Beach volleyball: Where sports and showbiz meet
LONDON (Reuters) - The breathless athletes step aside, the music starts, and a troupe of dancers in retro beachwear, 1950s hairstyles and oversize sunglasses take the stage, or rather the court.
It's showtime at Horse Guards Parade, London's Olympic beach volleyball venue, where spectators enjoy a winning combination of world-class sports, spectacular views of historic London, exuberant commentary and dance routines worthy of a pop concert.
It may look like a bit of fun to keep the crowds entertained during players' breaks, but on closer inspection it turns out a lot of thought, effort and expertise has gone into creating a memorable experience for those lucky enough to get tickets.
"We're at the top of our game in London with music and fashion and style and it was really important for London 2012 to project that to the world," Aicha Mckenzie, the choreographer behind the dances performed on the sandy court, told Reuters.
The 28 dancers from 15 countries are professionals who have worked with the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue or Rihanna. But performing on sand in a stadium packed with 15,000 rowdy fans is a different ball game, so to speak.
"Dancing on the sand is a killer. I don't know how the athletes run around for so long doing it," said Shaun Niles, one of the dancers and a co-choreographer with Mckenzie.
"As soon as you move about in the sand you sink, so trying to run around and carry someone else and then run around with them as well, I'm like, 'What else do you want me to do?'" said the Londoner, whose previous gigs have included dancing for Janet Jackson, Leona Lewis and Victoria Beckham.
The dancers are assisted by the voice of Horse Guards Parade, Peter Dickson, who pumps up the crowd all day with colorful commentary and lots of shouting.
"Show time! Give it up for the Horse Guards Parade dance crew!" he often yells as the dancers make their entry.
Dickson, 55, has been a full-time voice artist for three decades. A versatile professional, he has worked on hit TV music programmes such as "The X Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent", narrated wildlife documentaries for the Discovery channel and introduced singers of the caliber of Tom Jones on stage.
"I enjoy creating a sense of excitement and occasion. That's what I'm good at. It's getting people to believe that they're watching the best thing in the world," Dickson told Reuters.
He has been getting maximum mileage out of Horse Guards Parade's privileged location, next door to British Prime Minister David Cameron's residence at 10 Downing Street.
To get a good Mexican wave going, he shouts, "Downing Street end!" at spectators sitting on that side of the stadium. It works every time.
Dickson also likes to ask the fans to keep their voices down so the prime minister can have his nap, a joke that invariably generates a deafening roar.
"I have this image of David Cameron in Number 10 trying to work, sleep or hold meetings, with this racket going on. It must be impossible. I do sympathize with him," said Dickson.
Teams of four volunteers armed with huge rakes make regular appearances on court to smooth the sand for the athletes, and Dickson cries out in a sing-song voice that it's "rakey rakey time", which always gets a good response.
Sometimes, Dickson lets his inspiration run free.
"Just when you're in need of catching your breath, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the hypnotic movements of the rakers," he commented during a tense men's quarter-final.
"If they weren't volunteers, they'd be raking it in," he added, to appreciative cheers from the stands.
Jokes aside, Dickson also plays a part in marking the solemnity and the drama of Olympic sport.
Before each match, as the opening bars of American composer Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" ring out in the stadium, Dickson uses his best movie-trailer voice to welcome the match officials, field of play volunteers and athletes.
"The atmosphere in here is amazing. It's very concentrated in here, you can see how steeply the stands are in this 15,000-seater stadium," he said.
"It's in the open air, in the most iconic venue in London, Horse Guards Parade, with all these fantastic buildings around us, political and military buildings. It heightens the sense of occasion which makes it slightly easier for me."
Organizers have adorned the swathe of St James's Park that spectators cross to reach the stadium with three extraordinarily large and complex sand sculptures.
The first shows one of the Olympic mascots diving for a ball, the second is of a member of Queen Elizabeth's Household Cavalry on horseback in full ceremonial regalia, and the third is of the Horse Guards Parade arena packed with fans.
These are not the work of amateurs. Sand sculptor Daniel Belcher came from the United States to make the third sculpture. A sought-after professional, his next jobs back home include a PGA golf tournament and the Democratic Party Convention.
Belcher was thrilled to be part of the Olympics and felt he had some affinities with beach volleyball players.
"Everything I own has sand in it. My whole life revolves around sand," he told Reuters.
In the minds of the professionals who have put this elaborate "spectator experience" in place, to use the official jargon, they are showcasing excellence and breaking boundaries to enhance a sport that does not always get taken seriously.
One innovation is the use of male as well as female dancers. Media coverage of beach volleyball often focuses on the fact that the women's teams play in bikinis, but Mckenzie wanted to go beyond the simplistic appeal of scantily-clad women.
"There are traditionally dancers in this sport and they normally have girls who are beautiful but act more as cheerleaders than as professional dancers," she said.
"We really wanted to change that, show really highly skilled dancers. We want it to be about what they're doing and how cool that is and not about how they've got tiny little bikinis on."
Sometimes, especially in the evenings when beer flows freely, some male spectators boo when they see the men dancers start a routine. They switch to cheering when the women appear.
But the sexist reaction does not tell the whole story.
"In the evening sessions the ladies get just as rowdy as the boys," said Mckenzie.
Niles nodded knowingly and added: "The ladies cheer for us. When we go into the stands that's when the cameras come out, they all go click, click, click and of course we love it."
(Editing by Matt Falloon)