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Monday, February 09, 2009

NFL Cheerleaders 

Posted by Sasha at 10:18 PM ET

By Jennifer Kirby
PTC Challenge
January 2nd, 2009

Don’t be fooled – beneath the perky demeanor, NFL cheerleaders are just as upset as the rest of the fans when their team is losing. “We get down, but we can’t let it show. We’re trained to always have a smile on our face and be positive,” says Tiffany, a seven-year veteran of the Washington Redskins cheerleaders. “We’re an optimistic breed – the glass is half-full. If there’s half a second left on the clock we still think there’s hope.”

“There are a couple of things I think about whenever [the Carolina Panthers] are losing – and trust me, I know because of last season,” says Tara, who’s cheered for the Panthers for three years, referring to her team’s 7-9 record in 2007. “It’s definitely hard but I feel like if I don’t give up the fans won’t give up, and if the fans won’t give up players won’t give up. Fans have so much energy and it’s like a ripple effect.”

Sunday afternoons on the sidelines are just the beginning of an NFL cheerleader’s commitment.

‘I sleep four hours a night’

“It takes a lot of time – a lot,” says Tiffany. “At times it’s as much as a part-time job, at times a second full-time job.” Besides performing at home games, an NFL cheerleader’s responsibilities usually include two to five practices per week, regular appearances at local events – typically at least 20 per woman per year – and travel tours. Many squads also expect their members to do charitable work, such as visiting hospitals or volunteering at homeless shelters, in their community.

On top of that, they’re required to work full-time, be a student or be a stay-at-home mother. “Add all that together and basically I sleep four hours a night,” says Tiffany, who’s a marketing director for a Baltimore advertising agency. “The only thing I can sacrifice is sleep. But it’s worth it.”

And not because of the paycheck. Though payment varies, most NFL cheerleaders earn $25 to $75 per home game. But if they ever resent the scant compensation, they hide it well. “None of us do it for the financial compensation,” Tiffany says. “We do it because we are passionate about it.”

Tara, who works on the corporate level of a Charlotte, N.C., bank, agrees. “We do get paid, but the experience itself is definitely compensation enough,” she says. “Being out there is priceless, representing our organization in the community is priceless and the memories and friends I have made are priceless.”

Of course, the job has its perks. Exposure is one: Some, most famously Teri Hatcher, who cheered for the San Francisco 49ers, have gone on to become actresses and models. National and international travel is another, as selected cheerleaders take all-expenses-paid trips to shoot calendars, entertain American troops and promote the NFL. Members of many squads also receive complimentary gym memberships, physical therapy, makeup, tanning, dental services and more provided by their sponsors.

A certain amount of notoriety goes with the title. “If a grown man finds out you’re a cheerleader, they want to talk football immediately,” Tara says. “If [a woman] finds out it’s like, ‘Is that like the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders show?’ Little girls glow when they hear the word ‘cheerleader,’ but unless they see you in uniform with pom-poms they don’t really process what it means. Either way, people are pretty excited.”

At every home game, instead of cheering, a few of the Panthers cheerleaders, or TopCats, watch the game from the luxury suites with sponsors, owners and other VIPs. “Most of those people are our biggest fans so it’s pretty flattering to go up there and visit,” Tara says. “That’s pretty cool. You feel like a celebrity.” Mingling with the football players, however, is strictly prohibited outside of planned appearances and charity events. (Redskins cheerleader Christy made headlines in 2006 when she and tight end Chris Cooley began dating. Two weeks later, she was fired; they married last summer.)

Getting there

The road to becoming an NFL cheerleader is a long one. Typically hundreds of women – most of whom have cheered or danced for as long as they can remember – compete for a couple-dozen spots on a squad. Auditions consist of several rounds, in which the women are judged on everything from their dancing ability to their knowledge of current events. “Other factors that judges will consider are figure, energy, ability to do splits and high kicks, as well as poise,” advises an article on the NFL Cheerleaders Blog. “Remember to smile during tryouts …”

Tiffany began competitive gymnastics at 5 and was cheering by 7, continuing through elementary school, junior high, high school and college, where she was captain of the Georgetown University squad. “I took a year off after graduating – I thought that’s where your cheerleading career ends,” she says. “I missed it so much, but I thought, there’s no way I’ll make professional cheerleading.” She was named to the Redskins squad on her first try – a rare feat.

Tara began dancing at age 6, joined a competitive group at 12, cheered in middle and high school, and was on the dance team at Western Carolina University, where she minored in dance. When, a year after graduation, she was named a TopCat, she was teaching dance in a private studio in her hometown of Waynesville, N.C. – more than two hours from the Panthers stadium in Charlotte. “I tried to commute for the first three months but it was kind of impossible. Thank goodness that was before gas prices went up like they did,” she says. Soon she had dropped everything and moved to Charlotte.

Remembering the work and sacrifice necessary to become an NFL cheerleader motivates Tara throughout the year, she says. “I think about how many girls would love to be in my position. I don’t want to take it for granted; I want to give it everything I have every game,” she says. “I enjoy what I do so it’s not that hard.”

Even veterans have to audition every year. “You feel more pressure” as a veteran, Tiffany says. “You want to lead by example, and you’ve had that year or years of knowing just how great it is to be on the team.”

Well worth it

Ask the women what makes it all worth it and they don’t hesitate. “The women on the team are like my sisters,” says Tiffany. “I keep doing it because they are fantastic. These women are family and they’re so talented and kind and humble and so opposite what a lot of people think about cheerleaders. It’s great to be around these type of women.”

The rush of performing is a big draw, too. Even after seven years of cheering for the Redskins, Tiffany still gets jittery before each performance. “It’s such a rush … we’re cheering in front of 92,000 fans for Monday Night Football tonight,” she said one morning in November. “I’ve had butterflies in my stomach since Friday. It’s not nerves, it’s excitement.”

“There aren’t enough words to describe what makes it worth it,” Tara says. “The sisterhood in the locker room is indescribable and I have made friends that I will be friends with forever. We are philanthropists in a community that is amazing and loves the Panthers. We have little girls that watch us with a sparkle in their eye because they want to be like us when they grow up (I was one of those little girls once). All of it has made the experience such a blessing to me.”

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