In the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (which debuted in 1979 and was second highest rated made-for-television movie in history at that time), the beautiful girls pique the interest of magazine writer Lyman Spencer (played by Match Game guest panelist Bert Convy). Concerned with the direction of his publication, which is headed into the toilet, Spencer hatches a plan to reverse its fate by whipping up a sexy piece about the internationally hot dance squad. He convinces fellow scribe and former flame Laura Cole (Jane Seymour) to infiltrate the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and expose the ugly core behind their wholesome image. Cole goes to auditions and makes the team, and is quickly convinced—through the twin powers of Texan beauty and jazz dance routines—that there is no story behind the popular conception. Well, no story beyond that of hard work, tough motherly love, and innocuous disco music.

That the Cowboys organization had—and still does have—a tight reign on the collective image of the Cheerleaders was never meant to be a secret. In fact, it is part of the squad’s overwhelming appeal. In the middle of the sexual revolution the Cowboys plucked gorgeous girls from the innocent, untouched nooks and crannies of small-town America, and although they were impeccably chaste in reputation (they were not allowed to imbibe alcohol or smoke in uniform and were forbidden to date any Cowboys), they were oh-so provocative in sideline dance and dress. The (scantily-clad) package worked like a charm. Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm began thinking about the power potential of cheerleaders long before the inception of the famous blue-and-white uniform in 1972. In the sixties, Dee Brock managed a team of coed high school student cheerleaders for the Cowboys. But Schramm wanted a more entertaining show on the sidelines. He tried putting professional models there, but they didn’t have the stamina to withstand hours of performing in the Texas heat. For the 1972-1973 season, Brock paid out of pocket to have former Broadway actress and choreographer Texie Waterman come aboard and revamp the squad. Waterman provided an edginess and a professionalism never before seen in the sport of cheerleading. She helped pick the cream of the Texas (and eventually, international) crop of young, talented, and pretty dancers, and then worked them day and night to perfect sexy, highly skilled routines. Now, instead of tumbling and youthful spirit, the Cowboys would have a sophisticated, modern dance team, light years beyond what any other sports organization was offering.

The Cheerleaders really blasted into popular culture in 1976, when Suzanne Mitchell, who had once been Schramm’s secretary, became the director of the Cheerleaders. That year, cheerleader and former Miss Corsicana Pageant contestant Gwenda Swearengin winked at the cameras during the Super Bowl. The Cowboys lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Cheerleaders—their essence perfectly symbolized in one tantalizing gesture—forever captivated the hearts and cameras of the world.

The Cowboys organization, including Suzanne Mitchell, made a lot of money off the Cheerleaders. The women appeared in numerous commercials and television specials, and they endorsed a wide variety of products. But the Cheerleaders themselves weren’t seeing any of the riches. They received nothing from endorsements and were rarely paid for their appearances—they weren’t paid to be seen in or work on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders TV movie, nor its sequel. They saw no residuals and were compensated only for TV and film spots out of state (the unions in California wouldn’t let them work for free). In fact, the women made only $15 a game in the mid-seventies. In Deep in the Heart of Texas, a series of recollections from three sisters whom were all Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, one woman relates a tale about a fellow cheerleader who, after paying for rent, utilities, and makeup, had only 85 cents a day to live on until her next paycheck.

The Cheerleaders had to be in school or maintain a job; so they practiced every night and weekend during the football season. Mitchell wanted real girl-next-door types, who would sacrifice a year or two of their lives for the glamour of working for the Cowboys. Their stint with the Cheerleaders would be, more often than not, the peak of the dancers’ careers, not a springboard for it.

Today, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders remain major cultural icons. This is due, no doubt, to the strict control over the official image, which extends even to the trademarked uniform. But the respectability of that safeguarded but tantalizing symbol continues to encourage defamation. Debbie Does Dallas—the X-rated spoof about the Cheerleaders that is arguably the most well-known adult film of all time—has recently inspired an off-Broadway play by the same name. And of late, the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders, whose designer uniforms and sex appeal are obviously inspired by the Dallas squad, made record sales with a lingerie calendar. It has become quite a challenge to uphold the picture of what the Cheerleaders strive to represent: traditional small-town-pigskin values.

Despite the low pay (at the turn of the millennium the Cheerleaders made $50 a game) and hard work, most of the Cheerleaders love the experience. But it isn’t all about glamour and international renown; the Cheerleaders have always taken pride in their numerous charity appearances. Since 1979, they have participated in at least 49 United Service Organization (USO) shows—performing for more overseas troops than any other entertainer.


Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of a name. It’s Gwenda Swearengin, not Swearingen.