In our final episode, we look at how a new era of social media and reality TV has changed the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ brand. And we discuss another reality about cheerleading that’s hit in the last few years—one you won’t see on the squad’s show, Making the Team—based on lawsuits and whistleblower accounts over fair pay, discrimination, and body-shaming. The rules of the game are changing fast. And in this new world, what is the future of the DCC?
You can dive deeper into the stories in this episode in our Pocket collection. You’ll find videos and news stories, journalist Paige Skinner’s report on how NFL teams are responding to lawsuits from former cheerleaders; the 2021 documentary A Woman’s Work, about the fallout from recent lawsuits brought by former cheerleaders; and highlights of Maddie Massingill’s time on Making the Team.
You can find Noah Guzman on TikTok at @noah.jaide.
America’s Girls is written and reported by Sarah Hepola. Executive producer is Megan Creydt. Produced and edited by Patrick Michels. Edited by J. K. Nickell. Production, sound engineering, and music by Brian Standefer. Additional research and audio editing by podcast intern Harper Carlton. Our fact-checkers for the series are Will Bostwick and William Brennan. Special musical guest on guitar and vocals for the soundtrack is BettySoo.
Theme music is “Enough” by the Bralettes.
About a year ago, I came across a TikTok video with a cheerleader that totally electrified me. These amazing high kicks, this tremendous flair, with the kind of spirit that just radiates through the screen.
Noah Guzman: Hello. My name is Noah. I am from Odessa, Texas.
Noah Guzman is 21 now, and he grew up in West Texas, in a city whose obsession with high school football was famously documented in Buzz Bissinger’s book, Friday Night Lights. In 2006, a TV show based on that book came out and redefined how people saw football and Texas.
Noah was six. He didn’t really dig that show.
Noah Guzman: People talk about it that are, like, outside of Odessa. So whenever they come here, they’re like, “Oh, Friday Night Lights.” And we’re like, “Yeah.”
But that same year, a different show debuted that did capture Noah’s imagination. Making the Team. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’ reality show. It premiered in September 2006 on CMT, Country Music Television. Sixteen seasons later, it’s still going strong.
Noah Guzman: And I was scrolling through the channels one day, and I just so happened to, like, stumble across it. And I remember, like, whoa—like, seeing them. And I was taken aback. Like, I’ve never seen on TV what I do. Whenever I saw it I just, I wanted to be one so bad.
These women on TV were dancing the same way he liked to dance in his own living room. And six-year-old Noah was hooked. He started taking dance classes—the studio was half an hour away. His dad would drop him off.
He got really good. He was a leader on his college dance squad. And all the while, he had his eyes on a dream: being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. And in 2020, as TikTok was gaining its hold on the American attention span, Noah started posting videos of himself doing the Cowboys Cheerleaders routines.
Noah Guzman on TikTok: Hey, what’s up, you guys. It is me, and if you do not already know, I have a small start-up YouTube channel . . .
High kicks. “Sexy hips.” And “yard-lining”—the long strides the cheerleaders take as they enter the field. Noah had the silver pom-poms, a winning smile, and strong technique.
Noah Guzman: I didn’t expect it to blow up, honestly. I just told my cousin Tammy, I was like, “Can you just record me?” And she was like, “Okay, cool.” I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to do the yard lines and you’re just going to record and I’ll put the music on top of it.” So then she posted it to TikTok and just did a couple of hashtags. Closed my phone; we were driving, and then I opened my phone and there was like, forty-plus notifications on it. And I was like, “Whoa—like, what is this?” And then opened it again, maybe not even five minutes later, and it just went from 3,000 to like 25,000. And I got so scared. I was like, “Tammy, go check my TikTok. I don’t know if I’m, like, seeing things.”
Within a week, that video had more than a million views. You can find lots of other tributes to the Cowboys cheerleaders on TikTok. Most of them are light and playful. And Noah’s videos are playful too, but they’re also dead serious. He’s a real dancer.
Last fall, I visited him in Odessa.
Sarah Hepola: Well, hello!
We met up at the all-night gym where he practices his dances after work. It was around nine at night. Inside, people were running on treadmills and lifting weights.
We walked to a dim studio in the back, and I took a seat watching a couple dudes do crunches with medicine balls. And Noah started stretching in front of a long mirror, and turned on his music.
He practiced for a while. He started doing a lyrical dance, spinning in his arabesque, his arms in graceful motion. I was in awe of the bravery it takes just to claim that space. It’s no easy thing to bring dance into a macho world. And it struck me that this is such an important part of what the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were about. Bringing the art and grace of dance into the gladiator arena of football.
Eleven cheerleading squads in the NFL have men today—Noah says a couple of teams have even invited him to try out. But there’s really only one squad he wants to dance for.
The Cowboys cheerleaders have always adapted to the era. They projected carefree fun in the freewheeling seventies. Family values and the flag in Reagan’s eighties. And they became sultry, ultrathin swimsuit models in the nineties and the aughts.
But they’ve also built their brand on tradition, and a very exclusive idea of who can wear that uniform.
In our final episode, we’ll look at how a new era of social media and streaming television has changed the cheerleaders’ brand. Thanks to reality TV, the cheerleaders are as visible as ever. But there’s another reality about cheerleading that’s hit in the last few years—one you won’t see on that show. It’s come up in lawsuits and whistleblower accounts over fair pay, discrimination, and body-shaming. Sensational media coverage has knocked NFL cheerleading down from its pedestal. The rules of the game are changing fast. And in this new world, what is the future of the DCC?
From Texas Monthly, I’m Sarah Hepola. This is America’s Girls. Episode eight, “Making the Dream.”
The Cowboys are the most powerful and lucrative sports team in the world, a $6.9 billion dollar franchise. It’s an incredible figure, especially given the team’s performance over the past 25 years. They’ve only made it to the playoffs a handful of times this century. What really elevates the team is Jerry Jones’s genius for marketing and corporate sponsorship.
Jerry Jones in Papa John’s commercial: When I’m at Cowboys Stadium or sittin’ at home / And I hear “Papa John’s pizza for Jerry Jones” / Yo it lights me up like a Roman candle . . .
Walk into the colossal AT&T Stadium—a.k.a. Jerry World—and it feels like every square inch is slapped with a logo. Right below the huge American flag hanging in the rafters are signs for Miller Lite and Pepsi.
Jerry Jones in Papa John’s commercial: . . . Y’all catch my rhyme / Cowboys five-star combo for ten ninety-nine.
Kelli Finglass—who took over as cheerleaders director not long after Jerry bought the team—followed his lead. Today the cheerleaders have partnerships that have helped make them a reliable profit center. They have deals with Victoria’s Secret, Planet Tan, and Lucchese boots. Every last detail has a sponsor, down to their fake eyelashes and pantyhose. But the most influential partnership might be with the creators of their reality show, Making the Team.
The man who pitched this idea to the Cowboys was the writer and producer Eugene Pack, whose many credits include the Miss USA pageant. This was in the early aughts, when reality TV was exploding, particularly competition shows. And cheerleader auditions—the cutthroat contest, the months-long training camp with makeovers, high-stakes performances, harsh critiques, and tearful eliminations—this was tailor-made for viewers who loved to play judge and jury at home.
On CMT, at least for a while, it was in the Friday-night time slot right before the show My Big Redneck Wedding. This was red-state programming in an America that was splintering into two distinct sides. For a long time, the show stayed under the radar in prestige pop-culture criticism, even at websites catering to reality junkies. But it had a way of casting a spell on people who found it.
Jia Tolentino: Oh yeah, the reality show. I used to watch that when I was stoned in college with my friend Susie.
This is Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker writer you heard in the last episode.
Jia Tolentino: I’m remembering this. Wow. I really haven’t thought about that in so long.
Sarah Hepola: That’s so funny. I’m glad you’ve seen it.
Jia Tolentino: Yeah. I mean, you know, the memories are vague, but yeah. I remember, like, it was the kind of thing where we thought we might be watching it, like, in a sort of snarky, we-will-laugh-at-these-people way, and then we were like, “I would f—ing die for these women.”
In 2010, Slate ran a review that called Making the Team, quote, “the most sexist TV show you don’t know about.” They called out the body-fat evaluations, the brutal criticism, the obsession with appearance. And the review wasn’t wrong, but it was incomplete.
What I think Jia was reacting to—what I know I felt when I first watched the show—is that Making the Team has a joy that can be hard to find in a genre known for catfights and manufactured drama. The show introduces you to some incredibly talented women, and it sweeps you up in their hopes and dreams.
One of those women is Maddie Massingill.
Maddie Massingill: I used to watch the show when I was really little, probably the first few seasons of the show. It’s actually funny. Someone asked me how many seasons I’ve been on, and I said, “Well, now seven,” and that’s almost half the series. That’s just crazy to think.
Maddie grew up in Utah, in a town that was so country, kids drove tractors to high school.
Maddie Massingill: So, growing up, my mom actually owned a dance studio, and I pretty much lived there. It was my favorite place to be on the whole planet. My favorite sentence was, “I’m so sorry, I can’t. I have dance.”
One day she was watching a Cowboys game with her dad. The screen cut to a cheerleader and—she thinks he was half joking—he suggested she go to Dallas and try out.
Maddie Massingill: And I said, “Yeah right, Dad. They would never take me. First of all, I’m eighteen. I haven’t even graduated from high school. Second of all, I don’t have the look. Like, I just—there’s no way.” And my mom went and booked my flight, and bought my ticket to auditions.
So she went. And the experience was painful. Everyone was so gorgeous. The cameras were up in her face. She panicked, and forgot her dance moves.
Maddie Massingill: But I came into it thinking, like, “Oh, I’ve got to have long, pretty hair, and I’ve got to have all these things.” And I was right—I didn’t have the look the first year. I was still eighteen years old, trying to figure out who I am.
Before that audition, Maddie had plucked her eyebrows pretty aggressively, and straightened her naturally bouncy brown curls, which she had dyed black. And still—much like Vivian, who you heard from in episode six—Maddie got some nasty criticism from the judges: some about her dancing, but also her appearance.
Maddie Massingill: I thought that people were going to eat me alive after the first season. I went home. I had, like, a breakdown for like a month and a half. My mom was so worried about me. She was like, “I just don’t know if she’s going to get back up from this.”
The show had been on for nearly a decade by then. And thanks to the tough training, and to a cable show that blasted the cheerleaders’ elite status across the country and into foreign markets—the dance had reached a whole new level. The number of people auditioning dipped dramatically, maybe because candidates feared the scrutiny of an at-home audience. But the ones who did show up were often top-notch dancers.
In the seventies, Texie Waterman’s routines were reduced to Monday Night Football’s “honey shots.” But now, reality TV could really showcase their flying jump splits and their perfect pirouettes. This show—not the Cowboys sideline—has become the spotlight for the best of their dance performances.
Paige Skinner: The talent has gotten so much better.
This is Paige Skinner, the Dallas journalist you met in the last episode.
Paige Skinner: Even you watch those women in the seventies, eighties, and nineties—and I’m not trying to discredit their talent, ’cause I think they were amazing—but they would never make the team now. I mean, in what world does a Radio City Rockette want to be an NFL cheerleader? But we saw that this last season with Alora-Rose.
Alora-Rose was a Rockette who danced for the 2020 season. You can see all about it on her Instagram. Dancers’ social media accounts have made it easy for all of us to get to know the cheerleaders individually—or even just talk about them. I see this on hard-core fan pages, where women talk about those cheerleaders the way high school freshmen talk about cool seniors.
One of the fan favorites I was excited to talk to was Jinelle Davidson.
Jinelle Davidson: I’m Jinelle, and I was a part of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in 2013 to 2019.
The team has a global reach—cheerleaders have come from Mexico, Canada, and Japan. And Jinelle came from Australia. She’d seen the show there, and got inspired to try out. She showed up in Arlington with just a suitcase, and stayed to cheer for five seasons.
Jinelle Davidson: So, being a complete foreigner, I had no idea what I was in for.
And she did experience some tough feedback. Jinelle is very tall. The judges called her “gangly.” She was one of the few cheerleaders knocked for actually being too skinny. But seeing Jinelle on that enormous Jumbotron during auditions really changed the judges’ minds. And Jinelle saw the criticism as positive, or at least a necessary part of the process.
Jinelle Davidson: There weren’t a lot of times that things were said—in my personal experience, there weren’t a lot of times that things were said kind of behind your back. Like, you always knew you’re getting feedback. They want you to succeed. They want us to improve and be the best that we can be. So, you know, it’s the environment for it. You just, you want to be better. It’s the only way to get better.
Along with being from another country, Jinelle represents another cultural shift, too. Last year, after retiring, she married her girlfriend Katy, who actually worked for the Cowboys—that’s how they met. For several years, Katy was the appearance and special events manager for the Cowboys cheerleaders. She worked closely with Kelli Finglass—that is, until she left to marry Jinelle and move to Australia. They had a big wedding planned, but had to scale it way down for the pandemic.
Jinelle Davidson: We just, you know, we kept it really simple and sort of stripped back all the glitz, and I think the day was more beautiful and perfect than I could have planned, really. It was so special, and it felt right.
Way back in 2000, the Robert Altman movie Dr. T & the Women had a character who was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, played by Kate Hudson. And the big plot twist at the end is that she falls in love with a woman. But in 2020, a similar plot twist appeared to be just another happy occasion.
Jinelle Davidson: And sharing that, you know, with everyone on social media as well, just receiving that love—you know, it’s really lovely. It’s nice to feel the kindness and to hopefully be able to, you know, inspire someone, if they’re not feeling brave enough yet.
And this intense support from fans was also what Maddie felt when her first audition aired, months after she was cut. She was back home in Utah, questioning her future.
Maddie Massingill: I thought that they were going to be like, “She’s such a baby. She looks awful. I can’t believe that she even made it that far.” I had all the worst thoughts about what everyone else was going to have to say about it. And it was the exact opposite.
Fans rallied around her. And so Maddie decided to go back and audition again, on her own terms.
Maddie Massingill: Realizing that, like, I had everything in me to make the team, I just had to make my outsides look like what my insides look like. I had a self-confidence the second time that I just—if they want me, they want me, and if they don’t, I have somewhere else that I need to be, and that’s okay.
This time, Maddie wowed the judges. They started calling her “the comeback kid.” She’d changed her look, tossing the hair straightener and embracing her natural curls. She spent five years on the team—making it through tryouts each season—and she reached the highest honor on the squad: the point of the triangle, the most prominent spot in the cheerleaders’ dance formation on the field. Her spiraling brown hair was a bit of a different look on a team known for bottled blondes. And fans ate it up: she was the underdog who’d become queen.
Maddie Massingill: And so, it truly has made me who I am today. I’ve gotten to connect to so many people that have said, “I went for my dreams after watching you come back.” “I got a promotion because I worked extra hard.” Or “I tried out for my high school cheer team.” Or . . . There’s been so many things that people have come in and said.
The message of Making the Team is that cheerleading is a lifelong dream, that becoming a Cowboys cheerleader changes your life forever—and for Maddie and Jinelle, that dream was real.
But the reality of pro cheerleading in those years—from about 2014 on—was changing a lot, often in ways you won’t see on the show. This was maybe a bit too much reality.
Remember that, from the start, the cheerleaders weren’t paid very much. Vonciel Baker told me it was enough to fill up her gas tank and buy a Slurpee. Fifteen bucks a game. And you know, I actually got a copy of a cheerleader’s contract from 2010—almost forty years later—and it includes the pay rate then. 150 bucks a game. Plus fees for appearances, up to 500 dollars, which is pretty close to what I heard the seventies cheerleaders got.
When I talked to friends about this, they’d often ask me another question: Is that even legal? To be honest, I didn’t know.
So I called a friend of mine, who’s an employment attorney in Austin.
Automated voice: “Your call is being transferred.”
Aaron de la Garza: Hey.
Sarah Hepola: Hey, dog. How’s it going?
Aaron de la Garza: Good. We’re going to chat about this, right, before we record something?
That’s Aaron de la Garza. He and I went to college together. And he explained to me that under federal law, the Cowboys have to pay employees like the cheerleaders minimum wage.
People sometimes ask me whether the cheerleaders are independent contractors. Because if they are, the Cowboys aren’t obligated to pay them minimum wage. But this contract makes it clear that, at least in 2010, they were employees. It lists a whole range of work the cheerleaders were required to do.
And it seems to me—based on all the rule books that I’ve seen from the seventies, eighties, and nineties—that the Cowboys have long made requirements that are more in line with rules for employees. It may sound like a wonky distinction, but it’s been an important one in cases about strip clubs and how they pay their dancers.
Aaron de la Garza: You know, you basically are saying, “You’re going to get a hundred and fifty bucks for games, plus engagements,” and you can just work the math out there, and there’s no way they’re even covering the minimum wage on that.
Sarah Hepola: So my question to you actually is: so, I find it surprising that the Cowboys, who are a very powerful organization that has been quite litigious in their time, and I would imagine have very powerful lawyers—why do you think that they would have a contract that would potentially run afoul of what the Fair Labor Standards Act says?
Aaron de la Garza: That’s a really good question. I was wondering the same thing, because looking at this 2010 contract—and I’m probably unaware of the history here. But yeah, it is weird when it looks, it strikes me as something that is the result of tradition, you know? Like that’s how they’ve always been paid. Because I don’t really get the basis for that. Now, listen, if you’re a football player, you’re getting paid this huge flat fee; there’s no concern here. But the amounts they’re being paid are small enough that you start to get into a concern of whether or not you actually hit the minimum wage.
Actually, when choreographer Judy Trammell was asked about this in the nineties, she said something pretty similar to what Aaron had suspected: This is just how it’s always been done.
TV announcer: Obviously, being a cheerleader is a full-time commitment, but these women aren’t in it for the money.
Judy Trammell: That’s just been tradition, to keep it the fifteen dollars, and you get a better quality of girls who aren’t doing it for the money, but for the love of dance, or just because the Cowboys are their favorite team and they’ve been growing up wanting to do this.
And so it started to sink in. All the women you’ve heard in this show who wore that uniform. Every single one of them. Given the amount of hours she was working—was it possible that her contract had been illegal?
Of course, this is another big question I wanted to put to the Cowboys—but they declined all my interview requests for this show.
But in June 2018, one Cowboys cheerleader did something that they couldn’t ignore.
Gilma Avalos: She’s taking on America’s Team. A former cheerleader files a federal lawsuit against the Dallas Cowboys saying cheerleaders aren’t paid for all the hours they work.
Erica Wilkins was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader from 2014 to 2017. She sued the Cowboys in federal court, and her complaint said that in her time with the team, she wasn’t always paid minimum wage or sufficient overtime. Her pay varied a lot from year to year. According to her suit, she never made more than $17,000 dollars a season. She said this was at a time when the man who played the Cowboys’ mascot, Rowdy, made about $65,000 a year.
Wilkins’s years on the squad came a little later than the contract I saw. By then, according to her suit, the cheerleaders were also getting paid for rehearsals—eight dollars an hour—plus those flat fees for games and appearances. But Wilkins claimed, with all the hours she put in for the Cowboys, her pay was still less than minimum wage, which was $7.25 an hour.
Aaron explained that the amount of money we’re talking about in a case like this, for just one cheerleader, isn’t a lot. But Wilkins’s suit was a collective action—on behalf of herself and other cheerleaders who might join her case. Multiply a few thousand dollars by, say, fifty former cheerleaders, and that’s enough to make a football team take notice.
Aaron de la Garza: So, if you’re an employer, one of the scarier claims you can see is a collective-action claim with any kind of validity to it. And this on its face probably has validity. I mean, If I take her allegations—what she’s basically saying is, “Look, I did a bunch of work off the clock that they didn’t pay me for, that they told me to do and they knew I was doing.”
The statute of limitations on filing a suit like this is, at most, three years. And in fifty years, I could only find this one cheerleader’s lawsuit against the Cowboys.
The lawsuit was closed less than a month after it was filed. Wilkins and the Cowboys negotiated a settlement. No other cheerleaders joined the suit. And if Erica was trying to stir up solidarity within the squad to fight for change, she actually caused a very different reaction.
Here’s Paige again.
Paige Skinner: The Cowboys had no comment, which is not surprising. And then several former cheerleaders spoke out against it, including Cassie Trammell, Melissa Rycroft, and Brandi Redmond. And they all posted on Instagram saying how disappointed they were; Brandi said she would have been a cheerleader for free . . .
Cassie Trammell is choreographer Judy Trammell’s daughter. Melissa Rycroft was on The Bachelor and won Dancing With the Stars. Brandi Redmond is on The Real Housewives of Dallas. So, it seems clear that some cheerleaders, at least some very high-profile ones, saw the lawsuit as a kind of betrayal.
Paige Skinner: The lawsuit was settled in September 2019, and it was reported that the pay increase went from eight dollars an hour to twelve. And on game day it went from two hundred dollars a game to four hundred.
It was not even close to what the players made, but it was a start.
Paige Skinner: Oh, she doubled the pay at least for game day. For sure. And I believe that from all of my research, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders are the highest-paid NFL cheerleading team.
I asked Aaron, my lawyer friend, about the fact that so many cheerleaders I spoke to said they would have done it for free. He said it’s nice, and it might be the reason that so few lawsuits have been filed, but whether an employee would do something for free—it doesn’t change an employer’s obligation to pay them for their work.
And this epiphany—that the status quo in professional cheerleading might violate long-held labor law—was happening all across the league.
Paige Skinner: Oh, Erica Wilkins is not the first NFL cheerleader to sue her team; she won’t be the last. A Raiderette has sued her team. The Jills have sued. Texans, formerly Redskins, Dolphins, and Saints. So, yeah, this has been a reckoning that’s been happening for several years, and Erica’s lawsuit was kind of in the middle of it.
We mentioned the Jills lawsuit in episode six, about the “jiggle tests” the Buffalo cheerleaders had to take. But it was also a complaint about low pay. So was a suit from former Raiderettes filed the same year, in 2014. After that came fair-pay suits from cheerleaders for the Bengals, Jets, and Buccaneers, too. Many of them, like Wilkins’s suit, ended with settlements.
The media that had once held up the cheerleaders as untouchable status symbols started to show them as exploited workers, disgruntled employees, or naive girls who didn’t know what they were signing up for. Quote, “A Ponzi scheme in hot pants,” read one line in Deadspin. A headline in the Ringer asked, “So, Uh, Why Does the NFL Have Cheerleaders Again?” The public criticism and lawsuits, meant to make pro cheer more fair, sometimes had unintended consequences for the cheerleaders themselves.
Paige Skinner: And I think their biggest concern is that the second you raise a concern or you complain, they’ll just get rid of us. And we’ve seen that with the Buffalo Jills. After the Buffalo Jills filed their lawsuit, they were disbanded the next day and they haven’t come back.
Many of the cheerleading squads folded—after lawsuits or scandals around low pay and sexual harassment—only to come back after a rebranding that made them more family-friendly. The New Orleans Saints, the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks—they replaced their sexy sideline spectacle with less provocative squads that were often coed. The Baltimore Ravens added male stuntmen, who could lift female cheerleaders up in the air and into gravity-defying formations. And in 2018, the L.A. Rams were the first team in the NFL to add male dancers. Two guys, who kicked and hip-thrust and swiveled right alongside the women.
And you’d think that would be great news for Noah—the TikTok star from Odessa, who dreamed of being a Cowboys cheerleader—but actually, he didn’t want to do stunting, and he wasn’t so sure about moving to another state. He wanted to dance in the place that had always been his home.
Noah has taken audition prep courses with a few cheerleaders, and gotten lots of praise on social media, including from former DCCs.
Maddie Massingill: It’s so funny how many people will tag me in his TikToks, though.
Maddie Massingill is a big fan.
Maddie Massingill: They’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, Maddie, look at this kid,” and I’m like, “I know; I adore Noah. I love him.”
Sarah Hepola: Can I tell him that I talked to you . . .
Maddie Massingill: Please do.
Sarah Hepola: . . . and that you want to do a TikTok video with him?
Maddie Massingill: Yes, absolutely.
Sarah Hepola: Good.
His love for the Cowboys cheerleaders’ routines is infectious. And watching all his TikTok videos—it made me want to dance too. I’m going to tell you a secret that I’ve managed to keep until this episode: I love dancing. But it scares the hell out of me. When I was a little girl, I danced in my bedroom, I danced in the living room, I danced for strangers. And then I grew up to be a teenager who stood on the perimeter of every school dance, terrified to be doing it wrong, to look stupid, or not look hot, or not look cool, or whatever it was that I needed to be. But when I started watching Making the Team, I found myself practicing high kicks in my bedroom. And so I thought it was time to take a dance lesson. And Noah was kind enough to give me one.
Sarah Hepola: It’s so muggy today.
Noah Guzman: Yes. It’s very—it’s hot, and it’s humid.
I met him in Arlington—he was in town to teach a dance class. We drove out to AT&T Stadium. The mother ship.
We stood in a grassy field across from the stadium parking lot, the two of us dwarfed by that big coliseum that the author Joe Nick Patoski very accurately described as looking like a “chrome Transformer bulldog.” I’d brought the silver-and-blue pom-poms I bought at a Cowboys store inside the stadium. Noah’s thirteen-year-old cousin Tammy held the mic while he and I took our positions.
Sarah Hepola: And I want the record to show that Tammy is running sound right now. And she’s doing an awesome job. Okay. Oh my gosh. I’m nervous. How do we start?
Noah Guzman: Okay, so, usually we start out in a bevel, so that’s just, your foot is right here . . .
Is this what my interview subjects felt when I put a microphone in their faces? I worried I was going to look ridiculous.
Noah Guzman: A one, two, three-kick, four. Yep. Just like that.
Sarah Hepola: Yay! I did a high-kick routine! Like a mini baby one.
Noah Guzman: It’s okay, it’s okay. So you want to learn a yard line?
Sarah Hepola: Yes!
I’m a 47-year-old woman, shaking pom-poms as I yard-lined across the field. But Noah was very encouraging, and he kept it simple.
Noah Guzman: So you’re gonna start out with your left—they go, five, six . . .
And you know what? Dancing really is fun.
Noah Guzman: . . . And three, up, four, around, five, sit, six, around, seven, sit, eight.
Sarah Hepola: Cool.
Noah Guzman: Yep.
Sarah Hepola: Yay!
Noah Guzman: You look like a natural.
Sarah Hepola: No, I don’t, that’s just kind. Thank you.
Noah Guzman: So, faster?
We live in a culture that doesn’t dance much. I noticed this when I traveled around South America in my twenties, how much other countries embrace that kind of jubilant movement, but here in America, it’s seen as something that girls do. A very specific kind of girl, at that. The idea that dance is for everyone, the way laughter and song are for everyone, hasn’t really caught on. The idea that dancing was for girls never really bothered Noah, but I think it did confuse his family.
When I drove out to Odessa, he’d told me this story.
Noah Guzman: So I had a recital. They knew I was taking dance classes in school, but I don’t think they knew, like, the certain extent that it was. But I was taking it seriously. So whenever they came to see it, they were like, “Oh wow, like, he actually—he actually does dance.”
Sarah Hepola: What did they think?
Noah Guzman: My dad didn’t really, like, think anything of it. He’s kind of more of a laid-back type of person. He’s just like, “Okay, good for you. Good for you.” My mom kind of was, like, on the fence about it.
Sarah Hepola: How so?
Noah Guzman: She just didn’t really, like, approve of it. She—she just wanted me not to dance.
Sarah Hepola: How’s that now?
Noah Guzman: Now it’s kind of just—that’s my choice. I kind of just don’t really care about what anybody thinks about my dancing. That’s kind of how I navigate that. And that’s why I never chose to tell anybody, or anybody in my family, because I knew some people would like it, some people wouldn’t. I knew from a very young age, growing up, to be more independent in myself when it came to my dancing.
I thought about Noah a lot while I was putting this podcast together. Even though I didn’t know him very well, he’d become an inspiration to me. All my life I’ve worried so much what other people said about me, whether other people approved. But I would think back to him quietly doing those arabesques in the gym in front of those manly guys, and I would see the courage of someone whose ambitions did not line up with convention, and he pursued them anyway.
Noah has tried out twice for the Cowboys cheerleaders, but he’s never gotten past the first round.
After our dance lesson, I asked him how he felt about that.
Noah Guzman: I’m not really that, like, upset about it. I’ve kind of known from the beginning that if I ever tried out—’cause when I was little, I would always say, “I want to try out, but I know if I try out I’m probably not going to make it.” So I’ve kind of always gotten into the mentality of not expecting to make it. Like, I’ve kind of learned to not expect what I want. So that’s kind of where I submit the video, and I just say, “It’s okay. If it happens, it happens. And if it does happen, then I’m probably going to be super excited.” But other than that, I don’t get sad. And whenever I found the email, I was just like, “Aw, okay. Well, there’s next year.”
I asked him what he thought when he looked up at that enormous stadium.
Sarah Hepola: Can you imagine yourself being—
Noah Guzman: Always, always. I can always imagine myself. And I think that’s what I like to do is, I like to picture myself in it. And in the uniform, if I ever do get one. But I like to picture myself on the sidelines. Sometimes I picture myself doing a kick line. And my boot is about to, like, kick my face. Yeah—just looking up into the nosebleeds and smiling and dancing, and people just like, “Wow, that’s a boy on the team.”
This dream Noah has is part of a bigger question: what is the future of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? To begin to answer that, I want you to meet a member of one of the very first DCC squads.
Lee Jackson: Yes. My name is Lee Jackson and I graduated from the Dallas School District.
Lee was a teenager when Dee Brock was just starting the squad with high schoolers. For a few years in the mid-sixties, the cheerleaders were coed.
Lee Jackson: So in 1965 fall season and ’66 fall season, I was a member of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. I didn’t remember this. My mother just told me last week, because I plumbed their memories. They have better memory than I do. She said, “Oh, the hardest thing was, they said you had to have white pants. I couldn’t find white pants anywhere. I bought you a pair of painter’s pants.”
Sarah Hepola: No way.
Lee Jackson: Painter’s work pants were my Cowboy uniform. Except they gave us this little round patch, which we could stick on our high school jackets. And it might’ve counted for something in the hallway at school. But Playgirl magazine did not call us for a photo shoot.
For payment, Lee remembers getting two tickets to the Cowboys game.
Lee Jackson: So, it was just fun—wholesome American fun. But you got to go out with fourteen others and jump around and be a part of the excitement of a football game—no adverse consequences, but no social cachet either.
Lee went on to become a politician—a pretty influential one. He was a state representative, and then Dallas County Judge from 1987 to 2002. He was the top executive for Dallas County when it opened the Sixth Floor Museum, commemorating the Kennedy assassination. That museum was a major turning point in the city’s history: we were finally admitting publicly what had happened here.
But I wanted to talk to Lee, because long before the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders burst onto the field in hot pants and go-go boots, cheerleading had actually been a young man’s hobby. The whole enterprise started at the Ivy Leagues, where men became “yell leaders” on the sidelines, and they were often very prestigious on campus. It wasn’t until cheerleading became dominated by young women, during World War II, that it lost its stature, and became seen as a frivolous hobby.
For Lee, being part of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—a brand that has become synonymous with female glamour and sex appeal—wasn’t exactly part of his campaign slogan.
Lee Jackson: Maybe three times in my public career, someone knew me from high school, or knew about it, or they told someone, and they would come up to me and say, “This can’t be true, but I was told you were a Cowboy cheerleader.” And I would just, you know, look at them with a straight face and try to think of something smart to say. I did have a smart-aleck retort that I will not repeat into the microphone.
Sarah Hepola: Can you give us a hint on that?
Lee Jackson: If I tell you this, you might use it.
Sarah Hepola: Yeah, that’s true.
And the truth is that what Lee did as a Cowboys cheerleader, and what Noah wants to do—they’re very different things. In the decades since Lee chanted for the Cowboys in his white painter’s pants, the cheerleaders have become such archetypes of femininity—to a lot of people, just the thought of a man in that kick line is like a direct attack on how they see the world.
But Lee’s place in this history is a reminder that the squad has been reinvented in risky, adventurous ways all along—so successfully that it’s hard to remember it being any different. The sport of cheerleading is changing. Competitive cheer is exploding, thanks in part to the hit Netflix reality series Cheer, which is filmed not far from Dallas at Navarro College. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders had been transgressive and pioneering once. But they’ve become something more like a legacy brand. How the Cowboys cheerleaders navigate that is a lingering question.
Last November, the cheerleaders celebrated their sixtieth anniversary with a big alumni halftime show. The number sixty came as a bit of a surprise. For a long time, the cheerleaders dated their inception to 1972, when the uniform debuted. But now they were dating it back to the very beginning, 1961.
For weeks I’d been hearing from various cheerleaders about get-togethers, and it frustrated me that I couldn’t get access to any of these events.
So I bought standing-room-only tickets to the Sunday game, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to record inside the stadium—Cowboys rules.
And then I got a tip. It was Saturday afternoon, and I was doing my laundry when my phone lit up—the text said the cheerleaders were holding an all-day rehearsal on the Saturday before the game. They were practicing at my old high school.
I knew it was a long shot, but I drove over to see what I could find. I tugged on one locked door after another until I saw it—a big open door with blue-and-silver helium balloons floating in the breeze, and a table with a white banner that read: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
I stepped inside, hoping to remain inconspicuous. The indoor practice field was new, its floor covered in artificial turf. And the room filled with the sound of swishing pom-poms and women’s voices. Five women in their fifties practiced their routine in front of me. Across the room, women sat in clusters. Laughing, taking selfies, deep in conversation. Some couldn’t have been older than eighteen. Some couldn’t have been younger than sixty. I took a seat in the corner, and tried to look like I belonged.
The halftime show they were rehearsing was designed to showcase the women from each decade through music.
The seventies crew would be dancing to “Freak Out” by Chic; the eighties crew would be dancing to “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. The cheerleaders started to take their formations for a run-through, and as the women around me peeled away, I was getting anxious I’d be discovered. I have blond hair, and an unimposing stature, but I am definitely not, nor have I ever been, a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.
I looked over to the speaker system and saw a face I knew from many hours of television viewing—Kelli Finglass. She was sipping a bottle of water and talking with a couple women. The auburn hair, the pretty smile, the air of self-possession. Her eagle eyes drifted toward me, and I don’t know if she registered me as an interloper. But I got that spike of dread many cheerleaders have probably felt over the years: Kelli is on to me. I thought for a second about standing up and introducing myself—finally trying to get an interview. I ran through the questions in my mind and imagined reaching out my hand to her, as I have wanted to do so many times in the past year. But that dread quickly turned to nausea, and I decided to go in a different direction. I bolted for the door. If she wanted her story in here, she knew how to reach me.
But standing outside, I could still hear the music. If I positioned myself just beyond the doorway, I could watch them run through the routine—white-haired ladies from the seventies replaced by short-haired ladies from the eighties replaced by long-haired women from the nineties, one danceable hit after another.
And then the finale, “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge.
The Cowboys have always been a family. At least, that’s what people I interview tell me. And at times, maybe it was a messed-up family that reminded me more of HBO’s Succession than, say, Family Ties, but it was a family nonetheless. And like any family, I could watch them from the outside, and I could have my opinions and critiques, but I’d never understand exactly—not really—what it was to be a part of it.
Inside the stadium the next day, I was standing in a big crowd on the top level when the cheerleaders’ halftime show began. I had hoped people would just wander off to get a beer or a hot dog so I could get a better view, but everyone stayed. I stared up at a video on that gigantic Jumbotron showing stats from over the years. Eight hundred and fifty-four alumni. Eighty-three USO tours. Three stadiums. And those numbers were only a fraction of the infinite stories those women had to tell.
I started this project knowing none of them. I felt a weird mix of pride and frustration watching that screen, because there was so much more I wanted people to hear. This was one of the greatest tales to ever take place in the city of Dallas, and I wasn’t sure anybody knew it.
Dee Brock: My name is Dee Brock . . .
The story of the amazing woman who started the cheerleaders.
Dee Brock: . . . and I was the founder of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
She had been a model, but also a PhD. She was a woman of the world when the world could be very small for women.
Vonciel Baker: My name is Vonciel Baker . . .
The story of the first woman to wear that uniform.
Vonciel Baker: . . . and I’m one of the original seven professional Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
A skinny black girl from South Dallas; a woman who still—after half a century—has the longest tenure on the squad, at eight years.
Shannon Baker Werthmann: My name is Shannon Baker Werthmann . . .
The story of the trained ballet dancer who became a poster girl in the seventies and later the choreographer—the first cheerleader to be hired into a leadership position by the Cowboys, one of the key figures in transforming a glamour and beauty brand into an elite dance squad.
Dana Presley Killmer: My name is Dana Killmer . . .
Dana, who could have had a promising career in entertainment but went on to be a corporate CEO.
The first mother-daughter legacy on the team . . .
Billie Mitchell: Billie Mitchell . . .
And her daughter, Amber Gosdin.
Amber Gosdin: “Here I am. You’re not getting rid of me.”
Tami: Tami Barber, 1977 through 1980.
Debbie Kepley: My name is Debbie Kepley. I was a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader . . .
Janice Garner: My name is Janice Garner, and I was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader . . .
Leslie Shaw Hatchard: Leslie Shaw Hatchard, a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.
Down on the field, I recognized Tami Barber, who’d once danced in Texas Stadium in those iconic blond pigtails. Her hair is now gray and cropped close after cancer treatment last year. She was out there, shaking it.
All around me the crowd was cheering and dancing. They were really into this. People were ecstatic. It was only ever a game, but as Joe Nick Patoski had told me, it was also a lifestyle.
Dallas has changed since the Cowboys arrived. The Cowboys changed Dallas. Theirs is a story about a handful of people who built something out of nothing. And it changed the world.
I don’t know what becomes of this story. But I know that this team, that this lifestyle, that these cheerleaders have shaped me in profound ways. They brought grace and beauty and sex to the NFL. They changed how we saw women on television. They helped transform a traumatized city into a glamorous one. And maybe what they represented was only ever a fantasy—a fantasy for a man watching from his living-room recliner, or a little boy watching from the bleachers, or a little girl staring up at a poster she saw at the 7-Eleven. But the fantasy was really good. And I’m not sure I want it to end.
Can the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders survive in an era that seems to be moving away from everything they introduced? At a time when the future of professional football itself seems in question? You never know. But I wouldn’t bet against them. Watching Tami dance out there on that big green field, I thought about a prediction she’d made about the cheerleaders.
Tami Barber: So where it’s going, who knows. Cowboys will hang in there as long as they can, though, I bet. We were the first, and all that will be left are the cockroaches and the DCC. The world will end, and we’ll still be standing there with those little white shorts.