The Dream & Reality Of ‘America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’

By Stefano Montali
New York Times
The new documentary shows how the team are chosen and follows the new dance squad through the most recent NFL season. Photo / Netflix

Kelli Finglass, the director of the dance squad, sits down for a discussion of the new Netflix series.

They are famous for their jump splits and Rockette-style leg lifts; their big hair, blue sleeves and star-embroidered vests; and their white boots and bedazzled shorts.

Their uniform is so iconic that

Directed and produced by Greg Whiteley the creator of hits like Cheer, Last Chance U and Wrestlers, the show follows the formation of the 2023-24 dance squad and their journey through the most recent NFL season.

At the show’s core is Kelli Finglass, the squad’s director since 1991, who cheered for the team for five seasons in the 1980s. She is shown holding numerous roles, including straight-talking coach, counsellor and stylist. Past attempts to document the DCC including Country Music Television’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team have focused on the squad’s intense tryout process.

America’s Sweethearts goes deeper using Whiteley’s fly-on-the-wall style. “What you are meant to do, paradoxically, is be the most stunning, beautiful creature that has ever walked the Earth,” Whiteley said, “and not do anything that would distinguish yourself from your teammates.”

It’s not an easy equation to figure out. In an interview with the New York Times about the team and the documentary, Finglass addressed the public perception of the DCC brand, what it is like seeing her cheerleaders be vulnerable on camera and Dolly Parton’s celebration of the squad on Thanksgiving.

Kelli Finglass, the director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, is featured heavily in the documentary series about the famous dance squad. Photo / Netflix
Kelli Finglass, the director of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, is featured heavily in the documentary series about the famous dance squad. Photo / Netflix

Compared with Country Music Television’s reality show, this new series encapsulates more of the holistic DCC experience, both on and off the field. What was different about it from your side?

Because we’ve had 16 seasons with CMT, we were used to having cameras around us all the time at practice and games. But with the new show — I’ve peeked at a few episodes — even hearing personal stories from some of our ladies that I don’t normally have access to as their coach. This show’s a lot more intimate, more vulnerable.

Often fans’ only interaction with cheerleaders is watching them perform from afar, and it can feel as if they exist solely within that role. But this show goes into personal journeys involving mental health, body image and the like.

When you get to know the girls individually in the show, their flaws are actually, in my opinion, what makes them even more beautiful and relatable. When people see somebody who’s facing a personal challenge, I think it’s normal to then all of a sudden connect with that person, and look to them for inspiration.

It’s like when you watch any documentary on a band or a musician — or any star — and you see some of their personal life. It makes it more real, which, to me, is more beautiful.

Speaking of stars, on Thanksgiving, Dolly Parton sang during the halftime show in a DCC uniform. What was that like?

She’s as cute and lovely as you can imagine in person. Her stylist, in terms of her interpreting the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform — what professionals! It was just, as Dolly would say, “darn tootin” fun.

Throughout the show, you talk a lot about fitting the DCC style. Would that style ever change?

So, there’s a lot of tradition. It really hasn’t changed that much. I think everything around the cheerleaders has changed. And they’re adapting to many things like social media and visibility. But at the core, they are world-class dancers, and a big part of what they do requires a servant’s heart.

That has been the case throughout our entire history. With the uniforms themselves — the 1970s had no sparkle, but other than that they were exactly the same. Now we’ve added crystals around the star and a crystal line around the fringe.

We did go from go-go boots to a western boot. And that seems to have been really popular.

Kelli Finglass (left) was at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993. She joined the DCC in 1984 and has been with the squad in some capacity ever since. Photo / Netflix
Kelli Finglass (left) was at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993. She joined the DCC in 1984 and has been with the squad in some capacity ever since. Photo / Netflix

You cheered in the 1980s, before social media, personal brands and a lot of the other noise that surrounds the women today.

With this on Netflix, I can’t honestly even predict what happens once the show goes live. I’m going to coach them with an abundance of caution. Hopefully they’ll have their own filters to not read too much into people’s opinions, because that isn’t always healthy.

In the show, there were scenes in which the cheerleaders took etiquette classes and learned how to answer media questions. Why is that still important?

They go to dinners with high-ranking military officials, so they are put in situations that they may not have been exposed to yet as an 18- or 19-year-old from a small town. And we’ve done 85 tours internationally as an organisation to places like Turkey, Egypt and South Korea.

The first one was in 1979. For example, we’ll go to a mountaintop, where there might be five people stationed there. People light up when they see the DCC. I love them learning all the different facets and being polished and poised and prepared. All I’m trying to do is give them every tool possible, so they can be confident.

When you’re overseas, do people recognise the team?

I remember back in the day when I was a cheerleader, we’d go somewhere and if we said the word Dallas, people would say, “Dallas, Texas, J.R. Ewing” referring to the show Dallas. Of course, now people know the Cowboys. But there are times when they may even know the Cheerleaders more than even the sport part.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times. America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is playing now on Netflix.

Written by: Stefano Montali


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