Our Paige Skinner takes gives SI.com an exclusive look into Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team, which airs its 15th season at 9 p.m. CT Nov. 24 on CMT.
The show must go on.
At least that’s how the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and CMT, the network that airs the team’s reality show, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team, viewed things. Even though COVID-19 cases never really slowed down this summer in Texas, the Dallas Cowboys still went through with auditions and a training camp to form its 2020 cheerleading squad.
Open-call auditions usually happen in-person at AT&T Stadium, but this year Kelli Finglass, director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and the rest of the judging panel, viewed 1,500 video submissions from the comfort of their own homes. Without a camera crew able to safely film Finglass in her home judging the auditions for the CMT show, Finglass says she set up her iPhone and a tripod to film herself.
“It was so homegrown, it’s just glorious,” Finglass says during a phone call with Sports Illustrated. “None of us were leaving our houses. I just set up a tripod and took a couple of pictures and I judged from my backyard, I judged from my living room, I judged from my couch, I judged from my kitchen, I judged at night, in the morning, in pajamas, in workout attire. We were in our own environments.”
Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team, a reality show that documents the team’s full audition process, hasn’t changed its format much over its 15-season existence. It’s a simple formula: First, hundreds of women show up to preliminary auditions, where the judges keep cutting women until roughly 45 are invited to endure a summer-long training camp. There, women are cut one by one for a number of reasons. Maybe they aren’t a good enough dancer or they don’t have “the look,” or they failed media training. Eventually, about 36 women are chosen who get to call themselves America’s Sweethearts. Even though this year’s audition process looked different, Finglass says they were still able to make a compelling TV show.
“We knew we didn’t just want a Zoom show,” she says. “We didn’t want just a video show and that’s not at all what happened. We have more backstories on the rookie candidates and a much more hometown just identifier for the rookie candidates.”
After the judges reviewed the video submissions, 29 veteran candidates and 20 rookie candidates entered training camp, which usually takes place at The Star in Frisco, but this year, the women learned routines from video tutorials on their own before entering a “bubble” in a hotel for two weeks.
“It was a training camp where nobody was driving their cars or at work or had even the luxuries or the distractions of their homes,” Finglass says. “It was all very, very concentrated dance and we had an entire tower dedicated and sequestered for our cheerleaders’ audition. So it allowed everybody to have just great focus.”
In a video on the CMT show’s Facebook page, KaShara, a former DCC, gives a behind-the-scenes look in the training camp bubble. In the video, KaShara says the women had to take assessments on their phones, a temperature check, and everyone — the cheerleaders, staff, and CMT crew — were tested for COVID-19 three times per week. The team created five studio-like rooms with taped-off white squares, so the women could maintain a six-feet distance while dancing.
Being a DCC isn’t a full-time job, so most of the women work or go to school outside of cheering. Because of this, Finglass says it was communicated early on that rookie candidates must attend training camp for two weeks and plan accordingly. The veteran candidates chose between learning the choreography online and auditioning for the team on a Saturday or joining the rookie candidates during their second week.
“Some of them took a week of vacation and many were working from their laptops in their own individual rooms in the hotel,” Finglass says. “We had a rookie candidate that had a college graduation from her hotel room — she got a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. We had one rookie candidate working on her CPA exam prep work. A lot of the girls were working in their rooms during non-rehearsal hours from their laptops.”
At the end of training camp, Hannah Anderson, who was a DCC for two seasons, wrote on Instagram that she was cut from the team and alleged that the reality TV show was prioritized over the safety of the women. Brennan Cook, who was a DCC for two seasons, also wrote on Instagram that she was cut and that she didn’t agree with that decision. Finglass says she understands and admires the women for speaking out.
“I understand that it’s an emotional environment at that point,” Finglass says. “There is success and there is disappointment and I respect that they want to and deserve to express themselves. I respect that. Their former teammates even reached out and expressed themselves. I understand and I admire that. I think part of being a leader is inspiring others and how they treat other people. It’s emotional, but they deserve that. And that just means that they were strong teammates and at the end of the day, I think that speaks volumes in itself.''