Local pro cheerleaders steppin' out

Mattel's Cheerleader Barbie is a hot seller. The NFL and NBA sell cheerleading outfits in team colors. Fitness gyms in California offer cheer classes as exercise.

Cheerleaders appear in behind-the-scenes reality television shows, are profiled in national magazines, and can been seen on programs like "Inside Edition."

They're everywhere.

Locally, the increased exposure, plus the Seahawks' trip to the Super Bowl, boosted the Sea Gals' popularity and will attract a swell of hopefuls to a four-day tryout beginning Saturday to join the legion of pom-pom shakers.

Yet professional cheerleading, like the jazzy Sea Gals or the hip-hop Sonics Dance Team, is a long way from high school, where the squads decorate players' lockers on game day, host car washes as fund-raisers and literally lead the crowd in cheers. And it's nothing like college, where some schools offer scholarships and half the team has training in gymnastics.

"This is totally different and more intense," said Sherri Thompson, a former Sea Gal who has been the director of the Seahawks squad since 1987. "You're doing this because it's your passion."

Sexy 1.1

Tucked deep in the bowels of KeyArena is the Sonics Dance Team's headquarters. Unlike the Sea Gals, who have spacious locker rooms normally used for visiting soccer teams, the Sonics dancers are cramped in a single room with an adjoining restroom. Individual full-length mirrors are used for applying makeup and making sure costumes fit correctly.

But what starts as a tranquil evening quickly turns to mayhem as glue for false eyelashes squirts onto tables, ripped pairs of pantyhose are replaced with new ones, and various parts of glittery uniforms are flung around.

Written on a dry-erase board is the dancers' game schedule, including the entry "1.1 Sexy," meaning they're performing during the first timeout in the first quarter. It's a rapid clothing change after a brief dance before player introductions.

Yet once the dancers emerge from their locker room, calm ensues. They smile and cheer from the tunnels until the timeout is called. The dancers know about 40 approximately 1-minute routines, and have chosen "Sexy" to perform this night in baggy white cargo pants, white tube tops and sneakers.

Director Susan Hovey, who harped about lines and movement angles during the squad's pregame practice two hours before the 7 p.m. tip-off, is amazed. "That was absolutely perfect!" she says as the dancers jet back to the locker room for another change. Some head up to suites to mingle with fans.

The Sonics Dance Team performs only an average of two routines per game, but will change outfits about four times. The dancers' clothing is provided by Pol' Atteu, a haute couture designer based in Beverly Hills who has clothed soap-opera stars and Anna Nicole Smith.

There's a rumor that Sonics chairman Howard Schultz purposely doesn't watch the Sonics dancers shake their thang, but he definitely is involved with the squad. He has nixed a few of Pol' Atteu's creations, believing they were a little too risqué — like an ostrich bra top worn by one dancer for about two minutes during an in-house promotion. Embellished with crystals and paired with a miniskirt, it sells for $3,000 in Beverly Hills.

"The problem is, we're in Seattle and it's conservative," Hovey said. "Our look is very clean and wholesome. I'm coming from Phoenix and L.A., which is more glitzy, and that's what I want. So ... we're finding a happy medium."

Hovey, a former Sea Gal and NBA/WNBA dancer for Phoenix and Portland, became the Sonics Dance Team director in 2004 and completely changed the style of the team. When she arrived, the dancers were among the worst in the league, performing just 12 routines through a 41-game home season. Now the 15-member team of 20-somethings is among the best.

Still, some moves can get dicey. Hip-hop dance moves help hawk everything from computers to clothes on television. But with the popularity of dancers and cheerleading in general, some parents cringe at watching their daughters mimic the big girls.

Pretty face, tiny waist

Watch any music-video channel for 30 minutes and you'll understand why issues like eating disorders and low self-esteem are on the rise. Studies have shown that black girls who watch videos particularly have low self-esteem from images of women wearing limited clothing and shaking their rump in some rapper's lap.

Young girls in general develop eating disorders from trying to emulate the barrage of thin bodies shown on television. About 2.5 million Americans, including 1 percent of all women, have anorexia.

"You've got to really pick and choose your hip-hop because the hip-hop that you see on TV is not what we would want a 12-year-old girl to do," said Connie Berrysmith, mother of Alexis, 12. Alexis is an aspiring NBA dancer who performs with the Storm Dance Troupe, a group whose members range in age from 5 to 30. "We don't want her in booty shorts and shaking her ... you know. She's a dancer, and she doesn't have to compromise her integrity."

But neither Hovey nor Thompson denied the fact that looks, especially weight, play a big factor in who makes their respective squads. The costumes are tight, and Thompson has biweekly weigh-ins to make sure her Sea Gals stay fit.

The dancers are weighed and tape-measured at the beginning of the season, and are expected to stay within an agreed-upon guideline throughout the season. If they don't make weight one week, which Thompson said is usually no more than 5 to 8 pounds over their specified weight, they're given a week to drop the extra weight. If they don't, they're cut. Four dancers were cut for weight reasons this season, two shortly before the Super Bowl.

"You have ample time and chances, and if you're dismissed, that means you've gone through those chances," Thompson said. "But if your weight and measurement changes and you still look really good, that's fine. Then we change the weight and measurement."

Hovey said she developed an eating disorder from prior weigh-ins in front of entire squads, not naming the team. For that reason, she won't weigh the members of the Sonics Dance Team. Both teams do provide fitness trainers and nutritionists.

The Sea Gals are given memberships to Bally Total Fitness and go through a rigorous training camp before the season. Before each practice, Thompson makes the Sea Gals run two laps around the Seahawks' practice field and they do several exercises, such as what amounts to 60 yards of lunges, before running through routines.

"I seriously thought I was going to die," said Carly Cozine-Hansen, a former Gonzaga dancer and first-year Sea Gal, about her first practice. "For the second practice I was in so much pain, I was literally going to cry. I pushed my body to limits that I never pushed it before, and it was really awful at first. But now I'm in the best shape of my life, and games are a piece of cake because we spent so much time running."

Cozine-Hansen, 24, experienced the flip side of the weight issue, arriving too skinny and needing to gain about 8 pounds. She said she still fights to keep the weight on, coming from a family of lithe bodies.

Meanwhile, teammate DeAnna Raihl, 28, describes herself as a former chubby cheerleader on Stanwood High School's team in 1997. She gained even more weight after the birth of her daughter and a car accident, but was motivated by a childhood dream of wanting to be a Sea Gal to drop the extra pounds through dieting and hours on the elliptical machine.

For Raihl, the weigh-ins are nothing more than a job requirement, like the mandatory full face of makeup at private practices and always having to wear the same uniform as the other Sea Gals, whether it be sweats or game-day costumes.

"You have to look at it as not necessarily a personal thing," said Raihl, a third-year member. "With the weigh-in and with the measurements you have to say, 'When I first made the squad, I was this.' It's just like with a regular job and keeping your skills up. If you're not keeping your skills up, it's not really fair to the people that are. You want to be healthy and looking your best. And it's achievable, because that's the way you were when you first started."

But Cozine-Hansen added: "I know a lot of girls really struggle with it. It's probably the biggest point of heartache for our team and takes a toll on everyone."

It even trickles over to the Sonics dancers, many of whom were Sea Gals or have friends on the team.

"It's just too much pressure," said Sonics dancer Tricia Benzinger, 25, of Kirkland. "We all are really healthy and can eat what we want without worrying about how we have to go weigh-in tomorrow."

Rewarding work

So why go pro in cheerleading? It's a rather insulting question for the cheerleaders and dancers.

Sure, the Sea Gals start off at minimum wage, with the vets making about $12 an hour and at least $50 per appearance or game through an eight-game home season and a trip to the Super Bowl.

They also have perks such as the gym membership and unlimited tanning, plus half-off makeup products. The Sonics Dance Team pay scale ranges from $45 to $65 a game, and $10 an hour for three-hour practices twice a week. That means about $3,000 a year before taxes. They also receive free haircuts at Mark Allen Salon and unlimited waxes.

But like the athletes they staunchly support, it's the rush of the crowd and love of dance that keeps them going. And who wouldn't want to be all dolled up by professional hairstylists and makeup artists, like the Sea Gals are, then dance in front of an NFL crowd of 66,000? The Sonics dancers do their own hair and makeup on game day, but believe dancing in front of 17,000 and being asked for your autograph is just as cool.

There's also the charity work that both teams do that adds to the experience. The Sea Gals raised $13,000 to purchase holiday gifts for a homeless women's shelter, and the Sonics Dance Team joins the Sonics in their community service.

Both teams also produce yearly calendars for fans to purchase. The Sea Gals were the last team in the NFL to pose in their uniforms, while the Sonics dancers went for an ultra-sexy look, posing in skimpy bathing suits.

"We all tried to cover up, but they're like, 'Get rid of the clothes!' " said Monae Thomas, 25. "But when I look at the calendar, I think it's very classy, not trashy."

All of the women have day jobs, too. Some are studying to become lawyers or dentists. Others are real-estate brokers or dance instructors. Some hope to be spotted by talent scouts, possibly following in the path of Sonics dancer Ali Dudek, 26, who scored a brief appearance on the reality television show "The Bachelor."

And, of course, there's gaining an interest for their respective sport — something many of the dancers admitted they didn't have before joining the squad.

"Once you've been on the inside, you become part of that family even long after you stop cheering," said Trina Mills, 25, a fourth-year member who was chosen as the Sea Gals' Pro Bowl representative. "There's definitely a place in your heart for the Seahawks. When they're losing it's sad, because they're sad and we're all sad. This year was a special treat for all of us."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

The Sonics Dance Team performs with glow sticks during the pregame introductions of the Sonics' starting five before every home game at KeyArena. On average, the 15-member squad performs two 1-minute routines every home game — and changes outfits four times. (ROD MAR PHOTOS / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Chelsea Howe, left, helps Janae Mitchell change into a new outfit between performances at a recent Sonics game. The Sonics Dance Team's outfits are the creations of Pol' Atteu, a Beverly Hills-based haute couture designer. (ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Inclement weather is just part of performance package for the Sea Gals, who donned ballcaps and parkas during a January playoff game at Qwest Field. (ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES)