‘It all started with a wink’: New Netflix series pulls back the curtain on NFL cheerleaders

Flawless hair, flawless makeup, and flawless choreography: when people see perfection, they often overlook the amount of work it took to get there.

But a new Netflix docuseries, America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, pulls back the curtain to reveal the sheer mental and physical strength it takes to be inducted into one of America’s most iconic National Football League (NFL) franchises.

Before each Dallas Cowboys home football game, a group of 36 cheerleaders take the field. Handpicked from hundreds of applicants, the women, some as young as 18, wow the crowd with their unbelievably precise high kicks and split jumps, all while perfectly coiffed. Then, throughout the game, they are positioned along the sidelines with the sole purpose of energizing the crowd. “Our job, literally, is to make people happy,” retired DCC Caroline Sundvold says. “No matter what we feel like.”

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC), also known as America’s Sweethearts, are one of the most recognizable and prestigious brands in football. Some argue they are equally as famous as the team they cheer for.

It all started with a wink. Over 60 years ago, in 1960, then-Dallas Cowboys general manager Texas “Tex” Schramm recognized that professional football had become more than just a sport, but entertainment, too.

He also knew the public liked pretty girls, so he hired a group of models to stand on the sidelines. But good looks alone weren’t enough to get the crowd interested.

Eventually, after rethinking his strategy, in 1972, Schramm decided to hire seven cheerleaders. Dressed in royal blue long-sleeve shirts tied up just beneath their breasts, pure white booty shorts with a matching tasseled vest and white cowboy boots, the athletes danced and waved their pom poms. This tradition continued until 1976 when a cheerleader named Gwenda Swearingen looked directly into the camera and winked.

Some argue that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are as famous as the team they cheer for (Netflix)
Some argue that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are as famous as the team they cheer for (Netflix)

The Dallas Cowboys might have lost the Super Bowl that evening to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Swearingen’s gesture transformed sports entertainment forever.

In the new seven-episode docuseries, viewers are given behind-the-scenes access to the grueling audition and selection process for DCC’s class of 2023 and are introduced to the major players whose decisions could make or break an applicant’s dream.

Helmed by Director Kelli Finglass (DCC class of 1989) and head choreographer Judy Trammell (DCC class of 1983), auditions are a difficult, multi-round process that evaluates applicants on their talent, aesthetics and personality. Finglass and Trammell must first whittle down more than 200 initial online submissions from rookies, legacies and veterans alike. Veterans are not guaranteed a spot on the squad. They, too, are required to go through the taxing audition process each year. From there, only about 70 will be invited to Dallas to perform a personal, costumed solo dance for Finglass, Trammell and a panel of judges made up of makeup, hair and dance professionals, members of the local media and a representative for Lucchese, the manufacturer of the DCC cowboy boot. Out of those, only about 45 are formally welcomed to the 10-week DCC Training Camp.

During those 10 rigorous weeks, the women’s limits are truly tested. Candidates are expected to quickly learn all of DCC’s 50 routines and be able to execute them with complete accuracy. Following several more cuts, the remaining women are fitted for the classic uniform and judged on their appearance. “The uniform is literally part of the audition process,” Sundvold says. “I’ve never been through the process like becoming a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, because the things that come into play, you would never think of before.” According to the DCC website, there are no height or weight requirements; however, the cheerleader must look “well-proportioned in dancewear.” Finally, after Trammell and Finglass consult with chief brand officer Charlotte Jones, the official roster of 36 is announced.

But the hard work for the newly initiated doesn’t stop there. Cheerleading is usually only a part-time job. Most of them have full-time careers, working in fields such as nursing, sales and fitness to maintain a liveable wage. Former DCC cheerleader Katherine Puryear compared the cheerleading salary to that of a full-time Chick-fil-A worker. On average, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader will make $75,000 per year, NBC Boston reports. “Girls nowadays look at it as a job,” 1989 DCC alum Tina Kolina explains, whereas “us old-timers [looked] at it as more of a privilege.”

Out of hundreds of candidates, only 36 make the squad (Netflix)
Out of hundreds of candidates, only 36 make the squad (Netflix)

Over the course of the year-long contract, there are between two to five mandatory rehearsals a week before the season begins. Once the season starts, they’re given a set schedule of evening rehearsals. Occasionally there are weekend rehearsals held for rookies and to prepare for other events. In Sundvold’s words, “You need to look like a supermodel but perform like an athlete.”

And still, the immense agility the women must maintain takes an expected toll on their bodies. The famed split jump, for example, which sees the cheerleaders hop into the air before landing in the front splits, has left some girls with hip injuries that they’ve had to undergo surgery for. Neck and back problems are also common. “People think what we do is not really that hard,” another cheerleader says, “but our job is to make it look easy.”

Yet, even through such an arduous journey to earn the coveted pom poms and boots, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders manage to go through it all with a big smile and a “yes, ma’am.”

“There’s so much love. That’s what’s addicting about DCC. You love performing. You love putting on the uniform and feeling like a superhero. But you love your life,” Sundvold says, reflecting on her five-year tenure. “It literally was the best job you could ever have.”

America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys’ premieres on Netflix on June 20