Why you should care
The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have titillated millions of football fans for more than 40 years, but what they really deserve is your admiration.
It was the wink felt round the world, or at least one football-loving nation.
Fifty-seven million Americans, a quarter of the country, tuned in on Jan. 18, 1976, to watch the bicentennial-year Super Bowl X showdown between pro football’s two dominant powers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys. During a lull in the action, a CBS cameraman — looking for what is called a “honey shot” in the business — pointed his lens toward the row of dazzling, blue-and-white-clad cheerleaders adorning the Cowboys’ sideline.
Schramm knew that football was more than a sport; it was entertainment.
One of them, a former Miss Corsicana Pageant contestant named Gwenda Swearingen, caught the camera’s glance and winked back.
The Cowboys lost the game, but from that point forward, as Texas Monthly observed, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (DCC) — “their essence perfectly symbolized in one tantalizing gesture — forever captivated the hearts and cameras of the world.” And the National Football League, a potent concoction of spectacle, sex and sport, was launched in earnest.
It all started four years earlier after the Cowboys’ first title victory in Super Bowl VI when Dallas’ general manager, the aptly named Texas Earnest “Tex” Schramm Jr., had another one of his big ideas. A shrewd businessman and innovative marketer, Schramm, the driving force behind innovations like sudden-death overtime, instant replay and the 30-second clock, helped shape the modern NFL as much as anyone. Above all, Schramm knew that football was more than a sport; it was entertainment. And the man who had helped turn a perennial loser into “America’s Team” also recognized that if there was one thing the league’s mostly male fans loved as much as the pigskin, it was pretty girls.
Schramm first tried employing models to patrol the sidelines at home games, but they lacked the requisite stamina to withstand the 100-degree Texas heat. Until 1972, the Cowboys, like other pro teams, used college-style cheer squads, but Schramm realized that pro football fans didn’t want to be led in college cheers.
“I finally said,” he would later recount, “‘The hell with it. Let’s entertain ’em with our cheerleaders instead of trying to lead them in cheers. Dress ’em up pretty and let ’em entertain.’”
And entertain they did. Schramm and Texie Waterman, a former Broadway actress and choreographer, gave Cowboys fans dancers, choreography, athleticism and glamour — all packaged in the now iconic star-spangled vests, blue halter tops, skimpy white shorts and boots.
Cowboys head coach Tom Landry … referred to the squad as ‘porno queens.’
An initial squad of seven cheerleaders — with backgrounds in tap, jazz and ballet dancing — were chosen from more than a hundred hopefuls. From the start, the franchise kept the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and their image as provocative yet wholesome, on a tight leash. There would be no gum, alcohol or cigarettes while in uniform, and absolutely no fraternizing with the players for “America’s Sweethearts.”
Performers were often tested on that last point of conduct. Vonciel Baker, one of the original DCCs, recalls an equipment boy once handing her a note allegedly from a player asking that she meet him after the game. “Not in your lifetime!” Baker wrote on it.
Not everyone was thrilled with the Cowboys’ sideline makeover, starting with legendary head coach Tom Landry, a stoic Methodist who did not approve of Schramm’s blatant attempt to blend sex and football. He referred to the squad as “porno queens” and claimed that the Cowboys “sexually exploited the young women by pandering to the baser instincts of men.” But many shared Schramm’s belief that the performers were not porn stars or Playboy bunnies but “virtuous T and A” essential to the team’s image and success.
In the years after Swearingen winked at the TV camera, the squad raked in millions of dollars for the Cowboys organization from commercials, endorsements, television specials and merchandizing, not to mention increased attendance. But the dancers in the cowboy hats saw very little of the money pouring in from their labor of loveliness.Regardless of the debate over virtuous T and A and sexual exploitation, few paid much attention to the economic exploitation of the world’s most famous cheerleaders.
Despite a demanding practice schedule and the restrictions on their bodies and private lives, the cheerleaders made just $15 per game (and make only $182 per game today), plus occasional compensation for public appearances. No money from endorsements or TV movies, no residuals, nothing for the hours of rehearsing under the Texas sun.
In the memoir Deep in the Heart of Texas, a former DCC says that one of her fellow cheerleaders lived on just 85 cents a day after paying for essentials like rent, utilities and makeup. Being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader may have been a prestigious position, but for most it was also a financially strained dead-end to their dancing careers; the Cowboys sideline was a grand stage, but not a launchpad to a lucrative entertainment career.
Like the NFL players before collective bargaining and free agency boosted pay levels, the early cheerleading squads didn’t perform for the money. They did it (and still do it) for the love of the game, the joy of entertaining millions and the woman standing next to them in the kick line.