Dream Team : The Basic Training of America’s Ultimate Song Girls
TO MOST AMERICANS, JANUARY 17, 1991, MARKED THE FIRST terrible but riveting 24 hours that the United States was at war with the Republic of Iraq. However, for the 3,500 or so fans who streamed into the Los Angeles Sports Arena that night, the date had another significance. It was the USC vs. Cal Berkeley basketball game and the debut of the 1991 University of Southern California song girls.
As the USC pep band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” 10 young women in brand-spanking-new, square-necked cardinal sweaters and stitched-down pleated skirts stood--five to a side--beside the basket at the west edge of the court, gold pompons held at their hips, tenuous smiles masking obvious cases of opening-night jitters.
There was a nod or two to world news: After the National Anthem, the public address announcer called for a moment of silence “in acknowledgement of events in the Gulf.” Then pure college rah-rah took over. The all-male USC yell-leading squad led the home crowd in a rousing cheer. Finally, all eyes turned to the middle of the court as the song girls took the floor. On the left arms of their sweaters, 4x5-inch American flag patches had been hastily sewn. But for these young women, not even a war could dampen the fear, the giddiness, the excitement of this moment.
Song girls, it should be noted, are the young women with mile-long legs who prance around at sporting events, waving pompons and kicking in time to whatever the band is playing. They are the ones in the TV close-ups at half time, the ones who occasionally get their pictures in Sports Illustrated. And at USC, to be a song girl is still--in post-feminism, post-sexual-revolution 1991--to be a star .
The path to becoming a USC song girl is hard and long. In fact, as thrilled as the new squad members were this night, they were equally apprehensive. Their performance at this game, and at basketball games to follow, would be carefully scrutinized. They would be judged on how well they stood at attention, how sincere their smiles, how well-applied their makeup, how precise their synchronization, how high their kicks. And then, at the end of the season, they would face a cut that would leave only the cream of the song girl crop to perform at the games that matter most at the University of Southern California--the football games.
BASIC TRAINING FOR THE 1991 USC SONG GIRLS BEGAN last fall on a dazzling, sun-spangled October afternoon. On concrete patios on either side of Heritage Hall, the USC athletic department headquarters, 204 intensely peppy young women hopped, kicked, jumped and waved their arms in what was obviously meant to be unison. Meanwhile, six other young women with perfectly fluffed hair, impossibly small waistlines and a blinding aura of collective self-assurance called out instructions.
This was Clinic 1, the first of four formal practice sessions leading to the song girl tryouts. The hopefuls were being taught two routines--daunting combinations of turns, kicks and back arches--that they would be expected to perform in the upcoming elimination rounds. Their instructors were the current USC song girls.
As the candidates stumbled through the learning process, Dolly Zachary Rouse, a tall, telegenic brunette, walked from one side of the building to the other, her gaze sweeping with tightly focused intensity over the groups of applicants. Rouse and Lori Crawley Nelson, an effervescent blonde who also prowled the practice area, each bears the title USC song leader coach (the song girls were recently formally renamed “song leaders,” a term no one, least of all the song girls, ever uses). Both are former USC song girls, Rouse in 1975 and 1976; Nelson in 1977--and are unpaid volunteers.
Rouse handicapped her early favorites in a whisper. “The brunette in the front row with the plaid shorts? She’s ver-r-ry good. But her skin’s too pale, and there’s something--I don’t know-- clunky about her. Now the blonde in purple in the middle of the back row,” Rouse said, “she’ll make it to the finals.”
“At UCLA, I’d say they judge about 90% on performance, 10% on looks,” she confided, stopping her prowl long enough to explain the criteria. “With us it’s more like 50-50. The girl has to be a really great dancer, of course. But, no matter how good she is, if she doesn’t have the look, forget it.”
Rouse was not talking about your basic, garden-variety good looks; she was talking The Look. At first glance, everyone in that sea of healthy young women seemed plenty attractive. But Rouse was quick to point out distinctions. Narrowing her eyes slightly, she indicated a blond Morgan Fairchild look-alike who must have had umpteen years of dancing lessons. Rouse shook her head grimly. “Too much make-up,” she said. “And the eyes, too deep-set or something. Not The Look.”
Then Rouse’s expression brightened. “See that one over there in the back row?” She pointed to a slender girl of medium height with long honey-blond hair and the kind of pert-nosed, conventionally pretty face that Seventeen magazine routinely puts on its covers. “She’s got it. She’s exactly it.” Rouse paused for breath. “See, our look is more refined than a lot of schools. It’s cleaner, more polished.”
In fact, The Look is squeaky clean, all-American to the max. Exotic and idiosyncratic don’t cut it here. Deborah Norville or Cybil Shepherd might have made the grade as USC song girls; Madonna or Sonia Braga, never. And once the song girls are chosen, The Look is polished further, with clear-cut rules leaving very little to chance. When the song girls are in uniform, Rouse explained, no jewelry is allowed except small pearl or diamond earrings. “Not even a watch,” she added, ticking off the commandments of song girl grooming on her fingers. “No ponytails. No bushy hair. No red fingernail polish. Clear polish only.”
“We try to think of everything,” she continued. “All the other national squads wear socks, but we wear panty hose (L’Eggs Sheer Energy Support, to be precise). It makes all the legs look the same color and, we think, gives the girls a, you know, dressier feel.” The same goes for the bright-white, long-sleeved turtleneck sweaters that the USC squads wear at football games year after year. “Most schools let their song girls change into short-sleeved tops on hot days. But even if it’s 110 degrees, our squad wears turtleneck sweaters. The girls want it that way,” Rouse confided, her eyes wide with sincerity. “They all think short sleeves looks sort of, uh, tacky .”
The rules governing The Look even extend to the way the girls must stand on the sidelines between routines. When the USC song girls watch a football or basketball game, Rouse said, they are required to stand or sit according to a prescribed formula--legs just so, hands carefully placed.
No one is allowed to stand casually during the game?
“No,” Rouse said. “It sounds picky, but it’s small details that set us apart.”
S OMETHING DEFINITELY SETS THE USC SONG GIRLS APART. Starting in 1976, the squad won every national song girl competition it entered until it simply stopped entering six years later. The song girls were too busy making yearly trips to Japan and Europe, performing at sporting events, touring like a rock group with a hit record. They receive a constant stream of fan letters. They have been on “The Tonight Show” and on TV specials with Bob Hope; they turn up regularly on local mid-morning talk shows. After the Notre Dame football team made the unprecedented move of negotiating its own network TV contract last year, ESPN analyst Beano Cook quipped: “The two biggest things in college football are Notre Dame and the USC song girls, and the USC song girls are the only other ones who could have their own network contract.”
Ironically, for many years USC didn’t allow any song girls at all. School spirit at sporting events was in the hands of yell leaders, who at USC have always been male. The story goes that a wealthy alum had bequeathed a sizeable sum to the university with the stipulation that no women except band members be allowed down on the playing field. But in 1967 the school’s administration came under pressure from the student body and put the matter to a campus referendum. The students voted overwhelmingly to add song girls to the festivities. Tryouts were held, seven young women were chosen and a tradition was born.
Today at USC, the song girls are regarded with the seriousness and adulation that other universities reserve for, say, Nobel Prize laureates. Football--which brings in big donations and provides the university with a high-profile national ranking--achieves the level of religion at USC, and the song girls are its high priestesses. They are assigned, in addition to the two unpaid coaches, one faculty adviser, one choreographer and one manager.
As USC stars, each song girl is expected to do “gigs"--public appearances--two or three times a week. For instance, several might appear at a Trojan booster club fund-raiser. “Or it might be,” said squad faculty adviser Dennis Fleming, “that some senior partner in a law firm is having a birthday and he’s a big alum donor. Well, then, maybe the other members of his firm might want to surprise him by having the song girls take him to lunch. So we would send over several of the girls. Not in uniform,” Fleming adds hastily, “and they’re not expected to perform any routines, of course.”
He cleared his throat. “Look, I realize this whole thing has the potential to be very, uh, sexist. So, I make sure I know exactly what will be required of the girls at a gig.” He sighed. “See, we get a minimum of four or five requests for appearances a week. A lot of the requests are just people asking the girls to do dance routines for supermarket openings. I mean, somehow, everybody forgets that these are full-time students, not professional bimbo dancers.”
“It’s really easy to say that song girls aren’t feminist,” Fleming said finally. “But if you really think about it, being a song girl is an outlet for girls who love to dance. If you love to play a musical instrument, you can play in the school band or in a band you form with your friends. But what if you love to dance? What can you do? Square dance with a bunch of 50-year-olds? You can be a song girl, that’s what.” WHEN CLINIC 2 CONVENED ON OCT. 24, 1990, THE FIELD of song girl hopefuls had narrowed. About a third of the candidates had fled. Most of them had been song girls in high school, so they had at least passing familiarity with the bounce steps and hitch kicks that are the basics of the song girl physical lexicon. This, however, was the big leagues. And just how different this competition was from anything these young women had faced before was becoming painfully clear. At USC, you had to be damn good.
Dolly Rouse and Lori Nelson were once again stalking the practice area. Off to one side, a tall black woman with long, full hair and extremely dark glasses had pulled six black applicants off to the side, where she watched their repetitions with a grim, businesslike expression, stopping them to correct a kick here and an arm movement there. The woman, Virginia Watson, is a former song girl turned actors’ agent. “Look,” she said when the girls took a break, “last year they said they couldn’t find one black girl in this whole school who was good enough to be on the squad. ‘Oh re- ally?’ I said. Well, this year I’m going to make sure we’re represented!”
The race issue was causing Rouse and Nelson anxiety tremors. The fact that there were no blacks or Latinas on the 1990 squad had elicited a torrent of criticism. They were frantic to correct the situation in 1991. Rouse spotted a likely candidate rehearsing under Watson’s tutelage--a tall, graceful sophomore with a wall-to-wall smile.
“See, I told you,” whispered Rouse with earnest enthusiasm as she dragged Nelson over to see. “She’s got a great look, and her kicks are high.”
The girl, who had no idea that she was the subject of such hopeful speculation, was a University of Portland (Ore.) transfer student named Angelique Witherspoon--Angie, for short. “I don’t know what kind of chance I have,” Angie said cheerily, out of earshot of Rouse and Nelson. “I’m just going to give it a try.” Her face clouded over briefly. “We’ve heard rumors,” she said, “that they’re mostly going to take blondes. And that you have to dance really stiff, not too jazzy. I mean not too, um, black. “
AT MOST UNIVERSITIES, ONCE YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN to be a song girl, your place on the squad is assured unless you fail to show up for the games or commit a heinous act, such as becoming visibly pregnant. Not at USC. Each year, 10 winners emerge from the fall tryouts, and they comprise the next calendar year’s initial squad. It’s then that the real shakeout begins. Over the course of the basketball season, the new song girls are examined more closely than the original tryout period could ever permit. How quickly can they learn new dance routines? How well do they match each other? How vibrantly does each project? Then in June, all the squad members who don’t have quite the right stuff are eliminated in time for the all-important football season.
Weight, it seems, is crucial to making the football squad. When song girls are chosen, they are weighed in and their weights are recorded. To stay on the squad they must maintain those weights. “You have to understand,” said one 1990 squad member, “that at this school everything the song girls do is scrutinized by the alums. Last year we made a change in the shoes we wear. We used to have special red shoes donated to us by Puma. But then Puma went out of business, so now we have special white shoes donated to us by Nike. This will sound crazy, but after the game where we first wore the white ones, we got 20 letters from alums asking what had happened to the red ones. Twenty people took time out of their day to write and complain about our shoes. So you can imagine what happens if somebody’s overweight.” She rolls her eyes. “And if the alums are critical, the band is even worse. If any of us puts on a few pounds, the band members will yell: ‘Hey! There’s the heifer.’ ”
Dolly Rouse brought her 7-year-old son with her to the third practice, on Oct. 30. The little boy happily announced he was going to be a pirate for Halloween. When asked about her 3-year-old daughter’s costume, Rouse smiled radiantly. “Oh, she’s been a USC song girl two years in a row now.” Then her smile sagged a bit. “Actually, this year she wanted to be a fairy princess. But, you know, that skirt was really hard to make, and it had one more good year in it. So I told her that fairy princess would just have to wait till next Halloween.”
Rouse’s idea that once you’re a USC song girl you’ll always want to be a USC song girl is not far from reality. When a young woman is chosen for the squad, she is likely to try out again year after year until she simply graduates out of the running. “Very few people,” Rouse said, “leave the squad before their senior year.”
Several of those trying out for the 1991 squad were repeaters. One, an obvious standout, was an attractive blonde with a thousand-tooth smile you couldn’t wipe off with an electric sander. Sandee Heeres had been on the squad in 1989, and she had tried out again for the 1990 squad, but she had gained weight and was rejected. Marcie Engelman, a member of the 1990 squad, was going for her second year as a song girl, and two young women, including a slender, serious-faced brunet business major named Jennifer Ortner, were trying out again after having been cut from the 1990 squad after the basketball season.
By the fourth and final clinic, 118 candidates were left, and a handful of front-runners had emerged, including the repeaters. There was the cover-girl blonde, Suzanne Fowler, and Shanyn Hammer, a girl with a wild burnt-umber mane, a face free of makeup and a maniacally energetic dance style. Rouse had also taken a liking to a shy blonde named Cissy Pfenning, who usually stood at the back of the practice lines wearing a a perpetual Susan Dey frown.
Charismatic Angie now sat on the sidelines with a hurt foot. Rumors were running rife through the black contingent that Angie’s star had waned and that a diminutive, sunny-faced sophomore named Audrea Harris--Dree, for short--would be the only black girl chosen. “Everybody thinks that there is, you know, a quota system,” said one soft-voiced African-American girl. “One black, one Asian, six blondes and two brunettes--that sort of thing. I figure we all still have at least a chance, but a lot of the black girls think there’s no longer any point in trying out.”
Audrea Harris was indeed a knockout dancer. She had a private coach, who turned out to be her older sister. “Adrienne’s in her third season as a Raiderette,” Audrea said. “We started cheerleading for Little League when I was 6 and she was 8. You could almost say we’ve been cheerleaders all our lives.”
DAY OF RECKONING NO. 1 WAS SET FOR NOVEMBER 5. PRElims. Candidates littered the lobby of Lyon Center, the student recreation center, doing last-minute ballet stretches and giving each other pep talks. They were all in uniforms--borrowed or resurrected from their song girl pasts--giving the lobby the look of a theme costume party.
The rumor mill was running in overdrive. “I heard it’s really political and that you don’t have a chance unless you know a judge,” said a pretty brunette with Bette Davis eyes and a Valley Girl accent. “Yeah,” said another girl, adjusting her lipstick. “And everybody knows you don’t have as good a chance if you’re not blond.”
The judging panel consisted of coaches Nelson and Rouse, two athletic department administrators, marching band director Art Bartner and Ann Bothwell, song leader manager (a job no one can quite define) and the widow of USC’s long-time yell-leader coach Lindley Bothwell. Candidates were called by groups of three into a small carpeted room where the judges sat at a long table. Each set of three was expected to perform the two routines in unison. They got one chance and one chance only at each number. The judges rated each, but the rankings were ultimately determined by debate, not by simply adding up the scores. The candidates were hyped up when they went in, pale when they came out.
The next morning at 8 o’clock sharp, a list of 28 finalists was posted outside Dennis Fleming’s office on the second floor of the Student Activities Center. “Of course, Dennis, the rat, doesn’t come in until 10,” complained his secretary. “So I’m the one who gets to see all these nice young girls burst into tears.”
Jenny Inge, the milk-white-complexioned brunette whom Rouse had at one time considered “clunky,” was the first to see the list. She was on it, and she was ecstatic. “I couldn’t sleep all night,” she burbled. “So finally, about 3 in the morning, I got up and ate so much peanut butter that I made myself sick.”
Cissy Pfenning, of the Susan Dey frown, didn’t come. Her older sister came instead. She tiptoed up to the list as if it were an animal she didn’t want to startle, stared at it a few seconds then gave a little hop of excitement. Cissy was in.
Sandee Heeres approached the list with confidence. She had gone into the tryout room the day before without her customary smile, but once in front of the judges, Rouse said, she had been strong and precise. “I’m stoked,” Sandee crowed, searching the list not just for her name (which she found), but also for the names of her sorority sisters. “There are eight Delta Gammas. What a rush! The year my sister was a song girl, six out of eight on the squad were DGs.”
Of the other repeaters, Jennifer Ortner made the cut, along with Marcie Engelman. So did Dree Harris (“flawless,” said the coaches), and Angie Witherspoon. Suzanne Fowler reportedly had been a half-beat slow in front of the judges, but she still made the list. And Shanyn, she of the wild mane and no makeup, and the Valley Girl with Bette Davis eyes were also finalists.
The Morgan Fairchild look-alike, whom we’ll call Rebecca, came up the stairs with three other contestants. Not one of their names was on the list. The three friends seemed unconcerned for themselves but devastated for Rebecca. “I can’t believe it,” they said over and over again in dismay.
Rebecca stared at the names for a long moment, then turned and walked quickly away. “Everybody told me I had it made because I was such a good dancer,” she said, furiously blinking back tears, “and stupid me, I believed them. I just wish the judges would tell me what it was I did that was so wrong, so I could fix it.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” said one of her friends., who had gathered around her protectively. “You’re an amazing dancer. You’re blond. You’re skinny. And you’re really, really pretty.”
“Obviously,” said Rebecca slowly, “I’m not their kind of pretty.”
DURING THE WEEK BETWEEN PRELIMS AND FINAL TRYOUTS, the chosen 28 were required to submit to short personal interviews. The interviews served many purposes. They allowed the judges to find out if the candidates could wax polysyllabic on cue. This was determined with such probing questions as “What does USC mean to you?”
The interviews were also a chance for Nelson, Rouse and Bothwell to address issues that could not be handled in the context of dance tryouts--namely morals, personal style and commitment. Bothwell gave the morals speech--which went something like this: “If you are a USC song girl, a different standard of conduct will be expected of you. We want girls of high moral character, which means no smoking, no drinking. . . .” Bothwell was dead serious about this morals business. In 1990, two girls were suspended and ultimately cut from the squad primarily because they had been caught whooping it up in a hotel room at an away game with persons of the male persuasion.
After morals came The Look. The interviews let Rouse and Nelson do a close-up assessment of the candidates. For example, a near disaster was averted when one of the 28 came in wearing an earring in her nose.
“I never saw that before.” Nelson whispered.
Young women who did not conform to The Look per se but whom Nelson and Rouse thought had potential were asked pointed grooming questions: “Would you be open to consulting with somebody on your hair style and make up, or would that be a problem for you?”
Finally, each girl was asked to consider carefully the kind of commitment she would make if she became a song girl. “Being a song girl has to come ahead of your sorority, ahead of your boyfriend, ahead of your family,” Nelson recited to each girl. “It doesn’t come ahead of your schoolwork, but it will be equal in priority. Once in a while, you may have to miss a class, so if grades are a problem for you, maybe being a song girl is not your thing. What I mean is, if you have an A average and it’s really important to you to keep that A average, then being a song girl may not be for you. Because it may be that being a song girl will mean dropping your average to a C.”
THIS WAS IT. THE NIGHT OF FINALS. THE AIR IN LYON Center was heavy with panic. Anyone who had not had a zillion years of dance or gymnastics had already been eliminated; anyone who didn’t meet the minimal requirements of The Look had been sent packing. The final cut would be made based on the performance of an original routine. The song girls had to be not only good dancers but also competent choreographers.
The girls rehearsed like so many all-American windup dolls. Anxiety fairly oozed from Jenny Inge’s pores. The big-eyed Valley Girl sat clutching a small stuffed koala, her face wracked with despair. “I didn’t put enough kicks in my routine,” she wailed disconsolately. “Lots of turns and no kicks. And now it’s too late.”
Every candidate with an older sister seemed to have brought her along for moral support. Cissy Pfenning’s sister buzzed around like a worker bee--fluffing Cissy’s hair, smoothing her uniform. Sandee Heeres and her sister, also a former USC song girl, sat side by side, wearing identical song girl smiles. Audrea Harris’s entire family camped in one corner of the lobby, where Audrea’s mom presided over a blanket strewn with food, a portable TV and a bouquet of carnations addressed to Audrea.
Shanyn nearly burned a hole in the floor as she executed a flashy dance number in the style of the Fly Girls from “In Living Color.” However, Rouse, who was peeking from behind a glass partition, grimaced. “I don’t believe it. That girl still isn’t wearing any make-up. I’ve got to have someone to tell her to put on some lipstick and blush,” clucked Rouse. “Without make-up she’s just not appealing to the male judges.”
Finally, the candidates were called one by one. They were in and out quickly. Some, like Cissy, Sandee and Jenny Fredericks--a sophomore transfer who teaches both gymnastics and aerobics in her spare time--seemed to know they had done well and were elated. Others, like Angie Witherspoon, came out fighting tears. “I just wasn’t prepared enough,” Angie said, looking skyward to keep the tears in check. “I knew it and they knew it.”
Shanyn, who had finally put on barely visible blush and lipstick, blasted out of the tryout room, flushed and furious. “I put on this stupid lipstick like they told me to,” she sputtered to her friend standing nearby. “So what happened? My hair stuck to my mouth the whole time I was dancing!”
The Valley Girl ran from the tryout room, eyes streaming. She grabbed for her stuffed koala as her boyfriend, a nice-looking fraternity sort of fellow, tried to comfort her. “I forgot my routine,” she sobbed. “I hate myself!I just hate myself!”
When everybody had been in the tryout room once, the real pressure started. Fleming began calling girls back in groups of four. The first group was all blond: Marcie Engelman, Sandee Heeres, Suzanne, the cover girl, and a bouncy DG named Laura Dugdale. As these four disappeared, the rest of the room exploded into an orgy of whispered speculation.
By 10 p.m. the judges were still calling and re-calling groups of girls. The tension in the room had peaked and was sliding into post-hysteria fatigue. The contestants had broken up into security clumps: the former song girls near one door, the black girls against the south wall, the DGs nervously huddling near the opposite wall.
The newest topic of discussion was one Dionne Dominique, a short doe-eyed black girl from Beverly Hills High School. Dionne had quietly made her way through the clinics and prelims. She had never been on anyone’s short list. But suddenly, she was being called back three times.
It seemed that Dionne--an aspiring singer and dancer--had an original routine that included several impossible-looking quadruple pirouettes, impressive ballet leaps and ligament-ripping Russian splits. Although Dionne is curvy and attractive, she by no means has The Look. “What do you think they want with her?” whispered one DG to another. “I don’t even remember seeing her before.”
By 11 p.m., it was all over. The young women straggled out into a rainy night too tired to talk. Jennifer Ortner stayed behind, waiting for her ride. “I think my chances are OK but not great,” she mused wearily. “Last year they said my kicks were too low. I also heard that they cut me because they thought I was anorexic and they didn’t want to promote that look.” She smiled wryly.
“I was pretty shy when I first came to USC,” Jennifer continued. “I was a girl from a small town and I wasn’t really good at the social routine, so nobody paid too much attention to me. But then I became a song girl, and suddenly everybody wanted to get to know me. Especially the boys. And I thought--'Hey, I didn’t change. Why couldn’t they have liked me before for just me?’ But they didn’t.”
“And then when I got cut, the social embarrassment was really something. Especially when I went back home. Everybody in my town knew I’d been elected, then everybody knew I’d been cut. It was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It was awful.”
So why in heaven’s name was she trying out again?
She laughed. “Good question. It’s really superficial. And if you’re a song girl, everybody assumes you’re an airhead. But it’s really fun. One other thing; this may sound stupid but--I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I was a USC song girl.”
THE LIST AGAIN went up before breakfast outside Fleming’s office: 10 names neatly typed on a sheet of paper.
Jenny Fredericks, the gymnast from Arizona, was the first one up the stairs. She gasped in disbelief when she saw her name on the list. Jenny Inge arrived at 8:05. She grinned when she found her name. “I sat up all night eating peanut butter again,” she said giddily.
Audrea Harris and her sister were fourth up. A glance at the list was followed by squeals and hugs. Sandee Heeres peered over their shoulders, then beamed. Next came Laura Dugdale, the other blond DG who had been in the first call-back group the night before. She too made the cut.
The three winners made way for Shanyn, who raced upstairs, read the names once, then searched through them a second time. Her expression collapsed. She ran from the hallway, down the stairs and out into the late-fall sunshine.
“My parents are going to just freak out,” she sobbed. “My mom wanted this just as much as I did.” When it was suggested to Shanyn that she was only a freshman, a superb dancer and would have an excellent chance to make it next year, she looked up, her expression wracked with anguish. “But I wanted this so much. Cheerleading is my life .”
There were few other surprises: Marcie Engelman made it. So did Suzanne Fowler and an excited Cissy Pfenning. Charismatic Angie Witherspoon did not. And yes, Jennifer Ortnergot a second chance.
The only unexpected name on the list was that of Dionne Dominique. Dionne lived off campus and couldn’t get over to see the list right away, so Rouse called her. “You’re kidding!” was all she could say at first. “You have no idea. . . !” she gasped finally. “This means everything to me.”
The grand total included two blacks, two brunettes, six blondes and three DGs. On the whole, Nelson and Rouse said, they were pleased. There were several girls whose weight they were going to watch “very closely. It’ll all shake by football season,” said Rouse.
When Rouse heard Jennifer Ortner’s remarks about how hard it is to be chosen for the basketball squad and then cut for football, she replied breezily: “It’s how we get a good squad.” Then there was a long pause. When Rouse spoke again, her tone was uncharacteristically serious.
“I know the system can hurt people,” she said slowly. " My sister was a USC song girl, too. She made it for basketball but not for football. Now she’s overweight. She turned from this really beautiful girl into a person who--" Rouse searched for words. “Look, my sister is wonderful. I love her and I still see the beautiful person inside her, but I also see a person whose self-esteem is terrible. And sometimes, I think being cut from the squad was the thing that started her self-esteem going downhill.”
FOR THE NEXT two months, the new squad members practiced almost daily. On the night of their debut at the Jan. 17 basketball game, it was evident that the work had paid off. The song girls now looked less like individuals than like 10 pieces of a matched set. When they were not performing, they sat all in a row, their legs identically placed, the right one bent delicately to the side, the left one neatly tucked under. Even when they cheered, their movements were synchronized. Across the floor the Cal song girls sat cross-legged, chewed gum and cheered one by one, whenever they felt like it.
When the USC squad got up to perform, there were still a few rough spots: Suzanne was half a beat slow; Jenny Inge flubbed a couple of steps, as did Laura Dugdale and Jenny Frederick. Dionne looked scared.
But such flaws were transitory. Eight months later, on Monday, Sept. 2, when the USC Trojans played the first game of their 1991 football season against Memphis State University, there were only seven young women left on the squad: Marcie Engelman, Dionne Dominique, Audrea Harris, Sandee Heeres, Jenny Inge, Cissy Pfenning and Jennifer Ortner. Seven sets of pompons flashed in impeccable unison, seven legs kicked as one, seven smiles dazzled photographers identically with their radiance. After three rounds of eliminations and nearly 10 months of training, the University of Southern California finally had its 1991 song girls. And they were perfect.