Shelly Roper-McCaslin, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Recruiter

Photograph by Matt Hawthorne

Roper-McCaslin, who lives in Austin, has worked with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders for 23 years as a cheerleader, a choreographer, and the lead recruiter.

Growing up, my dad took my brother and me to just about every sporting event in Dallas, from Rangers baseball to Mavericks basketball. But it was the Cowboys football games that I most adored, especially the cheerleaders. As a teen, I loved watching Judy Trammell. I never would have guessed that I’d spend the majority of my career working with her.

Unlike a lot of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC), I didn’t practice dance my whole life. When I was three or four, I used to dance around the house to a Tchaikovsky Nutcracker album, and so my mom started taking me to ballet class. I liked the class but wasn’t excited about the recital. My mother made me confident enough to go out and enjoy it. But after that I wanted a time-out. It wasn’t until high school that my heart was really drawn to dance. I took jazz classes and performed on the dance team. When I graduated, I went straight to Kilgore College to be a Rangerette. Those who know how intense the Rangerette program is know that you don’t go there unless you’re committed. The tryouts took two weeks. Your high kicks have to be perfect. It’s like boot camp. 

After Kilgore, I earned a degree in education from Texas Woman’s University so that I could teach the two things I love most: dance and American government. My roommate then was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and a part of their Show Group, a team of about twelve elite dancers selected from the larger squad that travels the world, often on USO tours and to corporate and charitable events. This team was going beyond the typical touristy spots. They were visiting politically charged places. One Christmas she went to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

When I learned that my ability to dance could satisfy my political curiosity about the rest of the world, I was so hooked. In my time with the DCC, I’ve been to more than twenty different countries, including Croatia, Macedonia, and China. In 1995, after the Dayton Accords, I went to Brčko, Bosnia. We toured around the area and slept on cots with little blow-up mattresses.

At the time, many Americans were asking, “Why are we going to Bosnia when the people there will probably resume fighting after we leave?” But driving around in Kevlar and flak jackets, we passed a school with young children on the playground. A soldier with us said, “Those kids remember what it was like before we were here. Now they will know a time of peace, and they will make the difference.”

I was so struck. He put beautiful words to a complicated problem. And we cheerleaders were there to perform for the American servicemen and -women and to give them a reminder of home.

I was a cheerleader for three years. Following college I got a job teaching American government and dance at Lake Travis High School, in Austin. But even after I stopped cheerleading, I stayed involved with the team. Kelli Finglass, the DCC director, initially asked me to hold technique classes for the new squad. Eventually I became assistant choreographer under Judy Trammell, who had become lead choreographer. After teaching at Lake Travis for a few years, I left to start a family. But I could never leave the Cowboys. Today I still help coordinate special events, including pregame and halftime productions, and I am lead recruiter for the squad. 

To recruit, I rely on a network of contacts—from dance studio owners to university dance team directors—that I’ve made over the years. I find myself speaking to accomplished women from all over the country. This year we had women trying out from Maine, Hawaii, and lots of places in between—not to mention from several other countries too.

Before tryouts even begin, I try to really get to know our applicants. We know they look good and can dance, but my job is to talk with their coaches and directors and to encourage those who I believe are the best fit for our team.

Tryouts take many weeks. We’re auditioning hundreds of women. First round, candidates in groups of five perform a freestyle dance to a catchy new song that we select. You can easily tell which women have a natural dance vocabulary and which ones don’t. The next round is choreography. The women have an hour to pick up a new dance routine. Then they have to perform it for us a few hours later.

By finals, we’re down to about 40 women. At this point, we also ask our existing squad to try out again. (Once you make the team, you’re not automatically there for life.) Most veterans from the previous year’s squad hold their spot, and with a team of about 36 cheerleaders, we really only have 10 to 20 rookies each year.

Getting fitted for a uniform is when you know you’ve arrived. Cheerleaders must attend a few rehearsals a week plus perform at all football games and some extra shows throughout the year. If you’re on Show Group, your rehearsal and performance commitment is significantly greater. The average cheerleader stays two to three years, although a handful of women have been there for five years or longer. 

There are a lot of things people don’t realize about the DCC. This is not a bunch of women who practice high kicks all day and then lounge by the pool. Our program is very unique: we require all our team members to have a full-time job or be a full-time student or do both part-time. It can be tricky, but it works. Being a mom in Austin is my real nine-to-five job. I love it, but I also love that I’ve kept the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders for myself.

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