Sky Dancers 25th Anniversary

“If it is to be, it’s up to me!”

The year is 1994. A year before Jewel Riders debuts, there is a sensation spinning out of the toy aisles. Sky Dancers has flown onto toy store shelves in test markets before the holiday season ‘94 and the full roll out of 1995. From toy maker Galoob, the dolls were viewed as a gamble – taking a traditional “boy” play pattern of flying objects – and beautifying it to capture the heart of young girls.

The spinning, flying ballerinas went through many iterations of development before settling into the graceful dancers we know today.

Development of the Toys

The idea for the toys were developed by John Gentile, of Abrams-Gentile Entertainment, who viewed his daughters playing with maple seedlings – the type with a long wing that flutters in spirals to the ground once released from up high. With his brother Anthony and their business partner Marty Abrams (of toy company MEGO fame) they began developing the idea further. During development, the trio dubbed the toys “Twirlies” and set about to design a humanoid that could not only fly, but look good while doing it. Other possible names thrown around were Spinderellas, Fancy Flys, and Pettifloats. But Sky Dancers was the name that stuck.

Prototypes were shopped around to Hasbro and Tyco, but both passed. It wasn’t until the people from Galoob saw the prototypes that development really started to take off. Engineers, Sculptors, Painters, Hair Stylists, all had a hand in creating the look of the Sky Dancers. Prototypes were shown to the major toy retailers of the era: Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart, KMart. They were excited for the new doll. Sky Dancers were launched in three test markets: Cleveland, Houston and San Francisco. It was here in later 1994 that the dolls got their first hands-on playtime.

From the F.A.O. Schwartz employees:

“They looked stupid,” says Jason Stewart, the spiky-haired floor manager. “I mean, fairyland-theme toys are a dime a dozen. Then, out of curiosity, some of us started trying them out.” Hands-on demonstration turned the tide. As soon as employees started tinkering with the dolls — fiddling with the pull-string to make a Sky Dancer twirl or playing catch with one during lulls in the afternoon — the dolls started blowing off the shelf. Today, the Sky Dancer area is empty. There are only two left, and one of those is stranded up near the ceiling, the victim of an overly ambitious launch. Her blue head can still be seen jutting out from a ledge.

I remember seeing the dolls on shelves in the mid ‘90s alongside Jewel Riders and Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic dolls. As a boy I was never allowed to get one, though I did have many of the boy counterpart line called Dragon Flyz. I even met John and Anthony Gentile in New York after winning a television write-in contest for Dragon Flyz. (Really, I’m not kidding on this one.) I wish I had snapped a million pictures of their offices looking back. Sadly, I never owned a Sky Dancer toy in childhood. Perhaps that’s the reason they hold such allure to me to this day. The pastel wonderland color schemes, the detailed molded and painted bases that serve as both launcher, stand, and world-builder. Even in childhood, however, I felt they were missing something by not having a broader story. Many toys of the era, if they did not have an animated series or other tie-in media, would use the box or other packaging to help tell the story of the toys.  This presented itself in the form of short character bios, pieces of artwork showcasing the character at some activity, short stories, or in rare cases even mini-comics. Sky Dancers subsisted its first year on the strength of the dolls and their novelty concept. But the dolls all shared the same face mold, and were only differentiated by color palettes, skin colors, bodice designs, and launchers. Even with this mix and match variability, the concept begged for more.

Animated Series and Other Media

Sky Dancers came out with several storybooks that followed the doll characters on their mini adventures in 1996. Interestingly, only one of these released in the US, a large storybook titled “The Sky’s the Limit,” tied into the animated series. All others featured designs and characters from the doll line, except for small books released by Ladybird books in the UK. It’s such an odd choice to go back to the relatively “character-less” characters of the toy line after the animated series had already developed such unique characters.

 

Aside from the super successful toys, Sky Dancers aired a twenty-six episode animated series in 1996. In a departure from the parade of lookalikes with no real story connecting them, the creators – Abrams Gentile Entertainment and French animation company Gaumont Multimedia – developed a whole world for this new series.

 

The show follows five young dancers at the High Hope Dance Academy. Jade studies ballet, Camille studies modern dance, Angelica favors country/western, Breeze studies his Native American heritage dance, and Slam dances hip-hop. They all study under the tutelage of the school’s headmistress, Dame Skyla. What they don’t know, however, is that Dame Skyla is really Queen Skyla of a magical world known as the Wingdom. In order to protect the Wingdom after the loss of her husband King Skylar, Queen Skyla summons her students through a magical music box to the Sky Realm. It is here that they are given their “Right of Flight” feathers, their costumes, and unique powers tied to their dance moves. Jade can turn invisible, Camille can form objects from clouds, Angelica can freeze time around specific objects or people, Breeze can control weather, and Slam can use a tractor-beam-like force blast. The Sky Dancers are tasked to use these incredible powers to defend the Sky Realm from the evil Sky Clone, villainous brother of King Skylar who tried to take the magic Sky Swirl Stone and the Wingdom for himself.

The episodes each follow different plot lines for the individual characters. Episodes will often follow the main characters facing problems in their “normal” life, and have them discover their courage or a solution in the world of the Wingdom. I think the secret protagonist of the series though is Skyla. She lost Skylar when he heroically sacrificed himself to stop Sky Clone from stealing the Sky Swirl Stone, the most magical artifact of the Wingdom and symbol of the nobility. Skyla carries the emotional backstory and history of the Wingdom with her, and it is often her sadness and melancholy at being the sole ruler of the Sky Realm that propels stories as much as the students’ problems.  

The main five characters are plenty fun, though! During the opening song, you can see different designs for them and Skyla, which are SO, LIKE, ‘90s and amazing. I think they would have been difficult to animate effectively though, being more complex. Different designs also existed on the board game art! My favorite character is Slam, maybe because I have a thing for himbo redheads, but all the characters share equal focus, and I appreciate that even though the girls are given top billing, the boys are just as important to the overall story.

The series is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with the beautiful backgrounds and designs for the various areas of the Sky Realm, including the fairy land of Skyridium, the “underwater” sky realm of Azure, the bee-like Skyhive, and the corrupted gravity of the Netherworld. 

An interesting thing to note is that the series features two different audio tracks. The voices are the same (minus some missing lines here and there) but the opening song and musical score can be drastically different.  I first watched the show on American television, so I’m partial to the version I grew up with, but you may feel differently depending on what you saw!

The show was released on VHS tape in the ‘90s, and I adore that each of the tapes matches its clamshell in color!  I miss gimmicky things like this. There were 6 tapes released total, with 12 episodes from the series. Many years later when eBay came along, one of the first things I searched for was Sky Dancers and Dragon Flyz, and I found Malaysian VCDs (remember those!?) of the full series! It was around 2005 or so, and the first time I’d ever seen the show in its entirety. Around the same time, two R1 DVDs were released, containing nine episodes total. Now, of course, you can watch the entire show online either via the Jewel Riders Archive YouTube (for the American English version) or Mondo World (for the international English version).

Click here to watch the JRA’s collection of the American English Version.

Or here to watch Mondo World’s collection of the International English Version.

Marketing, Revenues, and Reach

Sky Dancers was a brand that helped make Galoob profitable again after a several-years decline. From an article on Funding Universe:

“Although the development of the Micro Machines brand, the Game Genie, and a lower-risk management style were instrumental in restoring Galoob to fiscal health, it was ultimately another runaway hit toy that propelled Galoob back into the favor of Wall Street. In 1993 Galoob purchased the rights to a flying doll from AGE Entertainment, and the following year the company introduced Sky Dancer, a fairy-like doll whose styrofoam wings lofted her into the air when propelled from a pull-string launcher. Sky Dancer was one of a handful of new girls’ toys to be introduced by Galoob that year, and Galoob management was optimistic about the doll’s potential. “If it brings in $25 million in 1995, as I expect it will, that’ll be a big percentage of our business,” CEO Mark Goldman said in a Christmas 1994 New York Times article on the doll. By the following month the company had raised this estimate to $40 million, and by April 1995 Sky Dancer had become the No. 1 selling girls’ toy in America, with final sales for 1995 topping $70 million. Galoob’s stock price, which had been mired at around $6 for over a year, more than doubled over the last half of 1995 thanks in large part to the excitement generated by the Sky Dancer phenomenon.”

Abrams-Gentile Entertainment (now known as AGE Brands) has this to say about the reach of Sky Dancers from their website:

” The SKY DANCERS brand has sold over 30 million dolls generating over $350 million in worldwide retail sales since its first introduction. On its initial release SKY DANCERS became the #1 doll in over 20 countries around the globe.

SKY DANCERS has generated over $100M in additional sales of merchandising and ancillary sales with over 75 Licensees and over 100 official SKY DANCERS products distributed in 15 countries.”

That’s some serious heights to reach! They also claim that in its first year, Sky Dancers outsold the Queen B herself, Barbie. Given Barbie’s history with shooting down any girls’ toys that try to usurp their place in the pink aisle, it would not surprise me that the Barbie team redoubled their efforts to sink the little dancers. Fundamentally, the toys are two different forms of play. Barbie encourages role-playing and hair play, while Sky Dancers only have a little topknot of hair. They do share some of Barbie’s ’80s/’90s influence in the facial structure, but I think this is attributable to a general similarity in design aesthetic around this time. 

From bed sheets to school supplies to hair accessories, Sky Dancers flew onto every possible merchandising product during its inital wave of success:

A big sign of success for any brand is having a float or balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a huge stage for marketing a brand; Barbie has been featured before, as well as comic staples like Snoopy or Pikachu. But in 1995 and 1996, a giant Sky Dancer flew over the streets of New York City! This balloon takes more inspiration from the toy and storybook designs instead of the animated series, but how beautiful is she? Unfortunately during one of the parades she punctured her face on a tree, but there are thankfully pictures before that happened!

 

 Another sign of success for any toy brand is having a Happy Meal tie-in toy. Sky Dancers had these in 1996 for Burger King (along with Dragon Flyz), and in 1997 for McDonald’s. Burger King had 3 varieties, and McDonald’s had four different dancers who would spin on their bases but not launch off like their larger counterparts. We are lucky to own some of the concept art created for the Happy Meal toys as well!

 

Toy Recall

Sky Dancers continued selling through the mid-’90s, and in 1998 Galoob was bought out by Hasbro, likely an attempt by Hasbro to consolidate the Star Wars license under one roof. It is difficult to tell whether or not Sky Dancers were still produced by Hasbro/Galoob after the acquisition, but in 2000 Hasbro was forced to put out a recall for the dolls, citing “170 reports of the dolls striking children and adults resulting in 150 reports of injuries. They include eye injuries, including scratched corneas and incidents of temporary blindness, broken teeth, a mild concussion, a broken rib, and facial lacerations that required stitches.”

The recall is, I believe, the reason that dolls that were once ubiquitous are now difficult and expensive to find for collectors. Listings are routinely removed from eBay.

2001 Trendmasters Starcastle Stardancers

However, proving you can’t keep a good toy down, Sky Dancers re-emerged a year later in 2001 as part of the Starcastles (originally a line of Polly Pocket-like mini play sets) from toy company Trendmasters. These were called “Starcastles Stardancers” and the launcher was built into the castle playset. These are really fun, but I have to chuckle that fanciful names like “Sea Star” or “Crystalina” give way to names like “Julie” and “Amanda” when the dolls are released as part of this line. The dolls are also smaller than the original, to better fit in with the scale of the castles.

2004 Play Along Toys Relaunch

In 2004/2005, Sky Dancers underwent a brand relaunch. New toys by Play Along Toys were released, each packaged with a DVD containing two episodes from the animated series (in addition to the two stand-alone DVDs mentioned earlier). Interestingly, in addition to non-show characters, this release included dolls specifically for Jade, Camille, and Angelica. This was also the era that a GameBoy Advance game was released.  

Long gone are the sweet ‘90s dolls and faces. In addition to new Bratz and other mid-aughts-inspired face painting, these dolls also have a mechanism that will not allow the doll to launch unless the base is pointed directly up. A good safety measure to hopefully avoid launching a flying doll directly into your sibling’s eye and necessitating a trip to the Emergency Room. All dolls that use this play pattern now include this mechanism, hoping to avoid another recall situation no doubt.

(On a side note, Dragon Flyz underwent a similar rerelease by Play Along at the same time using a similar release strategy of packaging the toys with episodes of the show included on DVD.)

One of the interesting things the 2005 release did was introduce a group of dolls called “Dream Dancers” which were billed as the little sisters of the Sky Dancers. They were fashion dolls with playsets and stands that let them practice their dancing with training wings. It’s a cute concept, and I do like the idea of adding true fashion dolls into the Sky Dancers brand, even if it’s a bit gimmicky. I would have loved seeing fashion dolls of the five main characters and Queen Skyla. How cool would it have been to be able to change their clothes from their dance and street attire to their Wingdom outfits? In a show that revolves around a transformation, it feels like a missed opportunity to not have changeable dolls with fashions. But maybe that’s just my love of fashion dolls and the animated series peeking through again.

Legacy

After the 2005 re-release, Sky Dancers largely disappeared. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it release in 2013 from yet another toy company (i-Star Entertainment, a company I learned about while researching this article, and discovered that it was where Marty Abrams landed after Abrams-Gentile. That man has had more lives in the toy industry than just about anyone.). 

 

More than the actual Sky Dancers re-releases though, I think it’s obvious that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The idea for a flying doll has, pardon the expression, wings. Disney released Tinker Bell dolls that looked like Sky Dancers, Sailor Moon has released flying dolls, and DC even released Batman and Superman spinning flying toys that looked like Sky Dancers. Even the now-infamous viral video of the Flutterbye doll being sucked into the fireplace. All owe something to Sky Dancers. The idea of taking the flying toy out of the machine world and the harsh edges of boys’ toys into something more character driven was a revolutionary step, one that perhaps doesn’t get its fair due to the original creators. The Gentiles and Marty Abrams stumbled on a fascinating, truly original idea for the time, and how awesome is that?

Recently, I was watching old episodes of Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova’s online show “UNHhhh.” The drag queens did an episode on the ‘90s, and in one of the cutest segments, played with vintage Sky Dancers. Their joy was infectious. As Katya so aptly states, “It’s got height, it’s got momentum, it’s got drama!”

And if that isn’t just a perfect bow on the story of Sky Dancers. 

I wonder where they’ll land next.

 

 

Thank you to the following sources:

https://www.ghostofthedoll.co.uk/skydancers.php

Dream Dancers

http://www.agebrands.com/index.html

https://macysthanksgiving.fandom.com/wiki/SkyDancer/Gallery

http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/lewis-galoob-toys-inc-history/

https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2000/cpsc-galoob-toys-inc-announce-recall-of-sky-dancers-flying-dolls

https://www.cnbc.com/id/46366495

https://www.dnb.com/business-directory/company-profiles.i-star_entertainment_llc.5725fdafeafd5eff99e2a3ae10897831.html

https://www.behance.net/gallery/6765301/Dream-Dancers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.