Judging the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders auditions is thrilling, right?  It’s also stomach-churning because the level of competition is so high, you know that some supremely qualified contestants are not going to make it through Round 3.

In the finals, we had 28 DCC veterans returning to take part in Round 3; they competed alongside 55 rookie hopefuls who survived rounds 1 & 2.  That’s a total of 83 contestants. 

Round 3 is the best day of auditions, not just because you see the returning veterans.  The morning session of solo routines gives each of the 83 contestants a chance to show their personality, style and dance technique.  During solos, contestants choose their own music, their own choreography, their own costume.  Solos are everyone’s favorite part of the entire audition process because each routine is different.

Solos also allow each contestant to play to their strengths.  Returning veterans like Lacey and Heather O. and Milan perform ‘lyrical’ routines; they show their grace.  Maggie can do any style, but this year she went with a rock-and-roll theme and her dynamic, energetic performance was a show-stopper. 

Jinelle, our favorite Aussie, had everyone in the room enthralled with her Carnivale-themed samba/Latin rhythms (yeah, I know, an Australian doing Carnivale…but it totally works!).  And everyone clapped along with Yuko, our returning veteran from Japan, during her high-energy performance.  Last year, Yuko did a western Cowboy-theme (complete with boots & Cowboy hat), this year she went more DCC-style.

KaShara was one of the show-stealers.  She was captivating, showing a little ‘attitude’ in a seductive but tasteful and fun routine that earned her the moniker “Ka-sexy” from Kelli, our DCC Director.  And speaking of fun, Amy L. is always one of my favorites.  She does a tap dance each year; this time around it was The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy complete with soldier-style outfit and hat.  

Jenna and Cersten performed first-and-last during solos, respectively.  That’s a sign of respect.  Jenna is returning for her 6th season and would be the highest-tenured veteran.  She was given the honor of going first.  And Cersten is one of the squad’s top performers; everyone knew she’d knock her routine out of the park, and it would be dynamic.  So she was given the honor of going last because Kelli loves to end the morning session on a high note.  Cersten certainly delivered on that!

There was also a very big wardrobe malfunction this season involving a halter top that came untied near the end of a veteran’s solo routine.  She is a top-performer, however, and there was no way a setback with her outfit would deter her from making the squad.  She nailed the afternoon session, securing her invitation to DCC Training Camp.  But as the solo routines continued…

But who was that 18 year old from Medford, New Jersey?   She’s tall with long limbs, and her lyrical routine was so dynamic and so mature.  To be honest, she was one of several rookie hopefuls who shined brightly, earning extra stars and exclamation marks in my judge’s notebook as well as other judges’ score cards.  There’s no way an 18 year old can outshine some veterans in finals, right?  Well, she did.

There was something special in several of these newcomers; it was clear they were going to give a few of the returning veterans a serious run for their money.   

But solo routines are an apples-to-oranges comparison for judges.  Again, the contestants are performing different styles, playing to their strengths, and dressed differently.  There’s a big difference between a lyrical/ballet/tap/hip-hop when you compare it to the DCC style of choreography which is performed on game days.  And we also need to know if contestants can high kick.

That’s where the afternoon session comes into play.  After a short break for lunch as well as to change out of solo costumes, it’s time to head down to the playing field of Arlington’s AT&T Stadium for the dance combo/DCC Kick Line.

It’s the same routine the rookie hopefuls performed in round 2.  The returning veterans were taught the choreography four days before round 3.

Contestants perform each combo routine/kick line twice.  They’re wearing the same style of outfit.  And they perform on the 50 yard line as the judges watch on the massive center-hung digital board.

Why do judges sit in the second level of stadium seating, watching contestants on the big screen?

Simple:  on game days at AT&T Stadium, there are 95,000 Cowboys fans that watch the DCC on the same screen.  And a massive screen that is 60 yards wide and nearly 30 yards tall is unforgiving:  you can’t get away with mistakes.

When the rookie hopefuls perform on the field alongside veterans, you can see quickly whether or not they belong.  It’s our “apples-to-apples” comparison mentioned before, especially on the kick line.  And if a returning veteran doesn’t stand out, that’s a bad sign.  They cannot let potential rookies outshine them.

This year, the afternoon session gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach because there were a few veterans that weren’t standing out.  This incoming crop of rookies was strong.  Last year we had a really excellent rookie crop.  This year is going to be the same.

That’s exciting in a way; new blood and excellent dancers are available to take the spots of the 8 veterans that have retired.

But it’s going to make for very long judges’ deliberations.  A few returning vets may lose their spots to this group of newcomers. 

My stomach was already in a knot; this was going to be a close call.  And it’s not solely the few returning vets that I worry about.  There are some contestants who have auditioned multiple-times.  I know several of them have been oh-so-close in previous years.  They’re not going to make it through finals this year (again). 

My prediction about judges’ deliberations was spot-on.  We deliberated over 3 ½ hours.  When you have so many good candidates, it’s a razor-thin margin.

And remember that we are not choosing the final squad of 36 members.  We are choosing Training Camp candidates.  There is not a set number.  In the past, we’ve invited anywhere from 42 to 46 contestants to camp.

We had 83 highly qualified candidates this year in Finals.  That meant nearly half the contestants were not be invited to camp.  Each is a talented dancer and beautiful girl with a unique educational background and/or career.  They’ve already taken the 100-question written test and participated in the panel interview.

As we deliberate, we have our written notes from the morning and afternoon sessions, plus the score from the written test, plus our notes from the panel interview.  Everything is up for discussion.  If a veteran doesn’t score in the 90s on the written test, what’s up with that?  How did a particular rookie hopeful conduct herself during the panel interview?  Can we put her face-to-face with sponsors and civic leaders if she makes the DCC squad?

We finally wrapped deliberations about 7:30pm.  But then it was time for Kelli and Judy (DCC Choreographer) and Charlotte (DCC President, Cowboys Executive V.P.) had to make the tough decision as to the ‘cut line’.  Would we invite 42 to camp?  Maybe 45?

When it was all said and done, 44 of the finalists were invited to DCC Training Camp.  And that sinking feeling in my stomach about a few of the returning vets?  Well, there was a reason.  Three returning vets did not get an invitation to return this season. 

I can’t give too many specifics because auditions and DCC Training Camp are filmed for the popular CMT television show “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders:  Making the Team.”  The 12th year of the show debuts this summer on August 3rd.  By the second or third episode, you’ll see which veterans I’m referencing. 

When Kelli/Judy/Charlotte read the names of the contestants invited to camp, it’s exciting. It’s also nerve-wracking for the contestants.  And as we get closer the end of the list, the tension becomes even more palpable.

And when the final name is read, there’s joy for the newcomers who’ve heard their names.  There are tears and dejection for those who haven’t heard their names.  For the veterans who’ve earned another camp invitation, their relief and joy is quickly replaced by tears for the veterans who didn’t make the final cut.  They rush over to console their friends/former teammates.

As a judge, I always stay for the final announcements.  Again this year, I had to choke-back a few tears.  The bile rises in your throat as you see the 39 girls who didn’t hear their names called pack their bags and call their families to deliver the sad news.  

It’s a bad feeling to tell someone they can’t pursue their dream this time around.  You’re mainly hoping they try again next year. 

For the 44 training camp invitees, the real work begins the first week of June with rehearsals each weeknight.  Rehearsals run about 3 hours.  They also spend a lot of time away from the DCC dance studio practicing on their own, making sure they’ve mastered the routines they’ve learned the previous night.  They could learn up to the 3 or 4 new dances each evening.

Training Camp runs for nearly 3 months.  The CMT production crew is there the entire camp, chronicling each rehearsal.  With 44 girls in camp, and 36 spots on the squad available by early-August, 8 girls will not make the final squad that fans will see beginning with at the first Cowboys’ preseason game.

So while the rest of us in Cowboys Nation are enjoying summer vacations, the DCC is already at work. 

Each year that auditions roll around, as a judge I cannot predict what will happen during solo routines or panel interviews.  I can’t predict if all the returning veterans will once again make the squad.  I can’t predict how many candidates will travel across the globe to come to Arlington to pursue their dream of joining the most elite dance team in professional sports.

But after 2017 auditions, I can guarantee you that the DCC squad will be excellent!  Yes, I write the same thing every year, but it’s true:  auditions are more competitive every year.  I would say the past three years is the strongest group of candidates I’ve seen in 17 seasons as a judge. 

You’ll see for yourself on August 19th when the entire squad makes its AT&T Stadium debut for the 2017 Cowboys Preseason Opener against the Indianapolis Colts.  I don’t know how the football players will perform that day, but I know the DCC will be world-class!