Danielle Zhu
Friday November 7th, 2014

A little more than 14 hours before the New York Jets played the New England Patriots in Foxboro on Oct. 16, Kelly Bennion arrived at her office at 6 a.m. to practice for her formal dissertation proposal about sleep’s selective effects on emotional memory consolidation. A few hours later, she revised a manuscript for a peer-reviewed science journal. Five hours before kickoff, she entered Gillette Stadium after a full workday as a Ph.D. student.

Fifteen minutes before kickoff, Bennion took to the field with her pom-poms in hand, cheering to the crowd alongside the rest of the New England Patriots cheerleaders.

It’s easy to assume that the lives of NFL cheerleaders consist entirely of high kicks, skimpy outfits, pretty hair and big smiles. In reality, many work or go to school full-time. Dancing is just one of their many undertakings, and the stigma of being ditzy and shallow is unfair in most cases; many are deep-thinkers and enjoy plenty of other pursuits.

The 26-year-old Bennion has a B.A. in psychology and Spanish from Middlebury College, a Master’s of education from Harvard University and a M.A. from Boston College. Next year she will complete her dissertation and receive a Ph.D. in cognitive and affective neuroscience. As if all those late nights writing papers and conducting sleep research weren’t enough, Bennion has supplemented her love of science with a passion for dance. Following stints on several dance and cheer teams, she tried out for the New England Patriots squad the day after she turned in her master’s thesis.

“Auditions came on a perfect day when I didn’t have any more work to do for my Master’s thesis,” says Bennion, a two-year veteran. “And it also happened to coincide with a time when I realized that I really missed dancing and wanted a little more of it than what I had been doing.”

Like Bennion, most professional NFL and NBA dancers do it because of their enduring passion for dance. They pursue multiple commitments rather than settle for one, even if that means adding to their schedule two- to three-hour practices twice a week, at least 10 NFL home games ­-- 44 for the NBA -- and dozens of appearances throughout the year. Yet they somehow find a balance, representing their sports organizations while also succeeding in their careers.

But spectators don’t see that aspect of their lives. The glitz and the glamour of their on-field personas belie the other parts of their identities. As a result, their achievements come as a surprise to many, especially those who view them as simply sex objects. To them, cheerleaders exist for the sole purpose of entertaining the male gaze.

In fact, cheerleading directors and coaches look beyond appearances when deciding their rosters. Along with hours-long dance auditions, prospective cheerleaders also go through an interview process.

“All these girls can go out there and dance, so a little bit of credibility like these qualities of having additional degrees or being ambitious, all that separates us from the rest,” says Michelle Kolcun Williams, an officer in the Air Force and a former San Antonio Spurs Silver Dancer and St. Louis Rams cheerleader.

Although the women join the organization already accomplished, they gain further advantages when they learn how to represent their team in ways other than cheering, through media interviews and community events. Washington Wizard Girl Julia Griffin found that she developed skills as an NBA dancer that she didn’t acquire as a broadcast journalist.

“At work, I’m behind the scenes. I’m gathering footage, I’m writing the script, I’m piecing it all together,” Griffin says. “I love the fact that Wizard Girls has afforded me the opportunity to get a fair amount of media and public speaking experience.”

Bennion’s training as a Patriots cheerleader has also intersected with her professional pursuits. Interviews and appearances with the team strengthened her communication skills, a benefit that she values even more now that she teaches an introductory psychology course at a local college.

She cheers, publishes scientific papers, conducts sleep research and also teaches college classes. Upon hearing Bennion’s impressive resume, people often react with surprise. She says it doesn't bother her because she understands how they can assume cheerleading is a full-time profession. Part of her enjoys seeing the look on people’s faces when they hear what she does off the field; it gives her a chance to dispel the negative stereotypes associated with cheerleaders.

Cheerleading is one of their passions, but not anyone’s entire identity. They are also teachers, lawyers, engineers, accountants, nurses, social workers and Ph.D. and MBA. students. They are interested in statistics, electric vehicles, software design, cancer research, aerospace technology, special education, marine biology and public health. And they are all aware of the misconceptions people have and are more than happy to prove them wrong.

“People think we do it because we want to look pretty, be in front of a crowd, get with players or be in a swimsuit calendar,” Griffin says. “But at the end of the day, we all just love dancing, and cheerleading gives us an outlet to continue doing that.”

As Griffin considers this, she makes one final point and laughs: “And you know, we also all have brains.”

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