At the start of the Ravens' 2008 cheerleading tryouts, nearly 200 smiling hopefuls brightened the Merritt Downtown Athletic Center. By the end of the weekend, those smiles gave way to anxious nerves, followed either by welcome relief or crushing disappointment.
The event began on Saturday, when all the newcomers learned part of a dance choreographed to Janet Jackson's "Feedback." Over and over, the hopefuls reviewed their steps on the hardwood basketball court until it was their turn for the spotlight in front of a 20-member panel.
With dreams of performing on the sidelines of M&T Bank Stadium at stake, each girl knew that she needed to be at her best.
There was Sammi Jo C., who made a 300-mile trip from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to see if she could jump from high school cheerleading coach to the highest level.
Amanda C. set out to overcome difficult odds and become the Ravens' first hearing-impaired cheerleader. The fact that Amanda C. was being followed by two MTV cameras for a taping of a future episode of "True Life: I'm Deaf" only added to the fanfare.
"I was definitely a little nervous at first," said Sammi Jo. "I've always loved dancing and have cheered all my life, but it's different when you're being judged right there."
In fact, the dance was so complicated that Ravens Cheerleaders Coordinator Tina Galdieri decided not to add any more steps to the routine after the first day, an unprecedented move.
"We just felt that even though the girls did a good job with it, it was too difficult at that point," Galdieri said. "We didn't want to add any more to the final round."
Obviously, Sammi Jo and Amanda held their own, because they were two of 90 potential rookies that were joined by 45 returning veterans on the next day.
The pressure ratcheted up a few levels when the "official Ravens Cheerleader" gear mingled with the generic sports bras and shorts among the packed fitness center.
Leslie A., author of the "Ravens Spirit" blog on BaltimoreRavens.com, was impressed at the turnout.
"There are some great girls that showed up here for tryouts," she said. "There are definitely going to be some great additions to the squad for next year."
But don't mistake Leslie's enthusiasm, for the newcomers belie her competitive nature. She knows that just because a veteran shows up doesn't mean she is guaranteed a spot.
"We've still got to try out, just like everyone else," explained the six-year vet. "It never gets any easier for me. You just have to be at your best every year."
After a Sunday filled with more Janet Jackson, and as such more dancing, the candidate list was whittled down to 67 names that will enter the formal interview stage with Galdieri and the rest of the cheerleader coaching staff. Those meetings will take the form of a job interview, where the focus is less on tumbling ability and toe touches and more on personality and goals.
Such a long process ensures that the Ravens end up with a cheerleading squad that can not only support the football team on the field, but also represent the Purple and Black proudly in the community.
"You have to have the total package," said Melissa M., who hopes to enter her third season with the squad. "Dance is important, enthusiasm, public speaking. It's all part of being a Ravens cheerleader."
For Amanda, the smile that she wore on Saturday turned sour, as she didn't make it past the second cut. On the other hand, Sammi Jo moved one step closer to her dream (and a move to Charm City from Pittsburgh), along with Leslie and Melissa.
Galdieri expects to have the squad finalized by the beginning of April, but would not nail down an exact date.
Until then, it's time for the hopefuls to trade their spandex workout clothes for business suits. Their smiles, however, should never change.