Bring It On

Wanna be a Cavalier Girl? Don't forget to smile through the pain.

Krystal Nameth really, really wants to be a Cavalier Girl. She bounces on her toes and desperately tries to appear taller than her usual 5 foot 2. The 18-year-old with the ironed-straight hair and almond-shaped eyes studies her competition. She's feeling confident: None of them went to as many pre-audition workshops as she did. None of them has the drive she has. She's sure of it.

Yet Krystal still smiles anxiously at the head choreographer, trying vigorously to catch her eye. She's looking for a wink, a smile, a nod -- anything to indicate that she's been recognized, to let her know that she is indeed different from the 154 other girls sprawled across the floor, all of whom want what Krystal wants -- just to "you know, feel special, to shine," to "get out of this godforsaken city," to "feel pretty," to "be famous," to "meet and marry an NBA star."

Of course, Cavalier Girls don't really get to mingle with NBA stars; that's the first rule of their contract. What they do get is about 50 bucks a game just to shimmy and shake their gym-perfect bodies for swarms of beer-and-testosterone-fueled fans. In their spare time, when they're not working other jobs or studying for college exams or icing sore muscles, they may get to pose for model shoots, calendars, and charity events -- sometimes in less clothing than you'd wear at a European beach. It's one of the few jobs in Cleveland that pays you to dance. And that, thinks Krystal, definitely beats any office job.

But some of the girls at Gund Arena's first open audition are not real dancers -- it's sooo obvious. Just look at the hesitation in their hips, the drudgingly slow way they whip back their shoulders. "Well, I'm not a great dancer, but I figure if they had auditions for actors I'd be there too, even though I've never ever acted before," confesses Chasity Saleem. "When something like this comes up, you've just gotta take it. You know?"

Krystal knows. Yesterday she went to Target and bought a new sports bra and matching shorts. Then she stayed up late, gluing rhinestones onto the bra. "Oh no," she groans. "Some of them are falling off." But then she smiles. "Did you see what some of the other girls are wearing?" One showed up in a Lakers uniform. Like, the L.A. Lakers -- hel-lo! Krystal unleashes a laugh as sparkly as her name.

On the stage, the choreographer is pulsing out counts, her feet tapping to the beat: one-two-three-four . . .

Krystal pushes her way to the front of the line and follows the lead of Liz Guerrieri, a young dancer who was asked to demonstrate the moves. Guerrieri's hair is pulled into a sweaty ponytail. Her back is to the dancers, but 155 girls follow her legs closely. Hers! And she's only 13. Although Liz loves to dance, she would never want to be a Cavalier Girl. Nuh-uh, she says, rolling her eyes. "I'm a dancer." The two are quite different.

Upstairs, the eight returnees from last year are in a separate suite, preening and primping. They sit, Indian-style, on lounge chairs, lackadaisically dusting their bodies with bronzing powder, as talk turns to the competition downstairs.

"Tell me they're all wearing horrible outfits and none of them can dance," says Mary Beth, a lightly tanned girl with thick chestnut hair and a red half-top that everyone agrees is very "MB" (Mary Beth).

"They're all wearing horrible outfits and none of them can dance," someone obliges.

After a brief silence, Kate chimes in. "I'm soooooo nervous," says the lithe towhead in the sparkly pink sports bra, who looks remarkably like a young Heather Locklear. The others bob their heads.

"Before, it was just like, you know, this huge shot in the dark, and it was a thrill just to make the first cut. But now, now I know what it's like to be on the team, and I couldn't bear to give it up." She bites down hard on her lip.

Last year, Kate traveled all the way from Columbus to the tryouts, not really sure if she had the talent to become a professional dancer -- but needing, for her own sake, to find out. And every day, as she proceeded to the next level of auditions, she'd phone home from the arena floor. "Mom!" she'd squeal. "I think this might really be happening! I think I actually might have to move to Cleveland!"

In a new city and with no housing prospects, Kate lived in a hotel for a month and a half; the only people she knew were Cavalier Girls. Now these girls have become a part of her, which is why she's so worried. "Today, we're just like everybody else," she says. "We can get cut just like any of them."

Iman looks up from her stretching with a knowing expression; she's been cut before. "It hurts -- every time you turn on the channel and see them and know that you're not part of it and you once were." For a moment, she looks so downcast, it seems as if her eyes might slide off her face.

"Chill, honey," reassures Kara, Kate's ever-smiling roommate, as she dabs on bright red lipstick and examines the results. "It'll be fine." She pauses for a beat and purses her lips. "Do you think this lipstick makes me look like a crack addict?"

At 11, the eight returnees march into the audition together. Their hair is flowing and their torsos are upright, and they're just so regal you have to stare. "Where's their crowns?" one candidate whispers. Her friend laughs.

Krystal goes first: She stands poised, legs flexed and back straight. She is thinking of all the games she led as a North Royalton High cheerleader. She can totally do this. She smiles coyly at the choreographer, then looks smugly at the two others auditioning alongside her.

Then the music begins, and something terrible happens -- Krystal can't remember her steps! She stands still, horrified and disbelieving. After a few beats, and some nervous glances at the girls to her left and right -- what are they doing? -- she forces herself into the rhythm, and her movements become as fluid as water. But she has to remind herself to smile.

When she is done, Krystal berates herself and sobs silently. Mascara runs down her cheeks, making her face look Picassoesque. Even as she cries, she edges closer to the eight returning girls, as if by proximity she can become one of them.

Kate and Kara go next. Kara performs with the surety of a student given all the answers to the test. But Kate has trouble -- a wobble here, a lapse there. She smiles brightly through the whole thing, but when the music ends, she runs straight into Kara's arms.

"What if I don't make it?" she asks, as if the thought had never crossed her mind. Then she wails.

She cheers up a bit when Kara reminds her that the auditions don't end here. There's still a hip-hop round and a choreography routine, and a Miss America-style judging session, where they'll walk around in bikinis and answer questions like "Why do you want to be a Cavs Girl?"

Kate, with her Middle America, I-just-milked-a-cow wholesome demeanor, is a pro at all these things, which is why she, along with six other returning girls, eventually makes the squad. Krystal advanced to the final 20, but fell just short of making the 15-member team. She says she's learned at least one thing from her audition: Smile, even when you're hurting a lot.

She's already auditioning for other area dance teams.