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Making the Squad: Inside the Rams Cheerleaders Preliminary Auditions

Posted Apr 7, 2016

Take a deep dive into how the Rams are selecting Los Angeles' first NFL cheerleaders in 21 years in Part I of our “Making the Squad” series.

It’s been 21 long years, but the NFL has returned to Los Angeles.

The Rams’ players will be filing into the temporary facility in Oxnard, Calif. for the start of the offseason program on April 18. But L.A. also needs individuals to be ambassadors to represent the organization with poise and class: the 2016 Los Angeles Rams Cheerleaders.

There are a few steps in order to become one of the ladies on the squad, including a few workshops held throughout the Los Angeles area in March. But the red-letter day on the calendar was April 2 for the squad’s preliminary auditions.

Eventually, the team will be comprised of around 35 young women. However, nearly 400 made their way to the practice gymnasium at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center last Saturday. This all-day session would narrow the field down to 66 finalists, each of whom will go through dance rehearsals and an interview before the final auditions at The Forum on April 17.

But to narrow that field on Saturday made for a long, strenuous day.

WARMING UP

“I’m really pleased with the turnout today. I think that everyone here today is very technically trained. So we’re grateful that everyone came out.”

While the auditions didn’t officially begin until 9 a.m., ladies began filling the gym an hour before to register. There was a palpable mix of nervous energy in the room, as some young women stretched on the floor with their friends, and others mingled of the bleachers.

And these ladies came from all different walks of life.

“Right now I’m actually a full-time manager for AT&T,” said one.

“I’m a group fitness instructor — an instructor for Zumba,” said another.

Of course, there were former cheerleaders in the room as well. Some had worked in the Los Angeles market for the Clippers or Lakers. Others had worked in the NFL — places like Baltimore and Washington. And two had even previously cheered for the Rams.

But for this group of young women, Saturday represented the first chance to cheer for an NFL team in Los Angeles. For many, it was the exact challenge they wanted.

“I knew L.A. was expecting an NFL team, so everyone was just kind of waiting to hear who would move here,” said Shelbie K, a former cheerleader for the Lakers. “And once we found out it was the Rams, we were so excited.”

“Obviously, it’s been a rumor for quite some time now that the Rams are coming here. So I’ve been on the lookout, waiting to see when auditions are going to come up,” said Andi R., who’s danced for two NBA and MLS teams. “I’ve been all around, but I’ve never done NFL. It’s on my bucket list.”

As the potential cheerleaders went through their final preparations for the long day, so did Rams Director of Cheerleaders Keely Fimbres-Bledsoe. As she scanned the room, Fimbres-Bledsoe appeared pleased with the turnout for the squad’s re-introduction to the Los Angeles market.

“We have almost 400 candidates today,” Fimbres-Bledsoe said, setting the stage for the morning session. “They’ll do a short warm up, they’ll do across the floor, and we’ll eliminate from there — go on to Round 2.”

Left unsaid was just how soon those cuts would come.

ROUND 1

“You only have that little bit of time to shine on a football field, in an appearance. And it’s first impressions.”

A longtime choreographer in the Los Angeles area, John Peters has previously worked with the Rams and Fimbres-Bledsoe for a number of years. With that familiarity, he knows exactly what to teach and how to teach it for Round 1 with across the floor.

“It entails all the technical elements that a Rams cheerleader would need to have in their basic form for them to make it through an entire season,” said Peters, “and be able to dance the routines that we do throughout the entire season.”

When Peters says the basics, it’s relative. Some of the potential cheerleaders may not have thought the kicks and turns were all that simple. But, as Peters said, it’s about making sure the ladies have the required baseline skills.

After learning the combination in long rows spread out across the gym, the ladies had around 10 minutes to practice the short routine before performing it in groups of three for the five judges. That’s it.

Raising the intensity of the situation, the judges gave only a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to each contestant after she performed in her group.

If the potential cheerleader received enough “yes” votes from the panel, she’d advance to the next round with a green wristband. If she didn’t, she’d hear, “Thank you for coming,” and walk over to have her pink wristband removed. Her audition was over.

With such an impersonal process — at this point, the ladies did not even have numbers to identify them — it’s no shock the entire room was filled with nervous energy. That includes from the judges themselves.

“It was a little frightening, and a little intimidating for us because usually you hide behind a piece of paper and say yes or no. This is right in front of them to say you’re in or out,” said Sandy Charboneau of Pro Tour Productions, one of the judges. “I think that’s what [the first round] was about — first impressions. Do you like them or do you not like them?”

In some ways, it’s disarming just how machine-like the process goes. A group of three walks up, Peters counts them in, the ladies dance, and the judges render their decisions. And it’s clear as an observer who should and should not move on to Round 2. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier when a contestant is out of the running.

“Unfortunately, I got cut. But that’s ok,” said Chace, who seemed disappointed but still upbeat about the experience. “People are often so shy to audition, but if you take your life, and you look at things and you say, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to do that,’ out of failure, out of fear, out of being scared of losing — you’re not going to live your life.”

“I get emotional because I’ve been on that side,” Fimbres-Bledsoe said. “I’ve auditioned many times, not made a lot of teams, not made a lot of things. So for me, it is personal. It’s emotional. So I do feel for everyone. But I am grateful that they all came out today.

“I just feel for them,” she continued. “It’s not easy. This is very ‘L.A.’ This is exactly what they do at every audition. Sometimes, you don’t even get to stand there. They’ll just tap you out and say, ‘Thank you for coming.’”

There were some hung heads, and a few tears. But there were also 132 ladies who received that green wristband to move on to Round 2.

“I just did across the floor, it was the first audition of the day, and I got through the first round. So I’m so excited,” said Aubrey A. “I really listened to the corrections and tried to apply it to my across the floor. And I think that’s what got me through.”

It’s about 11:45 when the last group of three finishes its Round 1 routine. Fimbres-Bledsoe addresses the group to congratulate those who have made it through.

“Be sure to get something to eat if you need it,” she says, “because the next round will start exactly at 12:30.”

And for those still in the room who did not advance, it’s time to leave.

ROUND 2

“We’re not looking for soloists. We’re looking for team players.”

The relaxed atmosphere of the lunch period proves short lived, as Peters explains the second round is about to be significantly harder.

“I’m going to be teaching them a routine that’s more like what we would be doing at a sideline or a timeout, or a halftime performance,” Peters says. “It’ll show a little bit of style of all the types of things that we’re going to need for them to be able to do. They use pompoms, so we need strength of movement. We’ll have some technical dance elements in it as well — a little bit of hip hop type of stuff, because we do a little bit of everything for Rams cheerleaders to appeal to the audience.”

Peters breaks up the routine into three sections to teach it. There are hip turns, spins, flips, kicks, leaps — everything you would imagine from a complex cheerleader routine. But these young women are not given much time to master the choreography.

“It is hard to pick up a routine depending on your skill set, but some girls take a little longer to go home, have to really process things, and then they can come out and shine,” Charboneau says. “Unfortunately, in this industry … you don’t have that kind of time. So you have to show that you learn a routine fast. You have to come out and then perform it.”

And there is a difference between simply knowing a routine versus performing it. Charboneau pointed out a few indications.

“Charisma. Hair flipping. Smiles. Personality,” Charboneau says. “You can learn the five steps [just like] everybody else, but are you going to stand out with that personality coming out and you say, ‘wow, that girl shines’? There should be 20 girls on the court and you can see that one girl. And that’s the girl that you want on that football field.”

Peters takes about an hour and a half to teach the dance, weaving the three sections together. After running through it a few times, the pairs begin a 15-minute practice session, during which the audition song — a sped up remix of Fifth Harmony’s “Work from Home” — blares over the speakers. Some pairs work off to the side, trying to develop chemistry. A big group forms in the middle of the floor, as some dancers appear to struggle to retain the choreography without looking at their competition.

And then, the music stops. No more rehearsing.

That goes for when the pairs begin performing, too. If the ladies aren’t in front of the judges, they sit quietly on the edges of the floor for what is perhaps the most nerve-racking part of the day. There are 66 pairs, and they perform in order from No. 1 to No. 132 — nothing is random. So while the first few pairs do the routine the dance when it’s fresh, the last few have to wait over an hour.

That’s why Andi R. — former Lakers and Clippers cheerleader and contestant No. 132 — had to develop a strategy to stay focused.

“I was trying not to watch too much, just because I feel like that can mess me up,” she said. “Everyone dances differently. So I was trying to kind of just sit with my eyes closed and do it in my head.”

The visualization technique was apparently popular for those who were successful.

“I sat, closed my eyes, visualized it perfectly. And then got up and made that reality,” said Shelbie K., No. 53. “You have to be connected to yourself and not even look at any other girls.”

Both Andi and Shelbie were able to get through the dance, performing the choreography as it was taught. Many others did not share the same fate. Some dropped a couple steps but where able to get right back in it. Others simply could not get past the first few moves before getting lost.

The break up in sections also seemed to be a blessing and a curse. If a dancer lost her place in the second section, she could sometimes get right back in it with the third.

And a derailing factor for more than a few routines was one dancer dropping a step or two, looking over to her partner, and that partner making eye contact. For whatever reason, that one simple act could throw off both dancers, possibly costing both a shot as finalists.

These instances underscored the difficulty and unique nature of this audition.

“I’ve tried out for as many teams as you can think of, and it’s unheard of to learn a whole routine that you perform on gameday in one day in one round,” said Brittany W. “It’s intense. And then we did it again in lines, which is also unheard of. But I like it. Switch it up.”

Nevertheless, there were plenty of young women feeling good about their chances after all 66 pairs had finished their dance. Fimbres-Bledsoe also gave the contestants an opportunity to do the dance one last time in groups of 10.

“I would say the first time I performed it, I felt a little bit shaky. I had a little slip up, but then I caught back on,” said Brandi W. “They let us do it again, so I definitely redeemed myself. I think I was able to show the judges that I do know the choreography.”

“It was absolutely amazing, just to have the opportunity to be around so many talented, beautiful, dynamic women — it just pushed you to be your best,” said Shardia W. “It just gave you a little more courage to come out here and try to shine. I’m tired, I feel like I ran a marathon. But it was definitely worth every minute.”

For Shardia, Brandi, and 64 other young women, their spot as finalists would be solidified over the next two hours in a small conference room one floor below the gymnasium.

DELIBERATIONS

“If we think that there’s potential, or we want to see them again, we’re going to advance them.”

While the panel of five judges made their decisions known in Round 1, for Round 2 they silently wrote either, yes, no, or maybe on a form at the end of each dance. Occasionally, the panel would make some notes as well.

“In this room, we give everyone an opportunity to fight for who they feel we want to see again, because sometimes today gets a little tiring,” Fimbres-Bledsoe said just before the start of deliberations. “So if we think that there’s potential, or we want to see them again, we’re going to advance them.”

Much like the rest of the day, the process is fairly impersonal. Without an image the ladies in the room, Fimbres-Bledsoe first goes from No. 1 to No. 132 asking for either a yes, no, or maybe vote from the judges and Peters. If the vote was unanimous on the first pass — whether up or down — the discussion was over for that candidate. If a potential cheerleader needed more discussion, that would be done after all the numbers had been voted on for the first time.

It’s in this room that the vision of what the judges are looking for in a cheerleader begins to crystalize based on the comments they make about each candidate.

“All the judges are here for different reasons,” Fimbres-Bledsoe says. “So we all see something different in every girl — whether it’s her physical appearance, her hair, how well she speaks, her dance ability. Everybody brings something different to the table.”

As the panel goes through the ladies marked for discussion, they look at pictures shot just before each dancer began her, Round 2 audition.

There’s no one set of criteria for what could make a positive or negative impact. Any comment can either help or hurt a potential finalist.

Did she cheer for an NBA team? That could be a positive. Did she cheer for another NFL team? Depending on which one it was, that could be a negative. Is she a good-but-not-great dancer? Maybe put her through to see how she interviews.

How will she be as a teammate?

“She’s the only girl I saw grab her partner’s hand and say, ‘Good luck.’ That definitely counts for something.”

Can she actually do the dancing required to be a cheerleader?

“We’re never going to do more than a double pirouette, but they need to at least do a double pirouette.” 

How well did she adhere to instructions?

“It was laid out for everybody. Everybody is equal — you get one shot and one shot only. So for her to ask that question… For me, it’s a no.”

“She does not follow directions. She was wearing shorts.” 

How did she perform in the audition?

“She’s beautiful…but she had flailing technique.”

“She pretty much re-choreographed the entire thing.”

But the question at the heart of it all: Can she be a Los Angeles Rams Cheerleader?

“She’s the most beautiful girl at the audition.”

“She’s very good as a teammate."

“She dances effortlessly.”

“She is Ms. Cheerleader. She could be the captain of the cheerleaders.”

It takes about an hour and a half, but about 7 o’clock, the Rams have their 66 cheerleader finalists.

“I’m a little nervous, I think,” Fimbres-Bledsoe says. “It’s going to extend our show, but it gives us an opportunity to see more talent.”

You, too, can have the opportunity to see the finalists in person at the Final Auditions. The event will be held April 17 at The Forum. Tickets start at $10 and may be purchased at ticketmaster.com by cliciing the link here.