There were times during that August game when it seemed that the producer had it in for us. Sometimes he would play the music too slowly and we couldn’t find our rhythm. On some occasions music did not start, and when it did, it turned out to be the wrong song. Most fans probably had no idea, but we did and it was frustrating. Other times he played music too fast, and we had to go into double time to keep up. But not everything was the producer’s fault. One corner captain frequently got confused by all the commercials that played on the screens. She would begin dancing any time the “I’m lovin’ it” McDonald’s ad came on because the music sounded like one of our dances. Every time we stopped a dance, we went into Ben-Gal Pose. The head snap was just like in Legally Blonde and after doing it a couple of dozen times over three hours, I would need a chiropractor. Everything that cheerleaders do to be sexy—snap their heads, flip their hair, stick out their chests, engage the abdominal and glute muscles, pull their shoulders back—wreaks havoc on the body. We aren’t in as much pain as the players by the end of a game, but we are sore. You can always tell how tired a Ben-Gal is by the way she shakes her poms. If she shakes with a lot of energy, she’s doing all right. If it looks like she is holding two wet Angora sweaters, then you know she needs help. Over the course of that first game, I discovered that about half of the Ben-Gals did not understand the rules of football. The crowd would go crazy at a play and one of us would say to the other, “What just happened?” “It was fourth down and they got an interception.” “What’s an interception?” My own understanding of the rules fell somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the terminology eluded me. I would say, “The quarterback is trying to make a connection” instead of “The quarterback is trying to complete the pass.” I called the receiver the catcher. And even though P.J. had explained it to me half a dozen times, I still wasn’t entirely clear on the definition of a punt. Because so many cheerleaders were shaky on the rules, we preferred our dances to our cheers, which correlated with game action. My rookie season, any girl in any corner could start a cheer, and then the rest of her corner would join in. I was very careful not to initiate cheers because whoever started the cheer had to remember which team we were playing, if we were on offense or defense, and whether the action had stopped due to an injury, because we never cheer during injuries. And sometimes I worried that I would start the cheer at the same time as another girl—which often happened. In my second season, the rule was changed so that one designated girl per corner got to lead cheers. During my third season I was that girl. It’s still scary every time I do it but I like the extra attention. I feel like I’m coming full circle, from my seventh-Grade sideline cheering to doing it on an NFL football field, thirty years later. In the future, cheerleader training should most certainly include a crash course in the rules of the game with one of the Bengals assistant coaches. It would be a win-win situation. We would get to ask all the questions we’re afraid to ask one another, and the coach would get to spend a couple of hours with thirtytwo of the most beautiful women in Cincinnati. At seventeen seconds before halftime during that Bengals-Rams game, we paraded back into the locker room for a break. (Ben-Gal cheerleaders don’t do halftime shows at games. Those are allotted to local bands or charities. We do halftime shows only at Halloween if there is a game on October 31, Christmas, and sometimes for the Junior Ben-Gals game.) In the locker room we freshened up, talked about the
game, scarfed cookies, and drank lots of water. Anything that had been bothering us the first half—snags in hose, falling fake eyelashes, bad hair, errant bra pads—got fixed. A few minutes before the third quarter began we went back onto the field. Nothing prepared me for the intensity of cheering with an actual football game going on behind us. At practices we were all that existed. Now there were these three-hundred-pound guys behind us, tackling the hell out of one another. During one time-out per quarter, we ran from our corners out to the center of the field and did a feature dance. Some of the players would still be standing there. Ochocinco would be glancing at us, halfinterested. Others looked bored or flashed a smile. Then the time-out would end, our song would stop, and we would race back to our corners before the next play. I wondered if the players had any idea how early in the season we started practicing and how little we were paid in comparison to them. In 2009 the minimum salary for rookie NFL players was $300,000. The same year, a Ben-Gal cheerleader earned $750—and that was only if she cheered ten games. When the players interacted with us on the field, it was usually for show, a way of getting the fans revved up. They understood the symbolic power of cheerleaders. At one game in 2005 after a touchdown, Chad Ochocinco (then Chad Johnson) mock-proposed to a cheerleader named Daphne, and the fans went crazy. In a 2010 game he handed Sarah J. the football after a great catch and the clip was played on TV. Though the Bengals lost to the Rams, 24 to 21, that August night, it was only the preseason and even they didn’t seem to care. The Ben-Gals walked back to our locker room down the Bengal brick road, congratulating one another for getting through the first game. I was drenched. We all were. Cheerleaders do not take off their uniforms after a game; they peel them off. We chugged diet soda and water. We blotted our faces and reapplied foundation and makeup, because how we looked after the game was as important as how we looked before it.