There may be a lot of unknowns when the NFL’s Washington Football Team takes to the field on Sunday but one thing is for sure: plenty of fans will be cheering on the team, including two local members of the First Ladies of Football cheerleading team, Jordyn Cristaudo and Alyssa Gaines.
“It makes me really happy and I just love performing and love being part of a team and being surrounded by awesome women,” said Cristaudo, who has been with the team since 2014, the last three as a captain.
“I just love to perform, there’s just something about whenever I’m on stage,” said Gaines, who is entering her first season with the team. “You’d think I’d be anxious or nervous or whatever, but I’m just calm when I’m performing and dancing.”
The two are part of the 36-member unit which has been practicing twice a week since tryouts began in early May. Because of COVID-19, the cheerleaders practice at home.
“It has been difficult,” said First Ladies of Football director Jamilla Keene of the process, which has included video submissions and tryouts via Zoom. “We’ve tried to keep things as normal as possible.”
Cheerleaders must know up to 15 sideline routines, including various genres as hip-hop, jazz and funk. They will start games with pregame promos and performances, including one on the 20-yard line, and also perform fight song and end zone routines.
Four units, each comprised of a captain and up to 10 cheerleaders, will form lines and perform in the four corners of the stadium and rotate each quarter.
“I’m looking for well-rounded individual and some one who speaks well, someone who can represent the team and all of our core values,” said Keene, who was a cheerleader for 10 years and an assistant director for seven more. “And someone who’s looking to learn and grow and be a good teammate.”
Jordyn was a 3-year cheerleader at North Point High School when she was suddenly cut from the squad her senior year.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I’d grown up dancing and cheering my whole life in order to be on a team, so it was a really hard year not being able to cheer with all my friends. In a way, looking back, I am thankful because it led me to audition for Washington football. Everything happens for a reason.”
She took the field for the first time Sept. 7, 2014 in front of 71,770 fans as Washington fell 17-6 to the Houston Texans.
“I’ll never forget my first game because I didn’t know what I was doing but I had a really great captain my rookie year and some strong veterans on my line which helped guide me,” she said. “I just remember being so worried about where to stand, and it felt like I really needed a second to take it all in because I was really worried about doing everything right, but it was a lot of fun.”
“We always knew Jordyn had those special qualities [from her time as a junior cheerleader] and when she grew up and decided to be a First Lady we were super excited,” Keene said. “She’s super sweet, she’s genuine, and she’s always consistently giving back to the team and working really hard.”
Cristaudo also works full-time as a special education instructional assistant in a Southern Maryland high school, takes online classes at Liberty University and coaches a Special Olympics Maryland unified cheer and dance team. She recently wrote a book called “So She Did.”
“I just wanted something with which to focus all of my creative energy into and I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, though I never thought I’d actually do it,” said Cristaudo, who added that illustrator Myketa Harets “helped me make everything come to life. It’s just directed to young girls to show they can do whatever they want in life as long as they believe in themselves.”
Gaines, who spent two years each on the cheer team and dance teams at Huntingtown High School before she graduated in 2017, said it’s been in her blood.
“I have three older brothers so my parents put me in [dance] as a change of scenery,” Gaines said. “I pretty much grew up on stage and start competing at the age of five. I never knew it would stick with me and become part of my entire life.”
She decided to pursue a dance career but said moving to California was not ideal for her.
“[Cheerleading] was a great way for me to stay with my family and still do what I love and still be able to teach,” said Gaines, who teaches dance at two studios, is earning her certification in personal fitness and is going to cosmetology school. “But I had no idea what to expect whatsoever so yes [I was terrified]. It was all on Zoom so it was even more intimidating for me almost.”
Gaines reached out to Cristaudo and said the senior cheerleader helped reassure her.
“She let me know what it was going to be like and encouraged me the whole way,” Gaines said. “But there were pages and pages of girls so every time I would make it to the next round I was just shocked. [The final cuts were] live-streamed on Facebook and I was standing in the dance room of my house and the first thing I did was cry. I could not stop crying for days.”
“This year we saw a lot of new faces and seeing Alyssa I was, ‘Oh OK, I think she would be a good fit for the team’ and during the audition process we take the time to do interviews with all of the candidates and she just has this sweet bubbly personality,” Keene said. “Just the other day I caught her running down the street going to our photo shoot and I was like, ‘Who’s that lady? Isn’t she beautiful? Oh wait, she’s on the team,’ because I hadn’t seen everybody in person yet. It’s just so nice to see how excited she is about the upcoming season.”
The Washington Football Team will open its season this Sunday against NFC East conference rival Philadelphia. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at FedEx Field, although there will be no fans present.
“I want the world to see how hard we’ve been working even with these challenges thrown at us so I’m really proud to be a part of the team,” Cristaudo said. “We’re ready for anything and ready to adapt and adjust and no matter what the season looks like I’m sure it’s going to be great.”
“I just like to perform and the feeling you get is just kind of unexplainable to me,” Gaines said. “I’m just super thankful to be a part of the team and I just hope I get to have an amazing rookie year.”