Looks can often be deceiving, especially when somebody is sporting cowboy boots, hiked-up hot pants or fitted leotards nearly every night.
Take Thera Santos, a 24-year-old Foster City resident, who, while being an electrical engineer by day, also happens to don an NBA cheerleader outfit for the Golden State Warriors by night. A pristine example of brawn — or rather beauty — meets brains.
"Sometimes my dance life seems like a secret identity,” confessed the petite 5-foot-2-inch Santos. "I never imagined myself as a professional dancer, but I’ve met the best of friends through this,” she said.
Santos, who grew up in Milpitas and attended college at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, presently works at Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, inspecting defective satellite components as a failure analyst during her early morning shifts. Previously, she also worked as a failure analyst in aerospace defense with Raytheon in El Segundo, scrutinizing missile duds.
"I’ve just always loved to build things,” said a smiling Santos. "My parents were always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but it was my mom who put me in ballet and dance classes.”
Those lessons, which began at the age of 3, accompanied Santos for 12 years, but were left behind during high school at Notre Dame in San Jose. With intensified focus and determination to her college studies, Santos reintroduced dance as a minor along with her electrical engineering degree, but eventually substituted it for business.
"To study dance and to practice it are two different things,” she said.
Despite the delusion, Santos stood loyally by her lifelong passion, opting for recreational dance in lieu of the official classes which were not sufficiently exercising the most enjoyable part of the practice: Performance.
Now, with her third successful Warrior Girl audition behind her, Santos can settle into the uniform she never envisioned wearing.
"I never dreamt of auditioning, it was always just a hobby,” she said.
That capricious disposition changed about three years ago, though, when she attended a clamoring, sold-out game-six playoff series and watched the Warrior Girls perform.
"I thought, ‘I could do that,’” she said.
Following the Warriors’ success that year, open auditions turned out especially large, and heartbreaking; a group of about 250 girls were truncated to 16 within a week. But regardless of the odds, Santos’ skill and personal prerogative to always place herself in the instructor’s front row paid dividends. She won her spot, yet even in her third year butterflies still flutter about.
"Every time I perform I get so nervous. Everything changes, it’s always something new. I’m scared of missing a step, slipping or putting my foot in the wrong place,” said Santos, recollecting having to freestyle a forgotten routine for an endless minute.
Of course, working with the NBA is not all stress; there are definitely perks. Santos has had the pleasure of traveling abroad to China, Japan and most recently Italy to perform, teach and promote basketball’s developing leagues around the globe.
"Even with tight schedules, we always find ways to sightsee,” said Santos, recalling how she managed to squeeze in a 6 a.m. trip to the Great Wall of China prior to work hours.
There are now Warriors fans worldwide, but none match the intensity of those who show up to the home games at Oracle Arena. Santos said they are the best, at least when they are not heckling her.
"It’s a tough position sometimes,” she said, citing the bothersome habits of fans who ask for copious pictures, endless hugs, her number or even follow back to her car while she tries to maintain an affable aura. "Oh yes! You have to carry pepper spray.”
Santos is many things, but if she executed a flawless routine in an empty arena with no fans around to see it, would that make her a cheerleader, or just some engineer possessing extraordinary rhythm and questionable access to a vacated stadium? Santos’ answer would be neither.
"My calling in life is to be a role model to someone,” she said. "The good influence that you put on others is most important to me.”
Single game tickets — allowing fans to catch Santos, the Warrior Girls and the Golden State Warriors in person — go on sale Saturday, Sept. 12. For more information about the Warriors visit www.nba.com/warriors. To follow Santos visit her blog at www.thinkthera.blogspot.com.