Jesse Hernandez has been dancing ever since his mom taught him a routine to “Shake Your Booty” by KC & the Sunshine Band when he was 2.
So when Tracey Hernandez saw a television segment about how the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams made history by hiring two men for their dance squad last month, she immediately texted her son a link to the story.
“It’s your time to shine," she wrote.
Jesse, 25, thought so, too, and decided to attend Friday’s preliminary tryouts for the New Orleans Saints dance team, which is based about 150 miles from his hometown outside of Lafayette and has never had a male dancer.
So far, it has paid off.
He survived a couple of initial cuts and on Wednesday will compete alongside 50 other finalists, all women, for a spot on the final Saintsations roster for next season.
Perhaps inevitably, there's been some pushback on social media. With the NFL's treatment of cheerleaders under scrutiny, in part thanks to a lawsuit from a former Saintsation alleging discrimination, some wondered whether Hernandez and the Rams dancers had been caught up in a public relations campaign meant to improve the league's image on gender issues.
But Hernandez is confident about his credentials. He's taught dancers for high school teams, colleges and a minor-league hockey team from Lafayette.
“I’ve been training for something like this my whole life,” he said Tuesday as he prepared to travel to New Orleans for his next audition. “I just want to go out there, perform like I’ve never performed before and hope for the best.”
Friends, colleagues and family members have sent him congratulations and good wishes. Some people who watched an online stream of the first round of tryouts also have taken up for him, saying his performance earned him a spot in the finalist pool.
Hernandez said he inherited his love of dancing from his mother, who taught at studios in and around the Vermilion Parish town of Maurice. He learned his debut “Shake Your Booty” routine because his mom needed a little boy to play a part in one of her classes’ dance recitals.
“We just stuck him in there,” she said. “He took to it, loved it and thrived.”
Hernandez joined the dance team in high school and refined his techniques over the years at conventions and competitions, where his mother said he often stood out as the only boy in the room and frequently picked up awards and acclaim.
Eventually, he opened his own instructional studio and coached the GatorGirls dance team affiliated with a defunct minor-league hockey team, the Lafayette-based Louisiana IceGators. He also worked with the Universal Dance Association, which teaches routines to the high school and college spirit teams that are staples during football season across America.
He was judging a UDA tryout in New Orleans when the Saintsations were hosting a clinic in Biloxi, Mississippi.
By then, his mother had called his attention to the two male Rams cheerleaders, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies. NFL teams have had men and women perform cheerleading stunts together, but Peron and Jinnies are believed to be the first men hired to dance with an elite, otherwise all-female squad, according to numerous reports.
Hernandez figured if they could make it, he could, too.
He was nervous during the drive over to the Biloxi clinic, where participants would learn the routine they needed to nail if they wanted to join the group of dancers who have been called the Saintsations since 1987.
He could sense team leaders were initially surprised a man had signed up for the clinic. But he said Saintsation team director Ashley Deaton approached him to say, “We would love to see you at tryouts,” which would be a few weeks later in Metairie.
“It was great to hear that,” he said. “It felt very welcoming.”
The first part of the audition, at the Saints’ indoor training facility, had Hernandez performing alongside two other rookie hopefuls.
The prospects got a refresher on a hip-hop section in the routine — set to a mix tape featuring Justin Timberlake — and then performed the dance with team veterans for the second round, Hernandez said.
At the end of each round, participants looked over a list of numbers to see if theirs was highlighted with a yellow marker, said Hernandez, who wore a No. 18 pinned to his black shorts.
Dancers whose numbers weren’t highlighted were told, “We would love for you to come back and keep trying.” Those whose numbers were highlighted were told, “We would love for you to stay for the next round.”
No. 18 was highlighted twice on Friday, setting the stage for Wednesday’s final round, to be held again at the team's facility in Metairie.
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