Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Charger Girls work hard for the money 

Posted by Sasha at 6:01 PM ET

The life of the team's dancers isn't just fun-and-glamour games. It's hard work for little pay in America's richest sports league.

Marcia C. Smith, Columnist
The Orange County Register

SAN DIEGO -- As fireworks spray and cannons blast over Qualcomm Stadium, the San Diego Chargers jog from beneath a giant inflatable Bolts helmet and onto the field through a player introduction line marked by 28 golden pom-pom-raising Charger Girls.

The dance team's long legs in knee-high, white leather boots kick toward the sky. Short pleated skirts dotted with rhinestones swing just below shaking hips. Navy blue bodices bounce. Gorgeous, toned bodies covered with just enough material to make a lineman's tubesock move with the stadium's pounding music.

The festivity that is an NFL game wouldn't be complete without this largely unheralded third team on the field. The last game of the Chargers' regular season comes Sunday with a winner-takes-the-playoffs contest against the Denver Broncos, and the 28 Charger Girls, much like the Chargers themselves, are feeling the weight of a long season.

For each home game, they have arrived five hours before kickoff, towing rolling suitcases packed with makeup, styling tools and wardrobe into their stadium locker room. Then for four quarters, a handful of timeouts and all but a four-minute bathroom break during halftime, the Charger Girls stretch around the four sides of the gridiron and never come to a soft-soled, flat-booted stop.

Unless the game halts for an injured player.

They've stomped to the Beatles' "Come Together," rallying stirring crowds, and improvised moves, providing "filler" while TV goes to commercial. They've dodged motorized cameras, burly security guards, zipping footballs and charging Chargers on the sideline.

They've gotten tripped up and trampled but never let anything stop their show. They never let their smiles fade. They never allow their spirit to tire.

Just like the football players they support, they hurt, they sweat, they twist ankles and tweak knees. They are the most exposed athletes in the stadium, but the 60,000-plus spectators and the millions of TV viewers never get to see all the commitment, sacrifice and effort behind this flawlessly primped showcase of NFL Sunday glamour.

About a third of the Charger Girls live in Orange County, among them Jacquelyn, Jenny, Kortney, Brittany, Nicole and Summer.

Yes, they have names. "First names only," says team director Lisa Simmons. "We do that to protect the privacy of the women because you never know who's out there."

And yes, they have eye-candy bodies that they diligently sculpt with daily gym workouts and calorie-counting diets.

But they aren't, as some soap-box feminists have contended, setting women back in sports by remaining on the sidelines and offering themselves up sexy, scantily clad, man-catching garnish to a real game.

They are professional dancers on what the public address announcer introduces as "the hottest dance team in the NFL." Their stage is grass instead of wood, and their moves are as choreographed as the plays run by Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson.

They aren't "girls," despite their team name; they are women, most of them in their mid-20s. And they are smart, sassy, secure and well-spoken -- qualities that don't get the visibility that their navels enjoy during games.

"There are a lot of incorrect assumptions out there about what we do," says Summer, a fourth-year Charger Girls captain who manages a Newport Beach dental practice during the week. "If people only knew how hard we work to put on the perfect game."

Each season, they master about 30 routines, from hip-hop dances to stadium standards. They pledge to maintain their looks in everything from hairstyle to physique. They promise to adhere to the dress code, from wearing the uniform – even if it's freezing – to having their nails French manicured and their lobes dangling with the team-issued rhinestone studs.

"Every detail goes a long way in helping the team have a polished look," says Summer, a former Clipper Spirit dancer. "This is entertainment."

Though they perform for the billion-dollar NFL enterprise and are surrounded by multi-millionaire players, nobody gets rich being a Charger Girl. They don't have agents, work away games or travel with the team. In fact, their one-year contracts forbid them from fraternizing with players.

Each Charger Girls gets paid per game. The undisclosed amount is believed to between $75 and $125, which is comparable to that earned by other pro sports dance team members.

Each performer receives two tickets to each home game, plus parking. They can take advantage of perks from sponsors such as E Factor Salon and Spa, Mirabella Cosmetics, iTan Solariums, La Jolla Sports Club and San Diego Center for Health, which offers chiropractic adjustments on gameday.

Extra money can be earned for public appearances and individual sales of the yearly Charger Girls swimsuit calendar. But they don't get paid for the mandatory charity appearances or the rehearsals, which are 3½ hours on Mondays and Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

"We do this for the love dance and football, definitely not the money," says rookie Charger Girl Jacquelyn, a former USC Song Leader who auditioned against more than 400 dancers to make this season's squad. "One of the biggest misperceptions out there is that we do this full time. The reality is that we all make a living at other jobs or go to school, and our schedules are very demanding."

Jacquelyn sells insurance for New York Life in Newport Beach. "My co-workers didn't know I was a Charger Girl until I had to explain why I kept sneaking out of so many meetings early to drive to San Diego for rehearsal," she says. "Now, they all talk football with me at work."

Nicole teaches high school history and economics. Jenny is majoring in biology at UC Irvine. Michelle is a San Diego hair stylist, a dance teacher and a full-time nursing student."I had to miss a few anatomy classes but got notes from my classmates and got excused by my professor, who happens to be a Chargers fan," says Michelle. "There are a lot of Charger fans out there."And there should be a lot of fans of the Charger Girls, too.

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