Sunday, June 01, 2008

Calendar Girls 

Posted by Sasha at 11:35 AM ET

At an exotic photo shoot in Punta Cana, Ravens cheerleaders prove they aren't just pretty faces

By Kevin Heitz
Press Box Online
May 29, 2008

As the saying goes: When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Well, when your job tells you to go to the Dominican Republic to cover a swimsuit calendar shoot with the Ravens cheerleaders, you splash vodka in said lemonade and happily pack your bags.

Earlier this month, the Ravens cheerleaders and a gaggle of hair and makeup people and photographers took over the Barcelo Palace in Punta Cana for the team's first swimsuit calendar photo shoot.

From the time the purple rhinestone-clad cheerleaders hit Baltimore Washington International airport at the crack of dawn -- with more pep than should be legal on a Monday morning -- it was apparent that for them this would not just be a week at the beach. White sand and crystal clear water awaited the squad, but so did strict curfews and early wakeup calls. With football season still months away, the cheerleaders had on their game faces.

An undertaking of this magnitude does not just happen. It took months of planning by numerous members of the Ravens organization -- with Gabrielle Dow playing a vital role. Dow, the team's vice president for marketing, has been with the Ravens for nearly two years, and since Day 1, the swimsuit calendar idea had been bouncing around in her head like a spunky cheerleader on Red Bull.

Armed with a calendar from every other NFL cheerleading squad, Dow was persistent and convinced Ravens president Dick Cass to green-light the project.

Once the project started to pick up steam, it became clear this endeavor was about much more than just 16 large photos of attractive young women in bikinis.

"It's the branding of the Ravens team, the branding of the cheerleaders," Dow said. "We were the only NFL team that didn't put a calendar together. More teams do calendars, and the fans seem to appreciate it. So I think it was just one more way that we could connect with our fans. It's about the fans."

But it's also about beautiful women posing in a beautiful location. Once the shores of Punta Cana were picked as the destination, the difficult task of choosing the girls was next.

More than 200 hopefuls tried out for the 2008 Ravens cheerleading team ( even veterans have to go through the grueling tryouts every year), and when all was said and done, 40 women and 20 men made the squad. But that number had to be whittled down even more for the Dominican Republic excursion.

Tina Galdieri, the director and coach of the cheerleading squad, saw the calendar as a chance to take her team to the next level, and deciding which cheerleaders to use was a huge undertaking -- one she wasn't about to do alone.

"We had some outside sources help us out as well. It's hard for me because I'm close with them, I can't emotionally get involved," Galdieri said. "I've got to step outside and say, 'What's the best product we have to put out there?' We did some test shots. We did test shots of 26 girls. And the judges looked at the test shots from there and narrowed it down to 18."

Of the 18 cheerleaders on the trip, five were rookies. It was trial by fire as the newbies learned quickly that everywhere they go -- even if it's an island country 1,500 miles from Charm City -- the women are representing the Ravens and also the city of Baltimore.

"It's unbelievable," said JoAnna P., who made the team on her third attempt. "Just being a part of an NFL program, you are looked upon so highly. You have to be on point because there are so many people that look up to you."

Melissa M., a three-year veteran, is still amazed by fans' reactions, from happy pilots and passengers on the flight to Cleveland Browns fans in the Punta Cana airport.

"I'm always very flattered and shocked by the excitement," Melissa said while sitting near the winding pool at Barcelo Palace. "I never knew we were that big of a deal. To get the response from the community is overwhelming.

"It's very flattering, and it's exciting. We want to get out there who we are as individuals, not just the stereotype that people have with cheerleaders."

Melissa has been a cheerleader for as long as she can remember. She shook her pom-poms on the sidelines of Pee Wee football games, cheered through high school and spent two years rah-rahing the Terrapins at the University of Maryland before joining the Ravens. But posing for a swimsuit calendar was completely new to her and the other cheerleaders.

"The shoots have been very busy," she said of the sessions that usually started at the lovely hour of 4 a.m. "Plus, we're going throughout the resort and doing activities with everyone staying at the resorts."

When not striking sexy poses for the calendar, the unofficial Baltimore ambassadors worked out on the beach, practiced dance routines, played some not-so-graceful games of volleyball and participated in a water aerobics class -- all of which seemed to please hotel guests more than the bright blue water and palm tree-filled beaches.

"Every time I stop to think about it, I think all my years of cheerleading, my hard work has added up to this," Melissa said. "I never would have imagined it. This [trip] is the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the ice cream."

Team Effort
The 18 girls will get the glory in the glossy pages of the swimsuit calendar, but the entire project could not have been possible without a massive team effort behind the scenes.

Shawn Hubbard is the man behind the camera -- and his ability to shift from capturing fast-paced action on the gridiron to achieving artistic beauty in a peaceful natural setting was as easy as finding a shady tree to nap under.

Assistant Rob Bartlett aided Hubbard, and Jeff Atkinson, Don DiRaddo and Matt Brevet captured the week on video. The Ravens wanted to involve the fans in the process as much as possible, and succeeded with numerous blogs, video updates and photos posted to www.BaltimoreRavens.com all week by Dave Lang.

"It truly is a whole production," Melissa said before her first turn in front of the lens. "The production crew, they're really the ones who are making this all happen."

If you think a couple guys with cameras is all it takes to put together a swimsuit calendar, think again.

Paige Boyle, a senior account executive, went in search of sponsors. Robert Andrews Salon and Spa assembled a hair and makeup team, and the Ravens also brought along a group of stylists who have worked with the squad for years. Brown Eyed Girl Surf Shop out of Annapolis provided the swimsuits, Smyth Jewelers sent the ladies down with thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, and the Ravens brought security to make sure it all went smoothly.

More Than Just a Pretty Face
Yes, it’s a 16-month picture spread with dolled-up beauties hugging trees and crawling through white sand, but the cheerleaders all hope the swimsuit calendar and their other projects help disprove the stereotype that cheerleaders are just pretty faces.

"These girls are intelligent," Dow said. "I think the biggest misnomer is that they are all wannabe actresses and models, and maybe a little unintelligent or flighty. They're some of the most intelligent women I've ever met. They're driven, hardworking, focused.

"And this is their part-time gig that they hardly get paid for. They really do it obviously because they like pleasing the fans and entertaining the fans. … It has to come from the heart."

"These girls, granted they love to cheer, but they also have lives and families and professional jobs and are going to school," Galdieri said. "What we try to do is to change that outlook of the skippy, dizzy cheerleader and we try to change that perception from people. That we are intelligent and we do have lives and professional jobs, and this is something we love to do but we also have outside lives."

They may have outside lives, but it's not clear when they find time for it. Just like the NFL as a whole, cheerleading has become a year-round commitment. The team is chosen in early March, and the "season" runs through January.

Tara C. knows what to expect after two years with the squad, and she tells rookies that if they aren't masters of time management, they won't survive the year. "It's a lot of stress," she said. "You're juggling your job, your other activities, your social life.

"I call it a hate-love relationship … but when we come out on the field, I absolutely love it."

Even during a weeklong visit to the Dominican Republic, the girls were working out -- which was mandatory each day for all members of the squad -- while most guests were wiping the sleep out of their eyes and perusing the breakfast buffet. And they weren't laid-back workouts either.

"I played college soccer, and these three hours [of practice] are more intense than a college soccer game," Tara said. "We're definitely not princesses."

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