Last week, Kyle Tanguay made headlines when he became an Eagles cheerleader, making him the first man to join the squad in 35 years and only the fourth male cheerleader in the NFL.
At least one person wasn’t shocked: Tanguay’s 98-year-old great-grandmother, Shirley Hodgdon, said, “I’m not surprised a bit."
Breaking barriers as a cheerleader is in Tanguay’s blood.
Hodgdon, who lives in Portsmouth, N.H., said that she was the first female cheerleader at Portsmouth High School in 1937. It turns out that Tanguay’s performance lineage goes back even further — Hodgdon’s father was the captain of the Dartmouth College gymnastics team and taught her “all sorts of things.” Even at her age, Hodgdon maintains that she can keep up with her great-grandson, showing him dance maneuvers during holiday visits. Hodgdon’s influence will be on display when Tanguay takes the field for the 2019-20 Eagles season.
The 21-year-old Tanguay hails from Rochester, N.H., but moved to Philly in 2017 to study dance at the University of the Arts, where he’s now a junior. It was difficult to schedule an interview with him because he was in the middle of finals.
He prides himself on his work ethic but is a “T-shirt and shorts" kind of guy when he’s not rehearsing or studying. To prepare for his Eagles audition, he practiced the routine “every single morning" with his best friend, Rae Holtzman, for six months. (She also made the team.)
The audition “was like an actual show,” Tanguay said. “It’s not like we walk in and do a routine. ... There’s a fitness portion. There’s a dance portion. There’s an onstage-presence portion.”
Tanguay said that when he hits the stage, nothing else matters. The Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” blared through the speakers in the auditorium during his final audition.
“I go into a sort of muscle memory [when dancing]. We call it our nirvana," Tanguay said.
Now, whenever “Sucker” is played on the radio, “I get butterflies,” he said.
From the second half of the 19th century until the 1930s, cheerleading was dominated by males. Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and other well-known figures throughout history were cheerleaders. During World War I, many men were deployed to fight, leaving positions on cheer teams empty. Women filled these roles, launching a new frontier.
For many male cheerleaders, college is the end of the line. Until recently, male cheerleaders in the NFL were nonexistent. But last August, Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies were the first male cheerleaders to join the Los Angeles Rams, and became the first to perform at the Super Bowl in February. Shortly after the two were hired by the Rams, Jesse Hernandez made the cut for the New Orleans Saints’ cheerleading team.
“This is a new idea for some people," Tanguay said, “but for others? Obviously not, especially in our social climate. ... The one thing that unites us all is the fact that we all love the Eagles.”
“What you notice about Kyle immediately is his energy -- he reminds me of this big, happy puppy,” said Suzy Zucker, the Eagles’ resident choreographer. “He’s got the biggest smile in the world and this great energy. He was very intense during the whole audition process.”
For Zucker, Tanguay’s final audition was the best because he “puts his own style into his performance.” She also mentioned how Tanguay uses his 6-foot-2 stature to his advantage. “Sometimes it can be difficult being a tall dancer, but Kyle really knows how to work the stage. He has such a presence.”
So what can Tanguay expect as a male NFL cheerleader?
“I didn’t expect to see so many die-hard fans,” said Peron said, who’s entering his second season as a Rams cheerleader. "They’ll come up to you in the grocery store and tell you they follow you and how happy they are for you. I haven’t experienced any pushbacks. I was excited to see so many male fans show support.”
Peron also said that Tanguay can expect to be busy. From appearances to workshops to rehearsals to game days, Peron said, the life of a professional dancer during the summer and fall months can be hectic, yet rewarding.
Being the only male on the team isn’t a big deal for Tanguay.
“I would just encourage people to keep an open mind and just have faith in the process and trust that the decision was made with the intent to give the fans the best experience possible," he said.
When asked about his next milestone, Tanguay said he’s taking it one day at a time. He wants to focus on finishing school and being the best NFL cheerleader he can be.
“I think Kyle is going to grow exponentially as a person with this experience," Zucker said. “When you’re a dancer, you’re a solo performer. But when you’re a cheerleader, you’re part of a team. Kyle is going to have a family of 35 other teammates. I think that experience is going to change him drastically.”