It's not quite like being a Laker Girl, and there's no Jack Nicholson eyeballing you from the sidelines or Paula Abdul looking over her shoulder to see if you're gaining on her.
But for 45 seconds on the AstroTurf of the Baltimore Arena, when the music is rocking and about 18,000 eyes are on you, well, it's as close to show biz as it gets in these parts.
"A Touch of Blast," they call themselves, these 12 cheerleaders wearing shiny blue unitards, wielding even shinier silver pompons and sometimes turning out to be the best part of going to a Baltimore Blast soccer game -- especially on a weekend such as this one, when the team lost both its matches.
"I said to my friend, 'Tape the game, I'll watch it later,' " said Steve Saffron, a salesman at WMIX radio and part of the Friday night crowd that found its attention drifting away from the 9-2 rout on the field and toward the cheerleaders on the sidelines.
It's probably politically incorrect to be a grown woman and still cheerleading, yet there they are, at just about every professional football, basketball and even soccer game. Sociologists and feminists no doubt have many explanations for this, but the cheerleaders themselves have just one.
"It's fun," says Lydia Smith, the tall brunette one on the squad.
She and several other cheerleaders form the core of the group. They've been cheering together for about 10 years for whatever team would stick around long enough to have them -- from the Baltimore Colts, to the Baltimore Stars of the defunct United States Football League, to the Baltimore Blast.
"Sometimes we think we're a jinx," she says wryly. "We cheered for the Colts, and they left town, then we cheered for the Stars, and they folded. Teams probably think, 'Get away from us!' "
This is their first season with the Blast, which has had other incarnations of cheerleaders over the years, some less well-received than others. Several Blast watchers wince in recollection of one incident last season, when the crowd booed one particularly misbegotten performance in which the cheerleaders couldn't hear the music and became hopelessly out-of-sync with each other and the beat.
This year's squad -- which includes a couple of women from last year's -- generally gets more favorable responses and lots of requests for autographs and pictures. They don't get much floor time -- they perform mainly during the several timeouts, which means --ing on the field and dodging players who are wandering off, dancing to taped music, then --ing back off, all in 45 fleeting seconds. Otherwise, they're on the sidelines or in the stands, doing their neatly choreographed things as spectators wander between them en route to the bathroom or back from the nachos counter.
Still, for being on the lower levels of a pantheon that has the Los Angeles Laker Girls -- Paula Abdul's springboard to stardom -- and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders at the opposite end, the Blast cheerleaders are an engaging group. Like the Rockettes or a good marching band, it's a small but marvelous thing to watch any group move sharply as one.
"It's basically girls getting together and dancing," says Lisa Manekin, who also goes back to the Colts days.
"People have a stereotype of cheerleaders not having any brains. It's not true," says Ms. Manekin, a certified public accountant with a federal agency. "So I haven't told a lot of people at work that I do this. I thought they wouldn't take me seriously."
Ms. Manekin seems born to cheer, and has been doing so since she was 9 and cheerleading in the Pop Warner football league. You notice her in a crowd -- the blond with the innate sense of the music and not even a microsecond of hesitation before her hip pops on this beat or her shoulders shimmy on that.
While everyone has a day job or attends school -- the Blast gig pays each woman two seasons tickets -- they take their cheerleading seriously, practicing several hours a week. They range in age from teen-age to mid-30s.
Before the game, it's like a slumber party, bridesmaids dinner or any of those other gatherings that women tend organize throughout their lifespan -- everyone's giddily talking at once, inhaling red licorice and pretzels and spraying up a miasma of perfume and hair spray. This is why women never go to the ladies' rooms by themselves.
"It's really girls night out," Jody Flaharty says fondly as she
surveys the tangle of humanity and cosmetics around her.
Over the years, Ms. Flaharty, a legal assistant at Piper & Marbury, and squad co-director Tina Eberly have managed to find a way to keep at least some of the old Colts cheerleader gang together, no matter what the make-up of the local sports scene. They had a long, five-year hiatus after the USFL Stars folded in 1985 and before Ms. Flaharty thought to approach Blast owner Ed Hale and offer their services. They perform in the 26 home games and make shopping mall-type appearances on behalf of the team as well.
"It's kind of nice there's still a place for us. The guys have their softball leagues, their touch football. It's nice that we have our group," she says. "I just don't know what we're going to do when the season ends."