About 200 young women and men are hard at work polishing their basket tosses, backflips and dance moves on a Saturday morning at a Baltimore gym.
The start of the American football season is five months away, but the Baltimore Ravens are wasting no time selecting the only co-ed cheerleading squad in the National Football League (NFL).
Advertisement"I've been working all year for this," said Ali Tripple, 24, taking a break from rehearsing an eight-step dance routine set to rapper Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty to Me" that she'll soon be performing before a stern panel of judges.
"It's my ultimate dream," added the tall blonde elementary school teacher and dance instructor, kitted out like her fellow female hopefuls in a bright sports bra and tight black shorts.
If that dream comes true, it'll require a commitment to turn up for each and every Ravens game in front of 71,000 fans, plus three-hour practice sessions twice a week, a three-day training camp and community appearances.
Oh, and a week in Jamaica to shoot a swimsuit calendar -- on top of holding down a day job or attending college full-time.
"Talent, beauty, fitness.... We're looking for a well-rounded participant and we usually get that," Ravens cheerleading coach Tina Galdieri told AFP before taking her place on the 10-member panel of judges.
It's just not rookies at the tryouts, either.
In black T-shirts with glittering Ravens logos are veterans who must prove, every year, that they're still worthy of a place in the squad.
"There are girls here in fantastic shape who are ready to take your spot. It makes you really work harder," said Stephanie B., a petite stunt specialist who, like some of her peers, opts not to give her full name out of privacy concerns.
There's no weight or age limit -- the oldest NFL cheerleader is in her 40s -- but rules are strict: across the league, there's no slack for tardiness, good grooming is mandatory, and fraternizing with players verboten.
- All-American sizzle -
Cheerleading is a classic all-American endeavor, conceived in the late 1800s to whip up spectator enthusiasm at college football games in shivering fall weather.
In its infancy, it was a strictly male preserve -- presidents George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were all cheerleaders -- before women took up pom poms in big numbers in the 1940s.
It veered towards glamour in the 1970s when the Dallas Cowboys famously put its cheerleaders in skimpier outfits and drafted a Broadway choreographer to inject more sizzle into their half-time gridiron moves.
Cheerleading today has an global dimension, with its own governing body, the 105-nation International Cheer Federation, hosting world championships in Florida on April 21-25.
"Because it's a quintessential American thing and it has this aura of innocence about it, it's something people from other countries can love about America that's non-political and sort of pure," said Mandy May Cheetham, a Canadian in Los Angeles who's trained cheerleaders in China and Finland.
The Ravens, two-time Super Bowl champions, are unique in that its 50-strong squad includes 16 to 18 men who literally play a supporting role hoisting aloft their female stunt counterparts with the palms of their hands.
Their repertoire also features the basket toss, in which four men launch 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of cheerleader into the air to perform a spin or a toe touch before falling back into their collective arms.
"We do a lot of weight training," concedes Deon J., 28, a high school science teacher by day who's looking forward to a sixth year with the Ravens. "It's usually easier for the stockier guys -- and I'm not that stocky."
Nobody does it for the money, even if the Ravens since last year have been paying its cheerleaders better than Maryland's minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for everything from practices to game appearances.
Some NFL teams pay as little as $90 per game, and nothing for practices, prompting cheerleaders at the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year to file class action lawsuits in a bid for better pay.
(The NFL is the most lucrative pro sports league in the world, according to Forbes business magazine. Its 32 teams are worth, on average, $1.17 billion each, thanks in no small part to the sale of network television rights.)
"I definitely think they could get paid more," said Stephanie Prosenjak, a former Denver Broncos cheerleader whose dance school in Colorado offers a specialist class in cheerleading that draws about 50 students.
"However, all dancers are underpaid -- we're talking professional ballerinas and dancers in LA who are out on tour with big-name pop singers," she told AFP by telephone.
That doesn't faze Aia Evans, 23, as she emerges from her four minutes in front of the judges showing off her standing tuck and ground-up, keen for a Ravens berth even if it means pulling up roots in New Orleans and relocating to Baltimore.
"It's a great opportunity to stunt," the one-time gymnast said, before going back to the basketball court turned rehearsal studio to work ever harder on her professional cheerleader dreams.
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