented something they didn’t want to be associated with.”
When the song was released in 1995, it garnered controversy for including lyrics that could be construed as anti-Semitic.
Jackson defended the song, arguing that it was actually "about the pain of prejudice and hate and [was] a way to draw attention to social and political problems," but altered some of the lyrics and re-recorded the song soon after.
A Madison Square Garden spokesman said the venue had pre-approved a music track for the routine that was about a minute-and-a-half long.
But the Thursday before the game, MSG received a new, three-minute-long track, he said.
“Unfortunately, we did not get this track to our event presentation department in time, and so that’s why the music shut off after a minute and a half,” he wrote in an email. "Once we realized what had happened, we were able to get the three minute tracked approved by [the department] during the second half of the game, and the dance company was able to perform again to the full routine after the game ended on the court at MSG, while people were exiting the arena."
Thimmaiah refuted the spokesman’s claim, saying he sent the full track to his contact at Madison Square Garden nearly three weeks prior to the event.
He said the group was only allowed to perform the full halftime show at the end of the game after “pleading” with Madison Square Garden employees.
This year's performance at MSG marked the third year a group of dancers led by Thimmaiah had taken advantage of its “Fan Experience Package,” which gives dance groups the opportunity to perform at the venue during halftime if they purchase a certain number of tickets for themselves and for friends and family, he said.
He said his group raised about $4,050 in ticket sales for the package, half of which the MSG spokesman said was refunded as a result.
“For a lot of these people, it was a dream come true to perform in Madison Square Garden… and they had trained for months,” he said. “People were crying, holding each other. Some people just couldn’t deal with it very well at all.”
Thimmaiah believes that the original performance was stopped “because of some sort of corporate interest [or] agenda.”
"I think [the venue was] probably like, 'In the last couple weeks, things have really heated up in the country with everything that was going on,'” he said.
“[But] our statement wasn’t even ‘pro-this' or 'pro-that,' it wasn't pro-police or black lives — it was just simply trying to be together."