In this edition of The Confessional, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team story producer Eric Reynolds writes about the show, which is premiering its 15th season and is CMT’s longest-running non-music show.
When one thinks of cult television, shows like Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks, Party Down, and Doctor Who come to mind. But in the age of the Internet, and after countless articles, forums, and recaps that now exist in the Internet cosmos, can it really be said that these shows are still considered “cult”? Does a show from the 90s retroactively shed its cult status if fans and streaming services allow it to become mainstream over the course of time?
And how does the world of unscripted/reality television fit into this cult landscape? Most reality shows, by nature, are meant for mainstream consumption. From MTV’s Real World/Challenge franchise to CBS’ dominance in the competitive formats to FOX’s singing/talent shows, it’s hard to place any of these shows into the “cult” genre, as they are seen by millions and millions of people every time they air—and reviewed by the many legacy and independent media outlets.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started work on the 13th season of a long-running CMT reality series that I came to understand that cult reality TV was indeed a thing. I am a huge fan of reality TV and have been since the year 2000. I keep my finger on the pulse of which reality shows are doing well and try to watch all of the major competition series that I can.
But I had totally let Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team (CMT, Tuesdays at 10) slip past me. The series premiered in 2006 and takes an in-depth look at the rigorous audition process that ladies go through to become a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.
The format is a competition hybrid. Some of the hopeful candidates who make it into training camp every year are cut—by director of the DCC Kelli Finglass and head choreographer Judy Trammel, both former Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders themselves—until about 45 hopeful candidates have been reduced to a final squad of 36.
A typical season of the show begins with three episodes that cover the audition phase. At the initial preliminary auditions, anyone is welcome to sign up and audition with a freestyle routine of their choice. From there, about 100 or so women are selected for semi-finals, where they are given a couple hours to learn DCC-style choreography and then perform it that same day for the panel of judges. Those who show that they can pick it up fast (and well) are invited to the Finals round. During Finals, all of the veteran DCC that are on the team return and have to compete against the new rookie candidates to hold on to their spot. (It’s a rule that each veteran candidate has to re-audition every year and earn their spot back). After all of the rookie and veteran finalists complete a panel interview, solo dance and perform the signature kickline on the field, the judges select about 45 women to be official DCC Training Camp candidates. At this stage, veterans can get cut from the team in favor of rookies who come in with more power and/or better dance technique.
Once this audition phase ends, the real show begins. We get to know each of the new TCC (training camp candidates) a little better with backstory packages, as well as get to see which of the veterans have improved since the previous season. Rehearsals happen every episode, with guest choreographers from the vast world of dance coming in to spring a new routines on the contestants. While the DCC style of dance at its core is power pom, the ladies are often taught more emotional/lyrical styles of dance, as well. Kelli and Judy (the director and head choreographer) are looking for a well-rounded group of women who can not only perform, but be ambassadors for the Dallas Cowboys organization as a whole. The DCC are more than just dancers; they make countless public appearances in and around Dallas, from hosting cheer camps for young children to visiting VA hospitals to honor our veterans.
A reality show about cheerleaders, with 45 cast members
Before I began working on the show in season 13, I had little to no interest in watching a show about cheerleaders (nor had I even heard of this show). It successfully stayed off of my radar for over a decade, but continually churned out new seasons every year.
Many cheerleaders have went on to appear in other reality shows, too. Starr Spangler, a DCC veteran who appeared on the show’s very first season in 2006, went on to win The Amazing Race 13 with her brother. Melissa Rycroft, who was a DCC from 2006 to 2007, went on to appear on The Bachelor once and Dancing With The Stars twice, where she ended up winning Season 15. She also hosted CMT’s Redneck Island.
New producers are usually asked to watch a few episodes from the previous year’s season before starting work on a new one. One is not required to be an expert on the show to get hired, but it doesn’t hurt! Personally, I watched as many episodes as I could find before I started on season 13 so I was in-the-know any time the judges would refer to previous seasons. There were veteran cheerleaders from season 13 that were rookies as far back as season 9, and it’s great to know their stories so you can flash back to moments that demonstrate how far they’ve come in their DCC journey.
When I became fully immersed in the world of DCC, it became clear to me just how much of a “cult” show this actually was. Here was a show that had an obsessive/rabid fanbase (check the Primetimer forums for proof) that was essentially ignored by the mainstream.
While the show does cater more to viewers who are interested in dance-oriented programming, it still packs a lot of drama and fun into each season that can be appreciated by any fan of reality TV. (Seasons 1 to 13 are on CBS All Access.)
Something that can be a bit intimidating is the sheer size of each cast that comes with the show. There are 45 women who are competing, and while each new season tends to focus more on the rookie candidates for that year, there are often season-long story arcs for veterans that can be on the team as long as six or seven years.
Also, women who are cut from training camp and don’t make the team one year often return to try again in following years. There are some great comeback stories and there are some frustrating hopefuls that never seem to improve.
Despite the large number of characters, you really do get to know the women as more than just cheerleaders. Many of them have full-time jobs outside of being a DCC, which is a full-time job itself. These women work in law, as doctors and veterinarians, as ASL translators, and of course, as dance teachers to the countless young girls that look up to them.
Also, competitors are eligible to be cut for any reason and at any point during training camp. While formatted competition shows like Survivor traditionally have one elimination at the end of each episode, DCC: Making The Team can have multiple eliminations at any point during an episode. Or, like The Amazing Race, there may be non-elimination episodes. This unpredictability factor adds another layer of suspense that helps set this show apart from others.
In a typical season, the show will premiere on TV before the show has finished filming, so it can be difficult for the producers and editors to predict who will be that season’s breakout characters, or who will make it far but ultimately get cut in the end. (Seasons tend to be taped from May-September, with the show premiering around August 1).
Field and post producers have absolutely zero input on which of the ladies make the team. It’s a fun challenge that often leads to some shocking eliminations, and is a testament to just how real this series is.
Before the show premiered on CMT in 2006, the audition and training camp process was already happening. While many competition series like Survivor and Big Brother are specifically made for TV, the DCC audition and training camp process would happen regardless of whether camera crews were there or not.
Another interesting tidbit about the show is that in its last three seasons (12, 13, and 14), the show has increased its audiences a bit every year. While many legacy reality series still perform well, it’s no secret that network TV has been losing viewership steadily over the last decade. For this little-known cable show to continually improve its numbers each year is no small feat.
Season 13 in 2018 saw 18-year-old Victoria audition to be a DCC for the first time. Victoria’s mother, Tina, cheered with DCC director Kelli Finglass in the 80s. While Victoria made it through to training camp, it soon became clear that she was not quite ready to be on the team. Her dancing was powerful, but sloppy. She had a fun personality, but was young and inexperienced (at an etiquette lesson, she thought that quail was seafood). But week after week, Victoria kept surviving elimination. Hardcore fans were upset by what they deemed to be blatant nepotism (Kelli’s friendship with Victoria’s mom being brought up over and over), but were shocked to see Victoria finally eliminated in the penultimate episode of the season.
She returned the following year in Season 14 as a stronger, more polished dancer, and seemingly unphased by the previous year. It was clear that she had taken time to work on her weaknesses, and the little girl from the previous season was now blossoming into a well-rounded woman. She ended up making the team in 2019 and is one of the most recognizable cheerleaders on the squad today.
While the show is fun and often light-hearted, it does not come without criticism. One of the main reasons that Victoria was cut at the end of Season 13 was because of her physical appearance. The DCC are critiqued heavily on how they look, from how big their hair is to how toned their stomachs are. It’s important for them to be in shape, but however important their body can be to whether or not a hopeful makes the team, it can still be cringey to watch a veteran get cut from the team for looking heavier than she had in previous seasons.
It’s important to note that this is not necessarily an aspect that’s specific to the DCC; the entire world of professional dance comes with these kinds of physical critiques. Kelli and Judy were both DCC themselves, and are pretty sensitive to these issues when they come up. They do their best to warn women who are on the chopping block, and are at risk of being cut in order to give them time to correct whatever issues they may have. And if the squad has some issues with a cheerleader’s appearance but she is still excellent in all other aspects of the job, she will likely retain her spot.
Season 15 was filmed this past summer during the pandemᎥc, meaning the entire production took place inside of a bubble—the Gaylord Texan Resort— so cast and crew lived together cut off from the outside world while they filmed the show.
A major thing we hear from a lot of fans is that they want to get to know the cheerleaders better, which can be difficult when the format of the show largely focuses on dance rehearsals. It’s tough because our production team literally films around the DCC’s schedule, and most of the cheerleaders are already working full-time and then coming straight to practice afterwards.
Access can be a problem that is often out of our control in post. Things were a bit different this year, though, as the candidates were all in one hotel during the entire filming process. But rest assured, we always try to do as much as we can outside of rehearsals to give each candidate their own unique story.
A bigger change that was made partially due to the fans was how editors cut together dance sequences. A few seasons back, a typical dance sequence on the show was full of tighter, close-up shots. It looked great, but it was hard to tell which girls were nailing the choreography. Last year, we started leaving wide shots of the group dances up longer and it helped a lot with showcasing who was excelling versus who was struggling. While each season tends to focus on that year’s new rookie candidates, it seems like fans want to see just as much (if not more) of the veteran candidates that they’ve gotten to know from before.
We try to be mindful of giving all of the ladies their moments to shine when the opportunity arises, and really, they all deserve it! Sometimes there are one or two girls that we use a lot (see the DCC Wikia’s confessional rankings) because they give great soundbites or just provide good TV moments, so while it can sometimes seem like producers are shoving a select few candidates down their throats, it’s mostly just because those are the girls that make us laugh or smile in that moment.
Post production was handled remotely, and each of the producers and editors worked from home to edit this upcoming season.
Editing remotely from home was surprisingly much more seamless than I thought it would be! The entire filming/post process was delayed by a few months as production figured out how they could safely put together this season, but once it started up, it was virtually the same process from when we were in an office. Some shows will deliver hard drives of footage to your house, but for DCC, we controlled our work computers from our homes via remote access software.
All of the producers and editors had Zoom meetings at the beginning of the week and then coordinated via email/text messages as we cut the episodes. It was a bit sad not being able to be together (we all get along!) but were thankful that our production company gave us the opportunity to work from home. Also, a lot of the producers and editors have worked on the show for a while—our most senior editor has been on since season 8 in 2013—so we know the format of the show and how to make it work, which definitely helped keep us on schedule and meet all of our deadlines.
The format has stayed relatively the same, with the exception of holding virtual auditions via web videos this year. For season 15, the usual audition phase is essentially skipped since they select their training camp candidates form their audition videos. The first episode will jump right into the start of this past summer’s training camp experience.
When Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team premiered in 2006, the TV landscape was different than it was today. Back then, network reality programming was booming and every cable network was desperate to have their own hit reality series to show off.
Since then, many series have come and gone, but this one has defied the odds and hung around for longer than a show about cheerleaders may have been expected to. The women who audition are passionate, dynamic, and intelligent—and those of us who work on the show love it and do their best to bring you an exciting new season every year.