Angela VanDeWalle: Memoir Of A Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader
By Joe Battaglia
Angela VanDeWalle was at a crossroads.
Like many college freshmen, she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to study or which field to pursue as a profession, but unlike many of her teen peers at the University of Texas she also wasn’t much for the stereotypical college existence.
“I was in a big state of transition,” VanDeWalle said. “My boyfriend and I were really serious at the time and we were in a more mature mental space than most entering freshmen. I wasn’t really involved with the normal student body things. I wasn’t out partying or trying to find my niche at UT.
“The two of us were pursuing different business ventures and planning for the long-term future. We got engaged a month into my freshman year, so most of my freshman college experience had to do with wedding planning and house hunting, and I didn’t think much about dance or extracurricular activities. We sort of joke that when I was 18, I was older than I am now.”
A member of her drill team in high school, VanDeWalle opted not to try out for the cheerleading team or pom squad at Texas, even though the thought of it had entered her mind, and had all but closed that chapter of her life.
It was a chance opportunity from her talent and modeling agency (a hobby of VanDeWalle’s during her teen years) that not only rekindled VanDeWalle’s passion for cheer but set her on a fast track to what most would consider to be the pinnacle of the sport.
“I got married after my freshman year in college and sort of entered this different, more grown-up chapter of my life,” she said. “I worked for a little while, but still missed dance. I think I got the itch for dance again when I was cast in the movie ‘Miss Congeniality.’
“Shortly after that, my husband decided to go to chiropractic school, which required a move to Dallas from Austin, and I decided to continue my education there.
“While I was there, I thought, ‘Hey, why not try out for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders?’”
Angela Bockhorn VanDeWalle grew up in Austin, Texas. As a very active child, her parents naturally steered her toward sports. In elementary school, she began competitive gymnastics, which she continued right through middle school.
“Early middle school is when I kind of got to that line in the sand of either get really, really serious about this and dedicate your whole life to it, or maybe it’s time to cut it and do something else,” VanDeWalle said. “Gymnastics was something I did for fun, it was never something that I had huge, serious aspirations to continue at a high level, so I left it behind.”
Through seventh and eighth grade she explored a bit, participating in various extracurricular clubs at school, even trying her hand at volleyball and track and field, both of which she said she enjoyed. But when VanDeWalle got to Westwood High she discovered her true calling: dance.
“I did sports for fun at recess or in PE but it just wasn’t my passion; it really wasn’t what I was into,” she said. “In middle school there was like a pep squad or a cheer squad sort of thing, but it was more fan support. So I think I drifted for a little bit trying to find my place.
“Cheer would have been a really natural place for me to move into coming from the gymnastics background, and I often wonder why didn’t my parents really encourage me or make me try out for cheer? But since my group of friends weren’t cheerleaders, I just didn’t see myself there. So I just didn’t try out for it.
“I just kind of took a pause, I guess, until freshman year and decided I wanted to get back into it. My core group of friends were all doing drill team so I tried out for the Westwood Sundancers, which ended up being the best decision I could have made at the time.”
It didn’t take long for VanDeWalle to uncover the vast differences between the cheerleading and drill teams at her high school.
“I think historically cheerleaders were chosen solely by popularity,” she said. “Fortunately, whenever I was going up through school, I believe there was a shift to skill over popularity in cheerleading and drill team. My drill team had all types of girls, with a wide variety of social backgrounds, friend groups, and interests outside dance.
“There was a slight rivalry between the drill team and the cheerleaders at Westwood. That said, we were also extremely close friends with the cheerleaders. I think they’re just different styles. The cheerleaders are your first interaction when you’re in the stands, so they have to be super-high energy, really bubbly. They’re kind of the face of everything, whereas the drill team is more about the craft and the art of the dance and the performance. We’re not really talking and interacting with the stands, we’re on the field providing entertainment or in the stands cheering for the team along with the crowd.
“Back then, I don’t think I had the personality type for cheer,” VanDeWalle added. “I was a little bit more reserved. I wouldn’t say I was a really shy person. I just wasn’t always as outgoing or bubbly, I guess. It was more intimidating to me to enter that world than to enter the dance world. Dance was more of a natural fit for my personality.”
By her senior year, VanDeWalle was elected an officer for the Westwood Sundancers, which exposed her to a higher-level of dance.
“Being an officer on my drill team was a real game changer for me as I was involved in the leadership of the team, participating in choreography, and getting to see behind the scenes what it actually took to make the team work,” VanDeWalle said. “I also felt like my continued practice really improved my skills as a dancer and performer.
“I love performing. It’s kind of my creative expression. I think we’re all made with certain talents and gifts that when we’re not using them, it feels like something’s missing and when we are using them, we’re most alive. Dance has always felt that way for me.”
By the time she graduated from Westwood, VanDeWalle discovered that there could, indeed, be too much of a good thing, and her love of dance waned.
“Dance consumed my whole life in high school,” she said. “My senior year, I had six or seven class periods, three of which were dance. On top of that, every single morning we had practice and 7 or 7:30 before school, plus it took up pretty much every weekend and a lot of summers. I loved it, but I just felt like it’d be great to have a little break.”
When she enrolled at the University of Texas, VanDeWalle was tempted to try out for the Longhorns Pom Squad but the allure of performing in front of thousands of fans at Darrel Royal Stadium on football Saturdays didn’t outweigh the burnout she was feeling.
Besides, she still had ways to dabble in performance. As a 14-year-old, she began modeling as a hobby. Although it wasn’t a major pursuit, she did have a talent agent and was able to do some regional print ads and local television commercials.
After completing her freshman year at UT in 1998, VanDeWalle and her boyfriend, Alex, got married. Soon after, she found herself longing to dance again when she was contacted by her talent agent about auditions for the movie “Miss Congeniality” starring Sandra Bullock.
“I showed up and it was a dance tryout,” she said. “They taught us a bit of choreography and then we auditioned for Donald Petrie, the director, and some other associate producers and choreographers. It was a long audition; just one day, but we were there for hours and hours.”
While she recalls the audition set-up as being “relaxed,” VanDeWalle was anything but calm during the process.
“In that industry, I mean, gosh, you win some and you lose some and you just have to roll with it, or else you’ll drive yourself insane,” she said. “But I’m naturally a highly competitive person, so I don’t like to lose. I don’t ever really approach anything unless I’m planning to do really well at it, or to get the part.”
VanDeWalle did indeed get the part, and was cast as a pageant contestant, Miss Oregon Uma Trough. Although the part had no dialogue, the Screen Actors Guild considered it a principal role because she was a dancer.
While scenes showing the exterior of the St. Regis Hotel, the Alamo and River Walk were shot on location in New York and San Antonio, most of the movie, including all of VanDeWalle’s scenes, was shot in Austin. The interior of the St. Regis was shot in the Driskill Hotel; the pageant scenes were shot at the Bass Concert Hall on UT’s campus; and the scenes depicting the pageant contestants in their hotel rooms were shot in the Omni Austin.
“We filmed about seven weeks,” VanDeWalle recalled. “It was a lot of waiting around though. You show up early to hair and makeup, you’re in there for hours, you get your costume on, and then you wait because they’re doing a million things to prepare for that one scene that they’re going to film for two minutes.
“So it was a lot of waiting and hanging out with the other girls that were cast as the other pageant contestants, which ended up being a lot of fun. We formed these really great friendships and bonds I think as most people do in cheer and dance, from spending so much time together. I still have really good friends that I met on that film set.”
More importantly, dance had been reintroduced into her life.
“I think I really missed dance,” VanDeWalle said. “It was so exciting to be a part of that world again.”
Approximately one month after filming on “Miss Congeniality” wrapped, the VanDeWalles moved to Dallas so Alex could pursue chiropractic school. Angela decided to finish her undergraduate studies in interior design at the University of North Texas. With opportunities in Dallas leaning more toward print than film on the performance spectrum, she figured she could resume modeling on the side.
But after half-heartedly pursuing that hobby for a few months, she decided that dance was truly where her heart was. That’s when she started seriously thinking about trying out for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, not the first squad to grace the sidelines of the NFL but certainly the most iconic.
“In Texas, a lot of girls grow up watching the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and always knowing that’s something that they want to be,” VanDeWalle said. “It wasn’t really like that for me. I knew about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but I had never seen them perform, didn’t know that much about them. But I did have a high school friend who was a cheerleader at Westwood who was on the squad.”
VanDeWalle called Brandi Nace-Redmond, one of only 40 women in the 43-year history of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders to spend at least five years on the squad, to get the lowdown on what being a DCC entailed.
“Her personality was what you would think of when you think of an all-American cheerleader. She is a beautiful girl, red hair, very striking, and just a sweetheart. So I called her up and said, ‘Hey! What do you think about this? Do you like it?’
“Brandi was always so nice and head everything, you know, homecoming queen, head cheerleader, pageant contestant,” VanDeWalle recalled.
“I wanted to find out what was it like to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. Did she enjoy it? Is it something she thought would be a good fit for me? Like I said, I don’t like to try out for things unless I think I have a really good shot at making it. So I didn’t want to waste my time if it was really more cheer and tumbling and all of that rather than dance. When she said, ‘Yes, you’d be amazing. You should come try out, it’s really fun, you have to do it’ I decided to give it a shot.”
When probed for advice on the tryout process, Nace-Redmond told VanDeWalle that the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders actually held prep classes in the winter ahead of the official spring auditions during which they taught some of the actual sideline routines. On top of that, the choreographers who judge the auditions taught the classes, and DCC director Kelli McGonagill Finglass popped into those classes and pre-screened any girls that stood out in her mind.
“Since there are so many girls at auditions, any extra exposure you get to Kelli was advantageous,” VanDeWalle said.
While VanDeWalle recognized the obvious advantages to attending the DCC prep classes, she didn’t put extraordinary pressure on herself to perform well there.
“I don’t think I really realized the gravity of that situation until later,” she said. “I walked into it very lighthearted mentally. I went into it like, ‘Hey, it’s just a fun dance class!’ I didn’t really realize how serious it was.”
She also didn’t realize that, physically, this was no typical dance class.
“Coming from a dance background, most girls are used to practices being little or no makeup, your hair thrown up in a ponytail because you’re in practice mode, you’re going to be sweating,” she said. “No, no, not the way of the DCC. All practices are in full hair and makeup and you should be dressed appropriately, looking appearance-ready at all times.
“Brandi did not tell me that! I mean I did have my hair quasi-fixed, and I had makeup on. But I may have spent a little more time primping if I had known beforehand.”
In April 2001, VanDeWalle showed up at Texas Stadium in Irving for the DCC tryouts “foolishly confident.” It wasn’t until she saw the surroundings and her competition that she realized the true magnitude of what she was attempting.
“I don’t think I realized how big a deal it was until I was there at auditions and saw just the sheer number of girls there to try out,” she said. “They were all beautiful girls and wonderful dancers. Then, it got a little intimidating. Coming into the tryout, I knew I had done the prep class, I had always had success in dance in the past, and I’m really competitive, so I just figured, ‘Well, yeah, I’m going to make it.’
“I certainly started to second guess that once I arrived, though. Despite that, I think showing confidence, even if you are shaking on the inside, is one of the keys to a successful audition.”
The preliminaries resembled a musical cattle call. Approximately 600 applicants wearing numbered bibs on their chests lined up in rows of five. Each of them was called up in small groups, and when the music started, they performed a freestyle dance for the panel of judges.
“The purpose of it is just to see if you can move to the music,” VanDeWalle said. “Do you have rhythm? You can tell just from freestyle dance whether the girl has some dance skills and if they’re a good performer. Do you have a nice smile? Do you project well? It’s an easy kind of weed out and a way for them to narrow down into semifinals.”
At the end of judging, VanDeWalle joined her counterparts in eagerly awaiting the results. Officials unfurled and posted a giant scroll of paper with lists of numbers of the women advancing to the semifinals.
Her number was among those on the board.
“I was super-excited, hopeful, nervous and everything all rolled into one,” VanDeWalle said.
Prior to the next round of judging, VanDeWalle and the other semifinalists were taught the choreography each would be graded on: a short jazz dance and the renowned Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders kick line routine. Unlike in the prelims, each semifinalist introduced herself and performed the routine within their group of five… and then endured another anxious wait.
“The wait was really nerve-wracking,” she said. “You have some confidence, but you can sometimes start to psych yourself out. As I’m watching row after row of all these girls going, I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, what are they looking for? All these girls are amazing! Am I better than that girl? Am I prettier than that girl?’ It’s hard not to have some self-doubt in that situation.”
Once again. VanDeWalle made the cut.
At this point, the stakes escalated and competition intensified. Top newcomers then battled veteran DCCs who are required to try out every season but are spared the first two rounds of competition.
“Switching to finals was a whole other ball game,” VanDeWalle said “You are now, the top pick of the litter and you have to go through a lot more steps. You have a face-to-face interview with the director, then perform an original choreographed solo routine in costume, the kick line and the jazz routine that has been choreographed for you.
“You also have to take a written test that includes questions on everything from government officials to current events, to the history of the Cowboys to a general knowledge of NFL football. Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are performers but they’re also ambassadors who do a lot of interviews and are expected to speak intelligently.”
With Nace-Redmond’s help, VanDeWalle was able to zero in on likely test topics to study for beforehand. After “haphazardly” trying to choreograph her original dance on her own, she enlisted Power House Studio in Dallas for help modifying the song choice and assisting with choreography on the routine.
On the day of the finals, VanDeWalle donned black jazz pants and little black crop top -- a costume choice, looking back now, she believes was “naïve,” considering that most of the girls wore more elaborate costumes, -- and set out to impress the expert panel with her physical appearance, physical fitness, dance style, poise, grace, intelligence and showmanship.
“After the finals, you sit in your tryout seats and they call out your name and number if you made it,” VanDeWalle said. “It’s the moment of truth, you’re sitting there, waiting to hear whether you’re in or you’re out and you walk away excited or devastated.
“They called my name somewhere toward the middle so it wasn’t complete agony and I was over the moon!”
VanDeWalle thought about calling her husband with the good news, but instead tried keeping him waiting on pins and needles.
“I went home and just kind of walked in and I knew that I would sort of psych him out because I’m sure he’d been expecting a phone call from me,” she said. “I did the, ‘Oh, yeah, no I made it!’ And he got really excited. Later, I called my parents that evening. I told them I made it into training camp -- I haven’t made the squad yet, I can still get cut, but to them I made the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
VanDeWalle survived the “physically- and emotionally-taxing” training camp, a rigorous battle to learn more than 20 sideline, pre-game and halftime routines while avoiding the dreaded tap on the shoulder from DCC assistant directors indicating your dream was over. Despite struggling with a hamstring injury that limited the height of her kicks, she made the 2001-02 squad.
“There are a lot of little details that are required of you when you make the team, but ultimately they all have to do with preserving the extremely high expectations and standard of excellence of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” she said. “Each of us represent the organization and they expect everything from conduct to physical appearance to be at the highest level.”
The weight and body mass index of each cheerleader was taken during tryouts and the expectation was for that size to be maintained. VanDeWalle said that wasn’t difficult to do given the team’s training regimen, which consisted of two- to three-hour practices four nights per week. Weekly practice frequency increased for those cheerleaders selected to the elite dance squad, which includes additional appearances and performs on USO tours.
Outside of the DCC, cheerleaders were also expected to maintain an outside job, attend school full time, or be a stay-at-home mother. VanDeWalle picked up shifts as a waitress on nights and weekends she didn’t have practice or games, while balancing her interior design studies at North Texas.
Part of the requirement is probably to insure that cheerleaders can support themselves financially. Despite having average ticket prices around $85 and sharing in the league’s $7.24 billion in television revenue, NFL teams pay their cheerleaders alarmingly little in relation, making it truly a labor of love. Most cheerleaders earn between $70 and $90 per week. The average player salary exceeds $2 million annually or $125,000 per week.
As of 2014, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were the highest-paid in the league at $150 per home game with opportunities to make extra money by participating in paid public appearances. The squad is estimated to bring in more than $1 million annually from its reality show “Making The Team” on Country Music Television, sales from its swimsuit calendar, and it’s summer camp summer for aspiring cheerleaders where participants pay $189 for the three-day session.
VanDeWalle said that having an outside job could be needed as a means of survival “depending on your personal financial circumstances.”
“I just really pretended it was purely a hobby because the pay was so minimal,” she added. “In addition to the DCC wanting to have diverse, well-rounded, all-American women enriching the squad as a whole, certainly I think the outside job requirement might also have to do with the girls needing to pay for living expenses as well.”
According to VanDeWalle, there was no putting a price tag on the most cherished experience of being a DCC, donning the internationally-recognized uniform -- the blue blouse with western lapels, the white, fringed vest with crystal-outlined blue stars, white, star-spangled shorts, and white cowboy-style boots.
“The uniform is so sacred,” she said. “You get fitted for the DCC uniform and that is a big deal. You get it for the season and then you return it at the end of the year. It does not belong to you. Our boots were supplied to us but we were in charge of polishing them, and maintaining them. We were given instructions on how to do that.
“Other than that, there was not really a lot to do for uniform maintenance other than just not mistreat your pom pons, as any cheerleader would know. You don’t want to leave them out in the heat in your car, they’ll be damaged, or get them partly squished under something. But we get brand new ones at the beginning of the year and you go through the painstaking process of individually pulling apart each one of the little ribbons. You want to look your best and you want everything that you’re wearing to look immaculate.”
VanDeWalle got to put the uniform on and perform for the first time during the Cowboys’ second preseason game of the 2001 season. She doesn’t remember the opponent (it was the Denver Broncos), but recalls the sweltering 100-degree heat that August Saturday.
“The biggest thing I remember was coming out of the tunnel,” she said. “It was this really big, dramatic experience at Texas Stadium when I was there. You stand in the tunnel with all the players and all of a sudden you’re supposed to wait for the music cues that you’ve been practicing to, but it is so loud in there that it’s hard to hear anything.
“All of a sudden these, explosives and smoke cannons go off, you run out, the crowd is going wild and they’re cheering and it’s just full of energy. Once you’re out there and you’ve finished the routine, you can stop and breathe for a moment and start to take it all in. I think for those first couple of minutes, you don’t really breathe. You’re just caught up in the moment of excitement.”
During her two seasons as a DCC, there wasn’t much for VanDeWalle to cheer about on the field. Quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin, each a Hall of Famer, both retired and legendary coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer were long gone, replaced by Dave Campo, the only coach in franchise history with a losing record. The team limped to consecutive 5-11 seasons, during which time the lone bright spot was running back Emmitt Smith breaking the all-time NFL career rushing record.
But VanDeWalle never got caught up in the wins and losses. It’s the other experiences that continue to resonate today.
“We had a friends and family section that you could purchase tickets to and people would kind of trade out coming,” she said. “My husband was always there, of course, but good friends, my parents, my in-laws would come visit and we would rotate around. It was so exciting to be on the field and see them right there cheering for me.”
For the first time in her life, VanDeWalle had to sacrifice Thanksgivings in Austin with her close-knit family as the Cowboys play that day every year. Her rookie year with the DCC, no one advised her how to approach the pre-game.
“They feed you a Thanksgiving meal before the game,” VanDeWalle said. “I made the horrible rookie mistake of like eating that Thanksgiving dinner before going out and performing in the heat for three hours. I was miserable for the first half of the game. I remember that and I remember the next year telling the new rookie girls, just have a few bites of everything, do not stuff yourself, this is not your usual Thanksgiving, you will be miserable. Save a piece of the pumpkin pie and eat it afterwards.”
VanDeWalle said some of her most memorable experiences were from the charity work that she got to do with the DCC.
“We did a lot of work with children’s hospitals and nursing homes,” she said. “They were tough situations sometimes emotionally, but going in there and seeing these people just light up was really awesome. We would do some of them in combination with the Cowboys players, which of course was a really big deal to everybody we would visit. It was just so moving and fulfilling for me.”
Another standout moment for VanDeWalle came during her second year on the squad when she was chosen for the2003 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders swimsuit calendar.
“We were pre-fit for swimsuits and then sent on a trip to Cabo San Lucas,” she recalled. “There were 17 or 18 of us and we each did a shoot with photographers Bobby Badger and Wade Livingston. We shot at this gorgeous mansion in Pedregal in the cliffs in Cabo. I did another shoot on the beach and one on a boat, but unfortunately I got seasick.
“Having the swimsuit calendar unveiling and seeing that I made the cut was so exciting! You hope you will have your own month, but since there are only 12 months in a year, you know many of the girls will walk away without being featured in the calendar that year.”
Other “perks” VanDeWalle enjoyed as a DCC included flying to one appearance on a private jet, riding to others in a limousine, and being recognized everywhere in Dallas whenever she was in uniform.
“The real perks of being a DCC were more intangible...after all, Being a DCC is a pretty cool thing to be,” VanDeWalle said. “Most everybody has heard of, or knows and respects the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and being a part of that organization makes you kind of famous in Dallas. You’re sort of cheerleading royalty.”
In 2003, VanDeWalle did not tryout for a third season with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, knowing that after graduating from North Texas in December of that year, she would be moving back to Austin with her husband and could not fulfill the required April-to-April commitment to being a DCC.
“In some ways, for sure, I was sad to leave,” she said. “But in other ways, it is so time-consuming that two years is a lot, and I felt like I had gained from it a lot of different experiences while I was a part of the DCC; rookie experiences, veterans experiences. There are some things that maybe I wasn’t able to do or that I didn’t achieve on the squad that I would have if I had stayed longer. But ultimately I was very satisfied with my experience there and I felt like, ‘OK, it’s time for me to move on.’”
After moving back home to Austin, VanDeWalle embarked on her professional career. After spending almost three years as a project designer with STG Design, she now owns her own interior design company. Although she didn’t pursue the dance industry or anything with a direct link to her experience as a DCC as a career path, she believes that the experience has left an indelible print on her as a professional.
“I would say that being a part of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders really helped instill in me high standards and expectations for achievement, performance, and excellence for myself in my own life,” she said. “I feel like I took all the things that I learned and practiced there and I tried to implement them into my everyday life. Hard work, setting the bar really high for myself, and achieving those goals is something I’ve taken away from that experience.”
“Certainly, I think having a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader on your resume doesn’t hurt. It opens doors for you. I think people see that and realize that it’s no small feat.”
Now a mother of two, VanDeWalle might yet get pulled back into the sport -- by her 9-year-old daughter, who did some cheerleading at Cheer Station before choosing to focus on ballet and jazz at the Dance Institute.
“She is in dance, but not because Mommy pushed her there,” VanDeWalle said. “Of course, secretly, I always hoped that she would pursue dance, but she’s very independent and has always had a variety of interests from the beginning, She’s recently gravitated back into dance and I think she has a natural gift for it, so I’m glad that she has chosen to put more time into it.
“She’s very athletic and she’s very good at sports, it’s kind of funny. She’s so much like me it’s ridiculous. I was always really good at sports when I was a child, but I wasn’t interested in doing them. I was like, ‘Well, sports are fine to play on the recess field or PE,’ but I didn’t want to do it for my extracurricular activity. Dance was just where my heart was and it’s the same thing with my daughter. She’s tried a bunch of things and she’s really good at them, but cheer and dance is what she loves.”
VanDeWalle said her daughter knows about her time as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader from looking through scrapbooks but is “just now getting to the age where she realizes that it was kind of a big deal.”
She added that she wouldn’t mind her daughter pursuing her own DCC experience one day.
“She says that she wants to be a DCC whenever she’s 18 so we’ll see if that comes to fruition,” she said. “I would be very supportive of it. I mean DCC for me was a great experience. It was kind of transformative, not so much for the trajectory of my career path, but in who I became as a person.
“When you’re in your teens and early 20s, it’s a time when you question how you see yourself and what you feel like you can accomplish in this world. In pursuing something like the DCC, you push yourself to these high levels and realize, ‘Hey, I can do anything I set my mind to.’
“Being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader was tough in a lot of ways and a really rich and wonderful experience in so many ways. I would love for my daughter to have that experience as well.”