Battle for the Boots: Behind the scenes of the Indianapolis Colts Cheerleader auditions

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 23, 2016) -- Each season, 26 women represent the Colts organization as cheerleaders on the field and ambassadors throughout the community and across the world.

With half of last year’s veteran Colts cheerleading squad retiring, the door was wide open for a new class of rookies to become a Sweetheart of the Horseshoe.

We followed five of those rookie hopefuls - Alexis, Lexie, Mallory, Mary Kate and Yuka - throughout the extensive eight-day audition process.

That audition process begins with an open call audition but for many of these women, the process began months, or even years, before.

“Well, I have grown up a dancer since I was three years old,” Lexie, a senior majoring in elementary education, said. “Now I’m a performer at Purdue as a member of the Golduster Dance Team and having that experience as a Golduster has made me realize that I really can’t imagine my life without being a performer.”

For Lexie, although she’s auditioning for her rookie season on the squad, she’s a veteran competing in front of judges.

“In June, I will get to compete in Miss Indiana,” Lexie said. “It’s a wonderful experience. This will actually be my fourth time as a contestant

Alexis, a senior at Wabash High School, may be among the youngest hoping to make this year’s squad, but she has experience dancing on the sidelines alongside the squad she now hopes to be a part of.

“I was a Junior Colts Cheerleader for three years and it was just one of the best experiences ever,” Alexis, the Wabash High School homecoming queen, said. “And I always looked up to the Colts Cheerleaders and wanted the opportunity to be that and to be a role model for younger girls.”

At 18 years old, this is the first time she`s eligible to be a part of the squad she`s idolized.

“I think it opened up the doors for me, and got me in here to see the inside scoop on the Colts Cheerleadersand the kind of people that they are and the kind of women that they are,” Alexis, who will attend Ball State in the fall, said. “And it just showed me that they`re all just so supportive, they`re just a really tight-knit group and you can just tell, and I think that anyone would be thankful to be a part of something like that and that`s just something I want to be a part of.”

Mallory, a marketing major at IU’s Kelley School of Business, was a finalist last year, just one step away from fulfilling her dream.

“I love the Colts, I`m a fan, I love the organization and all the great things they do for the community, all the things they do globally as well,” Mallory, who graduates from IU in May, said. “The Colts are just an iconic brand and I would just love to be an ambassador of that brand and just to represent such a great team that I feel such a great connection with.”

Despite not making the squad on her first attempt, the Jasper, Ind. native is encouraged by her progress over the past year.

“I was just proud of myself for getting that far, becoming a finalist, and coming so close to getting on the team, if anything that was just encouragement for me to work really hard and just come back this year even more prepared and even more ready to make the team,” Mallory said.

While many of the women trying out have grown up in Colts nation, Virginia native Mary Kate adopted Indianapolis after spending four years at Butler as a dance major.

'I really felt like during my four years at Butler I put down roots here in Indianapolis and I thought of it as my new home,” Mary Kate, who now works in programs for the Kappa Alpha Theta organization, said. “Of course my parents were a little sad about that but they understood. I made so many great friends at school and just connections that will and have served me throughout my young alumnae years.”

Primarily focused in classical ballet in college, transitioning to the signature Colts style of dance has been a challenge.

“It has been very different,” Mary Kate explained. “I would say it`s a little bit tougher for me to pick up choreography just because it’s such a different style. That`s been interesting. I`ve had to make sure my brain is turned on and focused to pick up the choreography quickly because that is something they expect of the girls, so I want to show that I`m able to do that even in a different style.”

“Another thing is just hitting those poses, being sharp and strong but still looking good at the same time and really using your face and your facial expressions to project to potentially to a stadium audience,” Mary Kate added. “Much different than say ballet where you`re performing for a smaller crowd than a stadium.”

A dream of dancing in the NFL led 27-year old Yuka to move from Kobe, Japan to Indianapolis, spending the past month training for auditions and studying the Colts organization.

Yuka, a professional cheerleader in japan who also coaches cheer and dance, was inspired to chase a spot in the horseshoe after meeting Colts Cheerleader Sophie during one of the squads many international appearances.

“Last three years team captain. When I see her, I was very excited and impressed with her dance and personality,” Yuka said. “So I want to be a Colts Cheerleader.”

Diverse backgrounds but all focused on fulfilling the same dream.

These five women among the nearly 100 who auditioned for a panel of judges during the open call. That panel includes coaches and choreographers with extensive dance backgrounds, but also those that bring a different perspective from the field, like Colts guard Hugh Thornton.

“I`m looking for enthusiasm, looking for what they can bring to the table and the energy and if they can sustain it,” Thornton said. “It`s a long game from my perspective we need our cheerleaders to get the crowd involved and continue to make Lucas Oil the number one stadium experience in the NFL.”

Thornton added, “Looking back at my three years here in Indianapolis everything that we have done in the community, Colts Cheerleaders have been a part of and everything we have done on the field the Colts Cheerleaders have been a part of it as well, so just having that mentality and going above and beyond the call of duty to service your community.”

During the open call, the women all learn the same routine, then audition in groups of three, each scored on overall dance and performance.

After a period of deliberation, Kelly Tilley, Colts Cheerleader Manager, announces the 49 finalists who will advance for a week-long audition.

Alexis, Lexie, Mallory, Mary Kate and Yuka all made the first cut and were invited to participate in the Colts Cheerleader Showcase Finale, which capped off the week.

During that week, the women are scored in seven different categories on five days. The categories are: fitness – 10%, business-style interview – 25%, dance technique – 10 %, football knowledge test – 10%, final showcase dance – 25%, showcase dance solo – 10 %, showcase swimwear – 10%.

Colts Vice Chair/Owner Kalen Irsay serves as one of the showcase judges, as well as sits on the panel during the interviews.

“This year is a big year in terms of losing a lot of veterans which is always hard, but it’s always really fun and puts some energy back into the team as well with some girls who may have been trying for awhile or just girls who tried for this year, every year`s been better but almost different in a way,” Irsay said. “They always represent us so well and I’m always so impressed with the women that are on our squad from their personality, their jobs. They have full time jobs in addition to this and they`re really intelligent women and good role models for young girls out there.”

After being scored throughout the week on fitness, interview, technique and football knowledge, the women perform in the showcase and are scored on the remaining three categories.

With half the roster spots filled by rookies, the returning veterans are embracing the youthful energy and also their roles as leaders in the horseshoe.

“I want these girls to succeed, I want them to be good teammates and I want them to be really strong teammates, especially if they ask me a question or I see an opportunity for feedback, I want them to be as good as they can be,” Brittany said, who returns for her second year on the squad.

“The dynamic is shifting but the energy is getting greater,” four-year Colts Cheer veteran Mariah explained. “The experience is going down but the excitement is going up. Not that last year wasn`t exciting because we did so many things in one season, but it`s just that new rookie energy and its infectious. Kind of the Colts mantra ‘next man up,’ but its next woman up.”

The panel of showcase judges included Indiana native and “The Bachelor” star Ben Higgins and fiancée Lauren Bushnell.

“I think we both can appreciate what they`re doing because with anything you do in the public light you're going to get scrutiny, you`re going to be nervous, you`re going to get criticized, you`re going to be judged, which just happens to be what I think is our title here today judges,” Higgins said. “But ultimately what they`re doing is chasing after something they`ve probably dreamed about for a long time and if that`s the case, it’s worth it no matter what the outcome is, they`re putting themselves out there and I can respect that.”

And before taking his seat in the ESPN broadcast booth, retired Colts quarterback Matt Hasselbeck shared the stage with the 49 finalists, serving as master of ceremonies for the showcase.

“I think that`s most impressive to me is just the level of competition,” Hasselbeck said. “There`s 26 spots and there`s 49 left right now, so this has been a very, very competitive thing. There`s people from other countries, people from all across the country, people who have been doing this since they were three-years old. It’s very competitive you gotta come out and perform one time. You can`t mess up this is your chance.”

The showcase included all 49 performing an opening number to demonstrate the group dynamic. Then they break into in small groups of three, which gave the women a chance to show their skill and spirit. A solo performance opportunity allows each finalist to show her individuality and unique style. The women were also scored on their appearance, fitness and confidence during the swim portion.

Before announcing the squad of 26, Tilley addressed the entire group backstage and shared words of encouragement to all.

“I wish we could have 49 women on the field because you guys were fantastic tonight,” Tilley said. “Be really proud of yourselves.”

Alexis, Lexie, Mallory, Mary Kate and Yuka were announced to fill five of those 13 rookie spots and fulfilled their long-time dreams.

One by one they lined up next to their newly-named teammates to dance together as a squad for the first time.

“Vets, welcome home, rookies welcome to the NFL,” Tilley said to the 26 women.

“We will never forget that moment when they called our numbers,” Mary Kate reacted. “they rushed us in into the room and the vets were in there and the alums and everyone was congratulating us and we got to change into the outfits and the boots!”

“As soon as I heard my number, I just instantly started crying because I was just so excited and I  couldn`t believe that this journey finally led me here,” Lexie said after dancing with her new squad.

“Yeah I`m so happy,” Yuka said with tears still in her eyes. “I’m so impressed.”

“It’s definitely amazing,” Alexis said, smiling. “I can’t wait to inspire people in the way that I was inspired and inspire other young girls to become a Colts Cheerleader. I mean definitely, dreams do come true.”

“It is so sweet,” Mallory said, still on stage after dancing for the first time in her Colts white cowboy boots. “And it makes it even sweeter that I`ve worked so hard and worked two years towards this and I finally accomplished my dream. I`m an Indianapolis Colts Cheerleader!”

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