Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cheerful Teneeka 

Posted by James at 5:47 PM ET

Elkton Woman Lives Dream Cheering For Dolphins Squad

By Kate Elizabeth Queram
The Daily News-Record
TeneekaThe first time Teneeka Miller saw her idols in person, she was about to become one of them.

Miller, 24, of Elkton, Virginia, had dreamed of being a Miami Dolphins Cheerleader since she was a kid - "They always seemed like a really classy cheerleading squad," she said - but had never even been to an NFL game before she auditioned for the squad last spring.

But that didn't slow her down.

She'd just graduated from massage therapy school, decided to try to start her career in the South and timed her apartment-hunting trip to coincide with auditions. Before the first round, the squad offers a series of classes designed to prepare prospective cheerleaders for the tryout process, and Miller - after a hectic day of running around town to look at apartments - attended one.

"Basically, you come in, they teach you the routine and you perform it for a few of the girls," she said.

The prep class was designed to give attendees an idea of what to expect at the auditions, but for Miller, it did much more than that. At the end of the session, she was presented with a free pass, automatically advancing her to the semi-final audition round.

"I jumped up and screamed," she said. "I actually left [town] right after the class because it was the day before my birthday - so it was like the best birthday present ever."

Dancing Through Life

Though Miller's foray into professional dancing didn't happen until the eve of her 24th birthday, her journey to the squad began years earlier - before she was even born.

"When I was pregnant with her, my grandmother had gone to this yard sale and she pulled me over and said, ‘I got something for you,' " said Evelyn Shull, Miller's mother. The ‘something' turned out to be a pair of tiny, black patent leather tap shoes. "This was before Teneeka was born, I didn't even know she was a girl ... it was just so weird, because I was like, ‘So you think she's going to be a dancer?' "

By the time Miller was a toddler, her great-grandmother's prediction was coming true. At age 3, she danced in her first recital in Staunton.

"When I saw her up on that stage with her little outfit on, doing her little dance - she was so proud, she smiled, and I was like ‘Oh goodness, there's a performer in the family,' " Shull said.

In addition to dancing, Miller began cheerleading for her brothers' football teams at age 7. She performed continuously until entering Spotswood High School, when she gave up dance to pursue athletics. But after two years of playing basketball, softball and running track, Miller decided she'd rather cheer for Spotswood - and, though she'd never cheered with a school team before, landed a spot on the varsity squad.

"When I got her, her sophomore year, she actually was a dual participant in basketball and cheer," said Wes Vaughan, who coached the Spotswood squad when Miller was there. "And she liked cheer so much that she went ahead and dropped the basketball piece and came right to cheer. I was elated. Just her athleticism and her energy provided so much to the team."

Vaughan said he remembers all the girls he's coached, but that Miller would be hard to forget regardless.

"Just because of her personality," he explained. "Just the energy that she has, she's hilarious ... she's one of those kids who's definitely going to be the life of the party and knows how to raise the spirits."

Miller's energy combined with her work ethic made her addition to the Spotswood squad a snap - and Vaughan wasn't surprised to hear that she'd succeeded at a professional level.

"She's truly dedicated," he said. "I don't think she sees it as hard work. She just naturally pushes herself to do the best, so for her, it's just the daily routine - push until you succeed."

Triumph at Tryouts?

TeneekaThough receiving the free pass to semi-finals in the audition prep class meant that Miller got to skip the first round of auditions, she still had to face at least two rounds and, if selected for the squad, a training camp - during which she could be cut at any time.

"To be honest, the whole process was [nerve-wracking]," Miller said of the different stages. "I was very, very nervous."

The final stage, she said, was held at a Miami mall, with hundreds of spectators. Together, the girls performed choreographed routines and a kick line, and then performed solo talents in front of the judges - and the audience.

"They watched the entire thing," she said.

Seated among the audience members was Miller's second cousin, assuming the role of what Shull called "sit-in mom." At the end of the final round, when Miller's number was called and she ran onstage to join her squad, the cousin called Shull to tell her about it.

"She said, ‘I was just so amazed, because these people - I know they didn't know her - but they were all cheering for her and supporting her,' " Shull said. "And I said, ‘Yeah, Teneeka has a tendency to do that. She is a performer.' "

Life As A Cheerleader

Though making the squad was a major accomplishment, the work didn't stop then. The squad practices three to five days per week, and the cheerleaders frequently make public appearances outside of the games. Throw a full-time serving job into the mix, and Miller's schedule is suddenly packed.

"It's very difficult. You have to be very good at time management and multi-tasking and everything," she said. "When I moved down, the first week I got here was the semi-final audition, so as soon as I moved to Miami I was thrown into the Dolphins. Being that I was brand new to the area and I had to juggle all this new stuff, it was very difficult for me."

But making the squad in her new hometown also meant that Miller had a built-in set of friends. From the outside, a professional cheerleading squad might seem like a guaranteed hotbed for cattiness and competition, but Miller said hers isn't like that at all.

"We're a really loving team. We get along really well," she said. "We're really close. We hang out, we call each other all the time, we go to movies, we go to dinner ... it's like having 30-something brand new friends."

Though Miller now has one season of professional cheerleading under her belt, she's not guaranteed a spot on next year's squad. Everyone is required to audition each season, regardless of seniority.

"I am a little bit nervous," she said of trying out again. "I guess it's more nerve-wracking going into it because ... I have to make sure I'm even better than I was last season, because I have new girls coming in that could easily take my spot."

But if she makes the squad again, Miller said she'd be excited to play mentor to the first-time cheerleaders - the same way her friends did for her.

"I'll have an opportunity to ... help the new girls coming in because I know what it's like, you know?" she said. "I'm excited to see the new girls, help them out as much as I can, be a friend to them like people were to me."

Cheering for Her, Cheering for Them

Since her daughter made the squad, Shull has been to Miami twice to watch her in action. The first trip was for a preseason game, and Shull brought Miller's 13-year-old nephew, Malik Cousins, with her.

"I got to watch the game, and I got some autographs from the cheerleaders and some pictures with them," Cousins said. "It's really cool to have an aunt in the cheerleaders."

It's pretty cool to have a daughter on the squad, too.

Teneeka"We were just so thrilled," Shull said of seeing her daughter perform at a game for the first time. "In awe and thrilled."

Though being a Dolphins cheerleader entails a plethora of public appearances and practices, for Miller, performing at the games is by far the best part.

"It's amazing to have so many fans just yelling their hearts out for the team, and the guys working really hard, the cheerleaders entertaining the crowd - the football games are where it's at," she said.

Miller's first season of home-game cheering came to an end when the Dolphins lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, but she remained optimistic for their chances next year.

"Next year we're going to take the Super Bowl," she said. "I really think so! I was rooting for them so strongly this year. We did take the AFC East, we're champions, we're No. 1, and next year the Super Bowl is in Miami, so we have to be there. We're going to be there!"

Though Miller is now a seasoned professional cheerleader, harboring dreams of performing at the Super Bowl and accustomed to performing in front of thousands of cheering fans, she never forgets that her biggest supporters reside in Elkton. Shull's husband Roger frequently logs onto the Dolphins' Web site to print out game-day photos of Miller, which he then laminates. Shull totes them around town, eager to show neighbors her daughter's latest accomplishments - a fact that doesn't escape Miller.

"My mom is so cute, she takes my pictures everywhere," she said. "People will be like, ‘Yeah, I saw your mom today, she showed me your pictures!' It's adorable."

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