How the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders became improbable American sports icons

The untold story of the women behind ‘America’s Team’ are featured in ‘Daughters of the Sexual Revolution.’

Courtesy: “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution”

As part of Pop Culture Talk, a new series that looks at some of the most influential folks in helping to shape pop culture who you might not know about, we speak with some of the original members of the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading squad, arguably the most iconic cheer group in American pro sports. Their stories are featured in the new documentary, “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” which premiered at the South By Southwest Film Conference in March. Two of the women, Dana Presley Killmer and Toni Washington, as well as filmmaker Dana Adam Shapiro, sat down with Medium for an in-depth chat with PCT. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

For most, the public understands the cultural significance of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and what they mean. Dana, what drew you to the project? What did you learn about these women?

Dana Adam Shapiro, director: I think I knew of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders as everybody does, but I knew nothing about them. Knowing about them in theory it occurred to me that none one has actually seen the people involved. They are loved and loathed. People either think they are these heroes or criticized them as being regressive or superficial in some way. If you look under the hood and see the genesis of the story. It was just very surprising to me that this was a group of women, very independent, very empowered during the time of this sexual revolution who were criticized at the time for being just the opposite of that. when we got deeper, it was about how do you find your purpose of life? No one ever put the ideas of service and cheerleading together. There was something about cheerleading that seemed frivolous to me, but it wasn’t. that’s a great moment as a journalist when you’re wrong about something. Suzanne came from a military family and the cheerleaders became so big that they got a call one day from Gen. John Wickham who said they wanted them to come to entertain the troops. This was during a time when women couldn’t serve in the country. She never thought cheerleading would be her path to serve her country. To me, that’s the biggest question: how do you find your purpose? I think very few people would associate cheerleading with that mission, yet when you speak to these women, while they loved being cheerleaders for the team, a lot of them talk about it in a different way — how serving for the USO was the most meaningful thing to them.

One of the recurring reasons as to why cheerleading for the Cowboys meant so much to this group of women was that it was bigger than just being a job. You’ve even called it a public service. Why did you see it as a public service to the country?

Dana Presley Killmer, former cheerleader: So, I auditioned because I love football and loved to dance. I thought it would be fun. My ex-husband dared me and once someone dares me, I’m going to do it. then there was this happy coincidence that happened. At the time, Toni and I were cheerleaders, there was no cable TV, so the only thing you saw about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders was the uniform, the boots, and the smiles on Sunday afternoon. Once we became Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, we learned about the hard work and sacrifice. Every time the team went out of town, we spent our time in veterans’ homes, children’s homes, children’s orphanages, nursing homes. We gave up Christmases and Spring Breaks to serve on the USO tours. I was in a jeep with Suzanne Mitchell when a PLO [member of the Palestine Liberation Organization] shot at our jeep and bullet almost hit her between the eyes in Beirut. We did a lot of crazy things, but the service part was the best.

If you ever performed for a military audience, it ruins you. They stand, they scream, they hoot and holler, they hold up their lighters, they gave you six or seven standing ovations. They’re so grateful and wonderful that when you come back home, you start to think that other people don’t like us, because no one responds like that. To be able to be overseas and entertain the fine men and women of the U.S. military was such a privilege. I loved being on the sidelines, but I didn’t re-audition for four straight years to be on the sidelines. I auditioned to travel to other countries and o more service work. That was really fulfilling for me.

Everyone sees the glory of what it means to being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, but what was the other extreme like? What was the hardest part about the job or the culture surrounding being a Cowboys cheerleader?

Toni Washington, former cheerleader: I would have said rehearsals; they were grueling. Five nights a week, we drove to Garland, Texas, and we danced at a studio. We started at 7 at night. There was no air conditioning in this small room. Thirty-six women would be in there dancing until everybody got it.

Killmer: Every night.

Washington: On Thursday nights, you’d go and set the yard lines. It’s all beautiful and coordinated, but you have to know when Michael Jackson is at this point of the song in “Beat It,” that on this eight-count you have to be on this yard line and then you gotta work up to this yard line. It’s beautiful to watch, but a lot of work to get there. You put four groups of eight on the field and they play the music that they’ll play in the game. You have to be on: you’re remembering the introduction performance kick line and you’re studying the whole game the routines you were going to do throughout that day. The rehearsals were intense.

Killmer: I think being misunderstood was hard. Toni and I were a part of the 1983–84 team. We were going to Fresno State University to raise money for the women’s athletic department. I think we raised $200,000 for the school. But when we got there, the women’s athletic dorms had posters hanging out that said, “Hearts and minds, not bumps and grinds.” They were screaming, “Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, go home!” They were booing and throwing things at our bus. We only had that reaction two or three other times. Suzanne asked me to go on the news to talk to some of the women. Some of the students sat on this panel on network TV and they said we were sending women back to the dark ages. I said, “I disagree, we’re all about women being empowered and doing everything they want to do. I’m a PR director during the day and a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at night and on the weekends, and I’m doing exactly what I want to do.” But that was hard since people misunderstood that we were taking them backwards instead of empowering them to take women forward.

Credit: The Associated Press

One of the general feelings to come from this back-and-forth is the struggle for the narrative, with those against you all saying this is a story, and experiences, based on exploitation instead of empowerment. What’s it like for you ladies, and you Dana, as a filmmaker, to flesh out this story and get your perspective in to clear the air?

Shapiro: When you use a word like “exploitation,” it implies coercion. It implies you’re taking advantage of someone to do something against their will. These people who tried out to be Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, thousands of them each year, would have given their right arm to be in that spot. And those who made it chose to be there again. I don’t think it’s for someone else to tell them they were exploited. Dana would say, “We are the modern American woman, we are doing exactly what we want to do. How can you say to me that we are being coerced or exploited when this is my choice as a free thinking independent woman?” How can someone say that about any person? That’s part of what the title is about. “The Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” is a play on the American Revolution — it’s an uprising against any type of oppression. We were in the middle of a sexual revolution in the ’70s, people trying to tell you what to do. I think we’re getting to a point in the culture where that type of shaming is getting called out now, whereas back then it wasn’t. And look, a lot of the intellectuals at the time were going after them, so those people had credence in their medium. That kind of judgmental behavior is very corrosive in the culture and I think, 40 years later, you’re sitting with women about why they did this, the impact it had on them and the positive time it was. That’s what drew me to the story. There was something righteous going on and it was being smeared in a way. That’s why you have to come to their defense.

Killmer: I was never sexually harassed as a cheerleader. In fact, I was protected. We had security guards constantly. We always protected our image — we never appeared anywhere where there was alcohol. There was a company in town, a mattress company, that once a year called for two cheerleaders for a personal appearance. And the organization would say, “Absolutely not, they’re going to ask you to lie on a mattress and it’s going to go all over the newspapers.” We were so protective of the uniform and our image. And we were not harassed. Toni, I think you should address that. We were so forward-thinking at the time.

Washington: I think it’s about platform. I think Suzanne established a platform for women to express themselves. It was about a platform for a vast array of women. What if that platform existed for women of today? She was all about, it’s not what happens to you, but what happens through you. And she did it. through her we were able to entertain. I’ve been to Iraq, Iran, the DMZ; I’ve danced in Italy and Greece. I was an 18-, 19-year-old from California who came to Texas with my mom when she got divorced, lived with my grandmother for a couple years. I didn’t tell anyone I was trying out — and my whole world changed through another woman.

You can make an argument that the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders would not be what they are today if not for Suzanne Mitchell being the kind of den mother she was during those first years. What was it like to be with her and what impact did she have on you all?

Shapiro: She is the heart of the movie. She was the barrier to entry, no one would speak to us unless they had her blessing. Number one, it was the beginning of the movie. I had called a bunch of women who couldn’t have been nicer on the phone, but when it got to me interviewing them, they all said that I needed to speak to Suzanne. I was like, what? Do you really need this woman’s permission? We kept hearing that, so it was obviously something that needed to be addressed. I called Suzanne and I think she sized me up pretty quickly. She asked to see some of my work and she called me and said, “Well, if you’re serious, then you need to come down quick because I’m dying.” That was one of the first things she said to me. We had these marching orders: if you want to do it, do it now. We flew down and first thing she said was walking up to her porch was, “You’re late.” We were seven minutes late.

Killmer: She believed in the Vince Lombardi line of if you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late. That was a big deal for Suzanne.

Shapiro: I was in Fredericksburg, Texas. I had no idea where I was.

Killmer: She didn’t change for anyone. Suzanne was so much larger than life. She was our mentor, our second mom, for some she was mom. She broke the glass ceiling for women in the ’70s — there were no other female executives in the NFL. In 1972, there was no other female executive in the NFL, so she broke the glass ceiling and she broke it without announcement or ceremony. She just did her job. There was no spread in the newspaper about what she was doing. We didn’t always like her when we were cheerleaders, because she was tough. But we always loved and respected her.

Washington: She was like my mother. I have a 12-year-old son and she came to his birth. She never came to any weddings or any births because she said if I did that I’d be doing that every weekend. After I stopped cheerleading, she asked me to join her on tour. So every year I’d leave during Christmas or in the spring and travel with her. We got very close and knew a lot about one another, and I became a better woman seeing from the other side how you run a business like this, how you deal with people. I learned a lot. It was kind of a finishing school for me. When I went on through life, I learned to become a woman. You see women and they can be catty. But there’s no time for that; this is something bigger than us. We needed to be on. You do that service. Were we women of service? Yes, we were.

Killmer: You know, when Suzanne was shot at in Beirut, the reason that happened to us was because we were at Marine base and it was a half-blown up hangar with the largest U.S. flag I have ever seen. There were 3,000 Marines, mostly 18 years old, and they were sitting in this hangar watching us. Our escort said we had to be out of there and had to leave on the Israeli highway, which was a gravel road. We had to be out of there by 11 p.m. because after that, the PLOs starting shooting warning fires. They weren’t trying to kill; they’d shoot warning shots and sometimes those would ricochet and kill. And Suzanne would stay at the edge of that stage at midnight until we shook every Marine’s hand, hugged them and took all their mail. We could get their mail home in two weeks. At midnight, they put 12 cheerleaders in 20 jeeps. I knew we were in trouble when they put a jeep of Marines in between a jeep of Marines and cheerleaders. Suzanne nearly died that night because she wouldn’t leave the base until every single Marine knew America loved him. We went on that gravel highway to get back to the beach where a boat would take us to our ship, and a PLO starts shooting and the bullets ricochet. But that’s the woman she was. When we got back to the ship and we were crying and the navy tried to give us finger sandwiches and Pepsis, and Suzanne wanted to talk about the amazing Marines we met. Not about how she nearly died but the amazing men we met. She was brave and that forced us to be brave.

Obviously, given the current state of the #MeToo movement, the timing of the film is very interesting.

Washington: Isn’t it?

Knowing what you know now, what role do you think the modern cheerleader has in addressing some of the similar issues that have been constant in the sports world?

Washington: I think it’s about being strong. The movies have the Screen Actors’ Guild. There is nothing like that for our field. For the current cheerleaders for any squad, it’s about maintaining character or integrity. You don’t do something because someone encourages you or you’re being offered something at the end of the road. You do it because you want to entertain. I wanted to help nursing squads, I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to see little girls see me doing something they can be proud of. You have to do things with the thought of, “If I’m not here or not doing this particular thing, what impact did I have? It’s not just about me. What impact am I making?” That’s the responsibility. They’re supposed to be entertaining a crowd. Then, off the field you have a responsibility because you can captivate an audience just saying I’m a cheerleader. You use that platform to make a good statement, to do something that’s going to impact somebody.

Killmer: I would say to the current cheerleaders to lift others up. Be strong and lift others up. I think a lot of times women are their own worst enemy, and I know that irritates a lot of women when I say that. I’m going to have some haters when I say that. but a lot of women make it to the top and like being the only female the top and they don’t bring other women up with them. If we, as women, lifted up other women, we would have a lot more women directors, producers, PR directors, CEOs, or EVPs. I’d say to the current cheerleaders to be strong and lift others up.

Shapiro: It’s worth noting for the timing of the film that it seems like it might be dropped into the timing of everything going on now in culture, we started this movie in 2015. Suzanne died on Sept. 27, 2016. This is before [President Donald] Trump and the Women’s Marches and #MeToo movement. It’s not like we were trying to enter this discussion and using this topic. It just comes up.

In the end, what’s the enduring legacy of the Cowboys cheerleaders?

Killmer: Recently, the Smithsonian just accepted the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading uniform. I don’t think it wouldn’t have happened if Suzanne Mitchell didn’t pave the way during those first 10 years from 1972 to 1982. I think what they’re doing today all started with the women that Dana features in his film.

Shapiro: Another part of the legacy is our movie really happens in 1967. Four years earlier, JFK is assassinated and Dallas is known as the city of hate. The American dream died in this place. A decade later, this place is looked at as hopeful — home of America’s team and America’s sweethearts. The transformation of a city, and saving a city through sports, was really interesting. This idea that a stadium can serve as something even churches couldn’t do. It wasn’t segregated. Everyone came to Texas Stadium on Sundays.

Killmer: Toni and I cheered together on Sunday.

Shapiro: This idea that something that might seem frivolous, like sports, can bring a community together and save the soul of a city. You saw it in New York after 9/11. You take something like cheerleading or a football game and the way it can bring people together, and that’s a powerful story arc. To go from the city of hate to home of America’s team is pretty amazing.

Ladies, having gone through this whole experience, do you have any regrets and would you do it again?

Washington: Absolutely no regrets. None.

Killmer: I’d do it all over again, but have one regret. I had a divorce during my cheerleading years and the media kits had already been created, so I had to use my ex’s name and I didn’t get to honor my father by using his last name. other than that, no other regrets. I would do it 100 times over again.

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