(Kaylee Smiler) BYU women's basketball guard Kaylee Smiler performs a Māori dance during a dress rehearsal at the BYU basketball annex. Smiler coordinated the performance for the BYU Luau this year.
Provo • BYU guard Kaylee Smiler and her older sister, Kendall, used to kill time by making up dances at home in New Zealand.
The two sisters would often choreograph something, film it and post the finished product on Musical.ly, the website that eventually became TikTok.
It’s a hobby that may have helped Smiler on the court.
“Basketball is just an intricate dance,” she said.
And it has certainly made her a budding TikTok star, as her dances on the social media app have earned her more than 30,000 followers.
Dancing isn’t new to Smiler. She was part of a small, non-competitive neighborhood dance group in her hometown of Temple View. And as a Māori person, she grew up learning traditional dances like the kapa haka, which was once used in warfare and meant to intimidate an opponent and attempt to prevent a battle from occurring.
(BYU Athletics) BYU guard Kaylee Smiler drives the lane against Oklahoma on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022 at the Marriott Center in Provo.
Smiler’s rise on TikTok started with one pivotal moment. She and her sister, who now works as a hip-hop instructor, planned to record a dance using the song “Motownphilly” by Boyz II Men. This video would be different because it would include their dad, who is a fan of the popular boy band and jumps in at the very end.
The video went viral, and something clicked for Smiler.
“Me and my sister and my dad did that dance and everyone loved it,” Smiler said recently as she sat in the BYU basketball annex overlooking the practice court. “From that moment on, I was like, ‘Man, I find this enjoyable, my family finds this enjoyable, and everyone else finds it enjoyable. I want to keep doing it.’”
Smiler came to Utah in 2018. And she has continued to grow her social media following — all the while including her BYU teammates, teammates past and present, in her videos.
But two videos account for nearly 5 million views on her page — the ones featuring the dances and wardrobe of her Māori culture. One of those has 3 million views.
Smiler gets homesick often, she said. She’s the first in her family to attend college in the United States, and the first to receive a Division I scholarship. One of her uncles paid for her plane ticket to the states, and other families from her community paid for her luggage and a new pair of basketball shoes.
“I’m like the guinea pig,” Smiler said.
So anything she can do that reminds of her upbringing is helpful. One of those things was participating in the BYU Luau last year, which for the first time featured a Māori section.
This year, Smiler led that section. In fact, if she hadn’t, the luau would not have had a Māori section this year. She picked the songs, transitions and actions. She made the costumes and poi with some help from her sister and teammate/roommate Emma Calvert. She even recruited “more than half” of the BYU rugby team for the performance, she said.
“I’ve never been the person in charge of it. I’ve always just been a participant,” Smiler said. “So to be able to choose it and make it, in my eyes, a perfect show, that has been fun.”
Although it took up much of her already limited free time and caused her some stress, Smiler’s passion for it made all that worthwhile, she said. The performance occurred on Nov. 16 and 17 while the team played in a showcase in Hawaii, so she wasn’t in attendance. But she did arrange a dress rehearsal and invited her teammates and others around the BYU athletic program.
“I learned so much,” said Cougars forward Rose Bubakar, who often appears in Smiler’s TikToks. “The performance was so great. I was very intrigued. I was so proud of Kaylee.”
(Kaylee Smiler) A group of BYU students pose for a photo after performing a dress rehearsal of a traditional Māori dance led by Cougars guard Kaylee Smiler.
Smiler’s culture will soon make its way onto the team’s wardrobe. During a preseason barbecue, as part of their discussion of the new team motto, coach Amber Whiting asked every player to write how they will be fearless this season.
All Smiler could think of writing was part of a Māori whakatauki, or proverb, that translates to, “Strip the bark of the tree so only the core remains.” The team loved the saying so much that it wanted to display it on new warmup shirts, which will also feature Māori designs.
Smiler feels she has to set a positive example for all people not just from her small hometown, but all of New Zealand. Getting a piece of culture on official BYU gear accomplishes some of that, she said.
“I did not expect any of this,” Smiler said. “I was just trying to share my culture, something I relate to. … It makes me feel like I’m doing my job.”
Smiler has been on the women’s basketball team for five seasons, and still has a year of eligibility left due to the COVIVD-19 year. She’s averaging 8.8 points, 2.0 assists and 2.0 rebounds in nearly 36 minutes per game after coming back from a fractured left tibia.
Smiler said dance helped her coordination with basketball. Layups with her right or left hand, jump stops — they’re all just steps in her mind.
Dancing isn’t just an avenue of joy for Smiler. It’s also an effective stress release. Whether it’s before a game, or when she’s sitting in the annex at 10 p.m. knowing she still has hours of homework ahead of her, learning a quick dance and posting it helps center her.
“The fact that I could learn it, dance it, record it, and then send it out to anyone who I wanted, felt like I completed something and I felt refreshed and it was fun to me,” Smiler said. “And then I’d be ready to go and play a basketball game or start some homework.”
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