As a high school cheerleader, one of my favorite perks was the body. Growing up, I'd always been slightly pudgy, but the extra pounds magically melted off once I started cheering. By senior year, I was a size two, and my prom dress needed to be tailored closer to zero. Some of my neighbors thought I was anorexic, but I loved to eat everything from hero subs to Cap'n Crunch. My extreme weight loss was simply the product of a suddenly sky-high metabolism and cheering at practices and games.
My newly concave stomach followed me to college, where I proudly wore crop tops and skimpy bikinis. Even the discovery of alcohol and late-night Papa John's at my self-professed "party school" didn't do much to derail my svelte shape.
That is, until after graduation, when the realities of a desk job and lack of exercise caught up with me. I'd gotten out of school and onto a rollercoaster that would take me on a 15-year ride of gaining and losing the same 20 pounds again and again. (At one point, I was 45 pounds heavier than I'd been in college.)
I tried every means possible to reclaim my former form, from the Curves diet to Weight Watchers to Nutrisystem to juice cleanses. I even took part in several infomercial focus groups and adopted a rigorous workout regimen and the lean diet required to participate. My attempts almost always succeeded temporarily, but like a stubborn rubber band, my weight always snapped back to its new, higher "anchor" number.
Though I'd lost my fit cheerleader physique, I hadn't lost the desire to cheer. After college, I spent a few years dancing for a semi-pro team in Chicago, but I secretly yearned to take the floor with the Luvabulls, the Chicago Bulls dance team. This desire followed me when I moved to Los Angeles, where I longingly eyed annual audition calls for the Clipper Girls and Laker Girls.
Next year, when I have a better body, I promised myself. Not surprisingly, I found myself making that same promise every year—and never hitting that magic number on the scale.
So naturally, when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team reality show debuted on CMT, I was hooked. I couldn't get enough of watching these women endure the rigorous training camp and—if they were lucky—receive their reward of those coveted white boots at its conclusion. I became intimately familiar with the organization's impossibly stringent standards, from a dangerously lean figure to Rockette-worthy high kicks.
My husband often teased me about my about my guilty pleasure. ("Watching the DCC again?") It was clear: The DCC had been indelibly added to the wish list that the Laker Girls, Clipper Girls, and Luvabulls already occupied. Except the DCC somehow seemed different—their big, flirty style of dancing was closer to my own, and they didn't mandate technical dance experience like many other pro squads. Maybe I could actually do this… if I could get the body.
When I turned 35, a sense of urgency struck—it was now or never. Ten long years had passed since I'd begun my annual "next year" resolution. I was well aware that I was far above the age (and weight) of most NFL cheerleaders, but the story of 40-year-old Bengal cheerleader Laura Vikmanis gave me a glimmer of hope. It was time to hit the gym and go for it—or let go of the dream for good. So I booked travel to Dallas for the May auditions, figuring that would make me accountable for follow-through.
I was on a mission.
I began exercising six times weekly, throwing myself into Pilates, Zumba, Spin, yoga, kickboxing, and weightlifting with a vengeance. I took burlesque and hip-hop classes. I enrolled in a weight-loss challenge at my gym, which tracked my measurements and body fat percentage. (Let's just say it was considerably higher than the DCC average of 12-15 percent.)
It was harder to get my diet in check. With every indulgence, I felt increasingly guilty and worried. I knew all about the catty comments made by the audition judges and the way the reality show worked. "I just don't want to be in the fat montage," I said to my husband, picturing the sports bra and booty shorts I'd have to wear on national television.
When the scale hadn't moved much by April, it was time to employ extreme measures: I resurrected the lean protein diet I'd learned from the infomercials; I stepped up my exercising, working out daily—sometimes twice or several times; I turned down business lunches and dinners, knowing the caloric avalanche that accompanied. I had already given up alcohol, but I started adding aloe vera juice and protein/flax smoothies into my daily regimen.
The scale finally dipped, and not a minute too soon—tryout week had arrived. My anxiety escalated as I scrambled to achieve the look. I ordered compression tights for the illusion of thinner legs. I booked a colonic for a flatter stomach. I purchased water pills to ensure minimal bloat. I spray-tanned for a more contoured look.
Somehow, I arrived in Dallas two pounds from my goal weight, with an acceptably flat-ish stomach. I felt like I actually might be able to wear a midriff in front of the masses.
When I arrived at Cowboys Stadium for the audition, 400-plus girls were already in line. It was an attractive pack, with former Pro Bowl cheerleaders, college dance team captains, and even high schoolers on the verge of graduation. I was one of just a tiny handful over 30—including a 56-year-old who aspired to be the oldest DCC in history, and a 62-year-old grandma who'd undergone thyroid surgery and realized "life was too short" not to chase your dreams. Like me, she'd kept her decision to audition a secret from almost everyone she knew.
The day went like this: Hit the "fluff and puff" area for beautification, hear a pep talk from fearless leader Kelli Finglass, and then hit the tryout floor in groups of five for the carefully cultivated panel of judges (including a tanning salon owner and the DCC fitness guru).
When my group's turn came, we stood in front of the judges under the relentless glare of the hot CMT reality show lights. This was the moment. I tried to stop my leg from shaking as I introduced myself on the microphone, then stepped back as the music began.
I purposefully launched into my freestyle combination and swiftly made rookie mistake No. 1: My hair got caught in my lip gloss and completely covered my face. My cheer career had trained me never to stop for snafus, so I kept going even though I probably resembled Cousin It.
Though I'd lost my fit cheerleader physique, I hadn't lost the desire to cheer.
I then committed rookie mistake No. 2: completely blanking on my choreography. I went into full-blown panic mode and ended up doing an unflattering squat and some other, equally uninspired moves.
As the music wound down, we stood in front of the judges for final scrutiny. My hair continued to stick to my lips. I scurried offstage, bewildered and mortified. My many months of preparation had culminated in… that?! I managed to sit through the rest of the groups and make peace with it. At least I'd gotten out there—at that point, all I could do was laugh.
After the audition, a CMT producer requested an interview in one of the stadium suites. My mind raced—I knew how the show worked. I was going to be the older "hot mess" candidate who'd completely flubbed her audition. I decided to take them up on it, figuring I could redeem myself and give them some footage beyond a flailing mess of an audition.
When the semi-finalist board was revealed, I wasn't surprised to see my number missing from it. My spirits were still somewhat high as I said goodbye to new friends and took one last look at cavernous Cowboys Stadium. I drove back to my hotel in a daze and immediately passed out from mounting exhaustion and disappointment.
I awoke a few hours later, completely disoriented and half unsure whether the whole thing had been a dream—then the panic washed over me, as I pictured looking ridiculous on reality television. Despite all of my hard work, I'd managed to neglect the one simple thing I needed to survive the audition in style: They hadn't seen the real me, the person who loved to dance and excelled at it. Sure, I fit into skinny jeans, but did it matter?
Then it hit me: I'd been so obsessed with my body for so long that I'd lost sight of my real purpose—honoring my lifelong love of dance and enjoying one last hurrah. My fixation with my weight had overcome me. In the end, I'd gotten the look that I wanted, but my audition couldn't have gone worse.
Sure, I fit into skinny jeans, but did it matter?
That was the healthy dose of perspective I needed (along with a juicy Texas burger). With the DCC audition experience checked off my bucket list—for better or worse—I decided to grant myself a pat on the back and move on. And thankfully, the reality show gods took pity on me when the show premiered, as I was nowhere to be seen on screen.
The experience helped me realize that while I may not be waif-thin—and no longer pro dance team material—I'm a lucky woman, with a supportive husband, a fulfilling job, and a life she loves—curves and all. And that alone is more than enough.
For me, that's the spirit.
Jen Jones Donatelli is a freelance writer and editor who recently relocated from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Ohio. She is also the author of the Team Cheer fiction series and a contributor to numerous dance- and cheer-related publications. Say hi on Twitter at @creativegroove.