By Jack LeBlanc
When Bethany Tonguis tried out for the Saintsations dance team four years ago, she had no idea what she was getting into.
“When I first tried out, I thought we just danced on the sidelines,” Tonguis said.
But Tonguis, psychology senior, quickly figured out there was a lot more to being a professional cheerleader than looking pretty and performing halftime shows.
The Saintsations are the dance team for the New Orleans Saints, and they are hosting preliminary auditions Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Saints Practice Facility on Airline Highway in Metairie.
The Saintsations perform on the sidelines at all Saints home games, and their annual swimsuit calendar and the “behind-the-scenes” television shows about the making of the calendar have turned the team into regional celebrities.
“You meet so many people and learn so much about yourself,” Tonguis said. “You are working with professional photographers and businessmen.”
Team member Courtney Harper, biological sciences freshman, said she was intimidated when she first came to tryouts, but she’s happy she did it now.
“I came in straight from high school to try out,” Harper said. “When my friend called to tell me I made the team, I started running around the restaurant like a crazy person. I think it was the happiest moment of my life.”
Bethany, Lashelle, Meagan, Courtney and Alexis
Besides performing at the home games, the girls make appearances throughout the year at private parties and charity events. The girls have even made trips to the Middle East to visit the troops stationed there.
“We’ve been on two different military tours — the first to Afghanistan and Kuwait and the second to Iraq,” Tonguis said. “It’s just a humbling and incredible experience to meet the people protecting our country, and it’s so different there. It’s not like you can go to Wal-Mart if you forget something.”
The girls also traveled to Mexico and London to represent the Saints and the NFL.
But being a Saintsation isn’t all fun and games.
Tonguis especially remembers shooting the swimsuit calendar a few years ago.
“We were shooting on a big beautiful horse,” Tonguis said. “When I got on the horse, it started freaking out, and it kicked me off. I flew into the air, and I broke my tailbone when I landed. But I got up and I shot the rest of the calendar. Sometimes you’ve just got to take one for the team.”
Team member Lashelle Johnson, business administration sophomore, said time management is the hardest part of being a Saintsation.
“It’s a big commitment between school, work and Saintsations,” Johnson said. “We’re always in our cars.”
The girls drive to Mandeville at least twice a week for practice, in addition to games during the season and appearances across the state.
Next season the girls will get a little break, as one weekly practice will be held in Baton Rouge.
The girls also work at the NFL draft and the Superbowl festivities, holding a free clinic for young girls in the Superbowl host city.
Team member Meagan McDaniel, communication studies senior who was a Tiger Girl a few years ago, said she thinks being on a professional cheerleading team is completely different than performing on a collegiate team.
“I think it’s another level of experiences,” McDaniel said. “It’s professional, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
The girls will be getting ready for tryouts this week, as returning members have to go through the same process as new applicants.
“When people look at our tryout process, it looks intimidating. It is a hard tryout process but it’s not the competitive air you’d think it’d be,” Tonguis said. “You learn a lot about yourself and the other girls. Every girl has a fair chance.”