Oh Pioneers: The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

What have they wrought?
Columbia Sports Journalism
July 1, 2010

The Super Bowl ring is a prize – a piece of jewelry given to the men who achieve the ultimate goal in the NFL. Anna Carpenter Lee also has a ring, though, hers is different. Royal blue enamel with two silver stars next to her name, and DCC 72 etched in gold and flanked by diamonds on each side. It was designed by a local Dallas jeweler for the seven women who were chosen to be members of the inaugural squad of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Almost four decades after being selected, Lee wears this ring fondly and is frequently asked to explain its significance.

Dixie Smith Luque is also a member of that original cheerleader squad. On Easter Sunday, her neighborhood held its annual parade to celebrate the holiday. Now that her children are grown, Luque doesn’t participate in the parade, but she loves to watch the children get dressed up and pass by on their decorated bikes. She was standing on the curb of her circular driveway, waving to everyone, when she heard the president of the homeowners association say, “Get out here, we need DCC representation, you get over here.” Every single day something comes up to remind Luque that being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader has been one of the most special parts of her life.

Last month Carrie O’Brien Sibley opened her mailbox to find a very familiar magazine cover – the Sports Illustrated July 2-9, 2001 issue featuring a picture of five women dressed in the iconic long-sleeve low-cut blue blouse tied in the front, white vest with fringe and five-point blue stars, white short-shorts, and cowboy boots, asking, “Where are they now?” Sibley was one of those women. This time the request was coming from a woman in Wisconsin who wanted her to sign the magazine as a birthday gift for her husband. Sibley put the request in a scrapbook along with all the other precious letters she has received expressing admiration and questioning what it was like to be an original Cowboys cheerleader.

“We were the first, and the rest of the NFL teams followed suit with jazzy dancers. Our squad took cheerleading to a whole new level and it is incredible to have started it,” Luque, 56, of Plano, Texas, said in a phone interview (all interviews in this story were conducted over the phone).

After their first national championship, in Super Bowl VI, Tex Schramm, the Cowboys president and general manager, wanted to keep the fans interest and boost attendance. No one knew what to expect when Schramm decided to bring a new kind of sports entertainment to the field in the form of an all-female, professional dance squad. “Tex was the mastermind behind putting entertainment on the sidelines in NFL football games,” said Sibley, a photographer who still resides in Dallas. Schramm knew beautiful women dancing in tiny shorts and go-go boots would appeal to the NFL’s core audience. He didn’t know the innovation would redefine cheerleading history and, over the years ignite a sociological debate about Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders actually demeaning women while entertaining literally millions of mostly male fans.

“Even though we were called Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, we were a dance team and that’s what the organization wanted people to think of us as. Traditional cheerleaders did something different,” said Laurie Murdoch, 51, of Grapevine, Texas, who cheered during the 1978 season.

Luque had studied jazz, tap, and ballet since she was 3 years old and she was fortunate enough to dance under Texie Waterman, a famous choreographer originally from New York. Luque recalls Waterman coming to her one day after class and saying, “I don’t know what this is going to be exactly, but the Cowboys have asked me to choreograph routines for a new professional dance team, and I think you would be a good fit.”

The first tryout seemed simple enough. One hundred women performed a two-minute routine in front of a panel of five judges. The judges interviewed them about football and the team, cut the pool to 20 finalists, and a week later, seven received a congratulatory letter stating the date of their first rehearsal. “It wasn’t just about your dance skills. They wanted an all-American look and a girl who could speak well and carry herself with confidence – the whole package,” Luque said.

There were preconditions governing who could audition for the squad. A candidate had to be 18 and either have a full-time job, be enrolled as a full-time student, or be a stay-at-home mom. “They didn’t want you just to be a loafer,” Murdoch said. Once the women made the squad, they were given a list of strict rules – no chewing gum, no drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes while wearing the uniform, and no fraternizing. Marty Wynne, a principal at Corporate Finance Specialists in Dallas, remembers a lecture from Waterman, “You do not date or go out with anyone on the Cowboys staff or the players, and if I find out, you are off the squad.” She was tough on the women because of their age and she expected them to project a girl-scout image. “Texie had strong morals and she didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to criticize our integrity,” Murdoch said.

Waterman died in 1996, but she was like a second mother who sought to protect the cheerleaders. The 1960s were a turbulent time in American history with ardent feminists such as Gloria Steinem founding Ms. Magazine, which increased awareness about feminism and women’s issues in the U.S. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were criticized often in the media and by some women.

“Back then it was more of an objectification of women because there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women in sports,” said Thais Austin, 49, a consultant from Washington, D.C. Her younger sister was a Cowboy’s cheerleader during the 1983 season. Austin’s father was a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, and having grown up in an intellectual family that emphasized academic achievement, Thais didn’t understand her sister’s decision to be on the squad. “We had the Billie Jean King match (against Bobby Riggs) and Evert and Navratilova were ground-breaking, but there weren’t a lot of female role models pursuing athletic endeavors,” she added, “And lets face it, the cheerleaders were decoration, which is why they were on the field for the Cowboys. Those were skimpy outfits they put on; it was little, it bared her whole body.”

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“I knew my sister had an issue with the uniform, but it didn’t bother me at all,” said Aurora Austin-Pucciarello, 47, of Vartonville, Texas. “I’ll never forget what Thais used to say to me, ‘How can you leave the house in a pair of diapers?’ but I was all for it. As a 19-year-old junior at the University of North Texas, I thought it was a fun outfit to perform in and I was treated like a celebrity, signing autographs and receiving fan-mail.”

Marty Wynne doesn’t remember her parents attending one game during the 1975 season. “They didn’t think it was something a young lady should be doing,” Wynne said, “They weren’t ashamed. They didn’t move out of town, but they didn’t want their daughter getting up in front of 85,000 people wearing such little clothing. They just wanted to wait the season out.”

Kitty Chapman Carter, 55, who was a Cowboys cheerleader from 1974-1976, said, “My dad was not real happy with the uniform. He almost died when he found out that I had made it because I was showing too much skin. He told me I wasn’t going to the Super Bowl without a cover-up so he had jackets made for the whole team to take to Miami.”

When the Cowboys cheerleaders began, no one knew they would become a sensation. “Clint Murchison owned the Cowboys then and I think he wanted something pretty and saucy on the sidelines between quarters, he wanted action, and this was just a real nice facet of the show,” Wynne said, “We were jazzing up the place and plugging dead time.” Carter added, “It wasn’t even really about us at that point. We were a pastime for the Cowboys.” Carter, who now owns a prominent dance studio in Dallas, made $15 per game as a Cowboys cheerleader.

According to Carter, who still works with the cheerleaders as a technical coach, about 800 women have worked the sidelines for the cheerleaders over the past 38 years. The appeal has only grown. Last year more than 500 women tried out and only 35 qualified. The makeup of the squad is quite different today. “In the 1970s, the squads consisted of real down-home looking girls; all of us were from Dallas. Today, they hold auditions everywhere,” Wynne said. The caliber of women is exactly the same. “We had a teacher, a financial advisor, an executive recruiter, a special events coordinator, and a vice president of sales and marketing on the 2009 squad,” said Brooke Wicker Alexander, an event coordinator who handles alumni relations for the organization.

“Regardless of what the football players and other people in the organization do or don’t do, the squad still abides by its strict guidelines and I’m so proud of that,” said Suzette Hash Freeman, 55, of Port Aransas, Texas. Freeman, a realtor who cheered from 1976-1978, credits the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders with instilling in her the confidence and positive attitude to achieve goals not just on the field, but in her life. “There was a little criticism in the beginning but I think that was because the organization was misunderstood. They might have pioneered NFL cheerleading but the legacy is much more,” said Freeman.

In spite of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders popularity, not all dance instructors believe being on a dance team is a good resume builder. “I would encourage my girls to go to every possible audition they can, but I would explain to them that they will not make decent money dancing for a professional sports team, and they will basically be eye candy for men,” said Jamie Carr, 32, of Downingtown, Pa., who has danced since she was 3 years old and has taught all types of dance for nine years.

While the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have maintained their popularity, Carter does have a concern about the future. “Times have changed and dancing is more seductive today,” she said. “Publicity, magazines, television, the bar has been lowered for everything in order to get the shock factor, and there will always be one choreographer who wants to take it to a nasty level.” Today, some of the hip-hop movements are too risqué for a family audience. Carter, who has a granddaughter, notices it in her own studio and takes issue with little girls who wear two-piece outfits and thrust their bodies around. However, the Cowboys cheerleaders maintain the class that Waterman originally demanded. “I wouldn’t work with them if I thought they were exploiting women,” Carter said.

“Whether you are at a club, bar, or the theater, there will always be obnoxious men who objectify women, but the organization doesn’t promote that, nor do Texans look at their cheerleaders that way,” said Starr Spangler, 23, of San Francisco, Calif., who cheered from 2005-2008. “It never crossed my mind to audition for another team, they are the best of the best.”

Are these cheerleaders more than just a side-dish to the main-course of football? Six NFL teams – the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, New York Giants, and the Green Bay Packers do not adorn their sidelines with beautiful women swinging their hips. It certainly hasn’t kept fans from buying tickets to those games. David Karen, a professor of sociology at Bryn Mawr College said in an email, “The development of cheerleading as a sport postdates the Cowboy cheerleaders’ image and entry onto the scene, and therefore their legacy reinforces the idea that men play the game and women are on the sidelines.”

The women are selected because they are attractive – they have the face, body, and appeal. “Whether they admit it or not, the teams are looking for a specific image,” said Brooke Adelberger, 49, of Aston, Pa., who cheered for the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid-1980s. “The people who criticize us don’t understand what we do. They don’t get the four hour practices, the dedication and the endurance it requires.”

Whether it was doing an advertisement for Ford Motor Co. or seeing a crowd of people at the end of the tunnel waiting for autographs and ready to give out roses, it was an honor to be one of the original seven. The memories never fade for Lee and the others. “I remember going to the Pro Bowl luncheon in Dallas when we escorted the players to their seats,” Lee said, “I still have a napkin signed by Norm Evans and Walt Garrison. There were so many opportunities; it was the thrill of a lifetime.”

Regardless of their reasons, the women who choose to be a part of this world know exactly what it is about. Hundreds of hopefuls were in Dallas on May 15, 2010 with dreams of becoming the next “America’s Sweetheart.”

The legacy remains. Sibley said, “When we are 90 years old, gray haired, with walking canes, they will be hunting us down for a story.”