Thursday, April 10, 2008

200 try out, 30 are chosen 

Posted by Sasha at 9:08 PM ET

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
April 10, 2008

Season after season, the Ben-Gals brass make no promises.

No one - no matter how experienced, how good, how gorgeous - is guaranteed a spot on the squad. Everyone auditions or re-auditions every year.

The five-session process kicks off Saturday with a clinic on glamour, attire, fitness, expectations and cheering routines. It progresses through two preliminary rounds, a semifinal round and finally the May 17 finals in front of 15 judges, a mix of dance professionals, Ben-Gal alums, fans and local celebrities.

About 200 are expected to give it a try. Only 30 will make the cut.

"It's definitely stressful," said Charlotte Jacobs, director of cheerleaders since 1994, Ben-Gals coordinator before that and a 14-year cheerleader before that. "The girls, especially the veterans who have been through it before, show up nervous and terrified they won't make it. I mean, this is the NFL for heaven's sake. Competition is fierce."

Once they make the squad, the real work - as in a lot of practice filled with leaps, splits, high jumps and deep knee bends - begins.

There are 2½ hours of practice a night twice a week in early June, three nights a week the rest of the summer, then two nights a week once preseason games roll around. Cheerleaders are required to come in full makeup, hair fixed, panty hose and dressy practice outfits.

"We're working on the whole look here," Jacobs said.

Practices are followed by one to two hours of conditioning in the Paul Brown Stadium gym.

Cheerleaders are also required to make 10 personal appearances during the season and five during the off-season, all for charity or community events and always in full glamour mode. The full glamour mode goes for non-public appearances as well, the grocery story or dry cleaners for example. It's strongly suggested they go out only with hair done, makeup in place and outfits just so.

There's more: Cheerleaders are required to arrive at the stadium five hours before game time, including preseason, for practice on- and off-field, hair and makeup, dressing and maybe a light bite. Then they have to scoot to the East Party Deck an hour before kickoff to sign autographs.

All this for the princely sum of $75 per game.

So why do it?

"Because I absolutely love performing, and I think the other girls would say that, too" said Aisha El-Amin, 32, of Florence, a special ed teacher (grades 1-3) trying out for her third season. "Beyond that, we have such a hip sisterhood. All teams do, but Ben-Gals have a special one, more than the other two NFL teams (Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins) and the NBA team (Atlanta Hawks) I cheered for."

El-Amin has been a dancer since high school and, despite a demanding job, can't think of doing anything else.

"I'm Muslim and grew up covered all over and never had dance training but dreamed of it. When I was a senior in high school, I got a job, bought my own clothes and told my daddy, 'I am going to dance and people are going to see my body.' He was pretty understanding.

"Then I went to UK (University of Kentucky) and I've been cheering ever since."

Erin Minsterman, 23, of Fort Thomas, a full-time student at UC's College of Pharmacy and a 2007 rookie, concurs.

"I've been a dancer since I was 4 years old and all through college (Western Kentucky), when I was part of the dance team. I'm not ready to let go of," she said. "I spend so much time in class or studying that performing is a release for me.

"There's nothing to compare to the feeling I had the first time I stepped onto the field in front of 65,000 people. It's an experience I'll never forget.''

Ditto for Shannon Lake, 31, of Hyde Park, a four-year Ben-Gal veteran.

"I love the excitement it brings to my life," said Lake, the team's glamour coach and a human resources director. "Plus it's a great way for me to stay in shape, I love to dance, and this is a spectacular venue to do it in.

"I also love the challenge of being 31 and competing with girls 10 years younger."

There are perks and drawbacks, with personal appearances topping the perks list for most.

Minsterman did a four-day meet-and-greet for soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., and called it "the most inspirational moment of my life."

Lake did a 10-day tour last spring with seven other NFL cheerleaders for troops in Italy, Egypt and the Sinai.

"I tell the girls, next to having a baby, meeting the troops is the most life-changing thing you'll ever do," Jacobs said. "I've never had one disagree."

Weather is the chief downside.

"It can get cold out there, especially when you're signing autographs and not cheering," Lake said.

"My parents came to one game and said, 'You have to be cold in that outfit; we were freezing up in the stands,' " Minsterman says. "The truth is, I broke a sweat that day. You wouldn't believe how much we can bundle up under those uniforms. We're all bothered more by the heat early in the season.

"But walking on the turf in those (3-inch) high-heel boots can be a challenge. You have to learn how to balance."

Labels: , ,