The day following the defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals at the hands of the Houston Texans in their post-season playoff game, Lauren Coben was dispirited. As a Ben-Gal, she'd spent the previous day in her apartment with several other Bengals cheerleaders, watching the NFL game on television.
"The score went back and forth, and when it was over, many of us ... wanted to cry that the football season was over for us," said Miss Coben, who had just completed her first year as a Bengals cheerleader.
A native of Mt. Lebanon and an avowed Steelers fan, the 23-year-old has been dancing most of her life, so when she entered high school, she decided to become a cheerleader, an activity she sees as closely related. Later, as a student at Ohio State University, she was too busy with her studies and sorority to cheer. But, after she graduated and moved to Cincinnati, where she had been offered a job as an account coordinator for a marketing firm, she realized that she wanted to dance.
Knowing that the Bengals had cheerleaders called the Ben-Gals, she decided to try out for a spot. Before the tryout process began in April, she prepared for months, working out and honing her dance skills.
"The first round was just a short routine," she said. "The second focused on technique by looking at our turns and leaps. The third was the biggest and open to the public. It started with the 65 to 70 remaining candidates performing an opening routine together, then doing a two-by-two performance routine in front of 15 judges, which was shown live in the auditorium on a big screen TV. It also included a live question-and-answer session before the judges as well as a swimsuit competition."
By the fourth round, 50 remaining hopefuls attended a two-week boot camp at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Bengals.
"We met for three hours, two days a week and were judged on performance, technique, dance ability, glamour, fitness and showmanship," she said.
After the fourth round, the team notified Miss Coben by email that she was one of seven new cheerleaders added to 26 who returned.
"Typically, the team uses only 24 of the 33 cheerleaders at each game, with six stationed at one of the stadium's four sides," she said. "I was lucky enough to be chosen for all our home games this season."
Selections for each game are determined by each cheerleader's dance ability and weight control. At the beginning of the season, each cheerleader is given a goal weight based on height and physical makeup. If she exceeds the weight goal by three pounds or more at the weigh-in, she is not permitted to participate in the upcoming game.
Miss Coben said she works out regularly, eats healthy and attends practice every Tuesday and Thursday evening. She acknowledged that the cheerleaders often compete against one another but said her colleagues are like sisters and they share a common passion for performing.
"The Ben-Gals are some of the nicest people I've ever met," she said.
Miss Coben said performing is exhilarating.
"When the music starts and the crowd goes crazy, it's simply amazing," she said.
While the pay is low -- $85 per game, Miss Coben said -- one of the perks of the job is getting to meet the football players and join them at appearances. However, cheerleaders are forbidden from getting romantically involved with the players.
Next year, Miss Coben plans to try out again. She said she has heard that some have been with the group for as long as nine years. The oldest Ben-Gal, Laura Vikmanis, is 44.
"I'd definitely love to continue," Miss Coben said.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.