The CMT show offers plenty behind the scenes about what goes into becoming an NFL cheerleader. There's plenty more it doesn't.

Television

A Former NFL Cheerleader Goes Behind the Boots of Making the Team

Season 16 kicks off with... a lot. Hear from someone who has experienced audition nerves.

I remember my audition to be an NFL cheerleader. I was excited. I was anxious. I’d spent months training for this life-changing opportunity, and so had hundreds of other women there with me that day. About 36 of us would be chosen. In just over a week, I had to learn six dance routines, take part in a professional photoshoot, and perform live onstage in front of judges, family, and friends, all in hopes that I made one lasting impression: that I deserved to be on the team. 

In one sense, my experience is similar to what you see on Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team, which began its 16th season Friday. In other ways, it’s quite different. Most NFL cheer teams will hold auditions and select the final team within two to three weeks, then practice as a final squad for the next couple of months leading up to the first game. What’s unique about the DCC audition process is that it spans a few months. The potential rookies and returning veterans go through “training camp,” and girls get cut throughout the process. The final team doesn’t get selected until just weeks before the first game. 

Why do it this way? Probably because it makes for better television and fits the format of other reality TV programs where someone gets eliminated at the end of each episode. Do I think it is the right process? No. 

Why does my opinion matter? Because I made the team. I spent five years of my life as an NFL cheerleader, including two as a captain and one as a Pro Bowl cheerleader representative. I never cheered for the Cowboys, so while parts of Making the Team remind me of my own experience, parts of it are certainly different. But I know the world of NFL cheerleading better than most, which is why our editors thought it would be a great idea for me to write a weekly recap of the show while sharing my firsthand perspective.  

Past seasons began with the first round of in-person auditions. These beginning episodes always reminded me of the first round of American Idol, highlighting the amazing talent and sprinkling in some cringe-worthy performances just to see the judges try to plaster on a fake smile and hold back their true feelings. 

Sadly, Season 16 bypasses that and begins by introducing us to the 51 training camp candidates. You can thank the pandemic for that; due to COVID-19, they changed the first-round audition process to virtual video submissions, and the training camp candidates were selected prior to filming by cheer director Kelli Finglass and head choreographer Judy Trammell. 

I understand that watching a bunch of audition videos from a computer doesn’t make good television, which is why we saw a brief montage at the beginning. This can be a double-edged sword. Yes, this expands the auditions where more people can apply — we’re told they received more than 600 video submissions compared to the usual couple of hundred in-person. But we don’t experience that live aspect of an in-person audition, where these women get one shot to move forward in the audition process. In person, you have to make an immediate first impression with the judges because they get to see you dance only once before deciding if you get to move forward to the next round. We also don’t get the time to truly connect and get invested with these women right off the bat. To me, that initial part of the audition was the most entertaining part of the show. 

Instead, the 51 training camp candidates met for the first time at AT&T Stadium, where they kicked off training camp on the field with the “judges’ showcase.” I have to say, removing the bad auditions and now highlighting all top performances was more enjoyable to watch as a dancer. I became transfixed by their movement, and it makes me want to keep watching them — which is what dancing should do. The girls finished the day performing in groups of five on the field doing their signature opening game day dance and a kick routine. Take it from me, there is a different kind of energy and stamina needed to perform on a field for thousands instead of in a studio for a few. Every movement has to be twice as big and strong so that the person sitting in the farthest seat back in the stadium can see everything you do. It’s exhausting. I like that they have this as part of their audition because it’s a good way to distinguish who can actually make it in real game-day scenarios.  

In the end, two women were pulled into the “office” — the stands at the stadium — to talk to Kelli and Judy. One was praised for being the best soloist but looked like she got injured on the field. She ended up pushing herself too far and not eating and drinking enough throughout the day to sustain her energy. Thankfully, they didn’t cut her. The second is healing from an ACL injury. You could tell she was holding back in her dancing and kicks, and the end result was not up to par with the rest of the women. Kelli and Judy are pulling for her, but it will be a tough road. Getting pulled into the director’s office during auditions is always nerve racking because they rarely have good news to share. Your cheerleading career is in their hands; one bad performance or mistake can cost you a spot on the team. These two women were saved for now, but ultimately 15 will be eliminated from training camp to select the final team. 

Notice how I didn’t use their names? After watching this episode, I barely remember anyone’s name because it felt like they overpacked the content of the show. I hope in the upcoming episodes we get to know more about the women vying for a spot on the team so that, maybe next week, I can let you know who my favorite out of the group ends up being. I know how hard these women work to make it on the team, and even though the DCC audition process is different from what I experienced (we’ll get more into that), I lived through the same emotions and fatigue to fulfill my dream. I’m excited to watch these women live theirs.

Rachel Gill is D Magazine’s chief of staff.

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