The 14 names were called, and one by one the chosen leaped forward to hugs and kisses from each other and applause from the bleachers. They dashed across the empty gymnasium floor under the cold glow of fluorescent lights to the row of glittering blue-and-red pompons on the far side and sat in a circle to revel in their first few minutes as genuine Washington Bullettes.
For almost three hours recently the women -- the last 24 of the 90 who started two months ago -- paraded, leaped, shouted and danced at Prince George's Community College in an effort to persuade the seven judges they should be numbered among the cheerleaders who rouse Capital Centre crowds and spur Washington's favorite basketball team to victory:
"React, Bullets! (jump) Take Control!
"React, Bullets! (jump) Take to that (point) goal!"
They'd do anything for the privilege -- not to mention the $15 and three free tickets for each of the 20 home games this season. Who cares if they hardly get to know the players, and attendthree-hour practices twice every week and another long practice before every game.
"I like the excitement of the crowds, especially during the play-offs," explained 20-year-old Julie Wilson. The freckled, black-haired Red Cross worker from Alexandria was a Bullette last year and was back to try for another year.
"I like to be in front of people -- that's what's important to me," said 22-year-old Sandra Massey, a tall, slim dance student at the University of Maryland who was trying out for the first time. She came to the first workshop for fun, she said, "but the longer I went, the more I wanted it, and now, I haven't felt this determined in a long time." She started practicing at home, at work, at school "and in my mind when I was driving."
Most of the women are from Prince George's County, recently out of high school and enrolled in the University of Maryland. They come from dance studios, or from the world of high school cheerleading and baton twirling.
Susan Colbert, an 18-year-old criminology student at the University of Maryland, was a cheerleader in high school and still twirls with a majorette corps called the Maryland Misses. Melissa Gerhold, an office worker from Hyattsville used to twirl for Berwyn Heights Bravados and the Calverton Cavaliers.
"I've been twirling since I was 2, and I'm 18 now," Gerhold said.
Gerhold, the 15th tryout to perform last week, strutted smiling, back arched, ponytail wriggling with each step, to the middle of the gym, and waited quietly for the judges to look up. Then she did her leaps, chanted the Bullets' chant, and danced the two choreographed disco numbers -- one with pompons, one without. As a special extra, she did two cartwheels of frightening proportions without touching the floor with her hands.
"I think it went fairly well," she said afterwards, sitting on the steps outside the gym watching her competitors practice in the parking lot. The trials were more than half finished, and nerves were taut. Chewing gum was chewed and cigarettes were smoked, and the women peered through the gym windows to see how their rivals were doing.
Director Judy Quail warned the judges before the show began: "Keep in mind that the girls are a little nervous. Their voice projection is going to be a little rough, because of the nerves, but as long as you hear them. . . . The girls are told to smile, to look at you: enthusiasm and projection, showmanship and appearance."
"You have to look peppy. That's the most important," Gerhold said.
Even veterans get nervous when they're being judged in a small gym, where the bleachers stretch only 11 rows back. Wilson, who was suffering from a cold, fled from the gym in tears. She said she had ruined her chances, gagging and coughing and choking hideously during every routine. In fact, she had simply coughed demurely, smiled endlessly, and performed her routines well.
"Those nerves are still in there," said Diane Yslas, 24, who has been on the Bullettes for five years, and two years ago was an acting director. "This year should be the best. It's the stiffest competiton.
Yslas was planning to quit this year, but when her younger sister Arlene decided to try out she went along. Arlene was the first to go before the judges. "Whether I make it or not, I enjoyed it," Arlene said. "If I don't make it, I'll try again next year."
But 10 had to go. When the scores were totalled, Quail summoned the women, who sat in rows on the bleachers. She hedged for as long as she could: "First off, everybody worked really hard. . . . I'd like you to come out next year. . . . This must be the hardest part of this job for me." And then, of course, she read the list. Diane Yslas made it, Arlene didn't. Julie Wilson made it. Melissa Gerhold made it. So did Sandra Massey and Susan Colbert.
That's when the new Bullettes scampered across the gym and grabbed their shiny new pompons. Last weekend they attended a cookout and pool party, and after two more months of practice they'll cheer at the first home game.
Fourteen other women were left on the bleachers, including two of last year's Bullettes. Some of them were crying. "Hey, guys, it's all right," one of them said. They headed for the door as quickly as they could.
"I didn't make it," said another as she headed into the darkness. "Scratch my name out."