NFL cheerleading is serious business. Ask this cancer researcher
Chelsea Pe Benito studied psychology and captained Northeastern’s dance team en route to a career in clinical research management. When she graduated, her dancing days were just getting started.
Chelsea Pe Benito always knew she would be a dancer. But in her mind, it didn’t look quite like this.
Pe Benito trained for 15 years as a ballerina growing up in central New Jersey, studying at the prestigious Princeton Ballet School through high school, dancing in standards like “Swan Lake” and even touring in a production of “The Nutcracker” around the tri-state area. “It was all tutus and pointe shoes,” she says. “I was in love with ballet.”
Before too long, she would indeed be dancing professionally — but in sneakers and heeled boots.
The 2019 graduate of Northeastern University recently wrapped up her rookie season as an NFL cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles. The classical suites and elongated, legato movements of her youth have been replaced with 80,000 screaming football fans, pom poms and whip-like choreography designed to be seen in the nosebleed seats. “I tear every time up waiting in the tunnel line to go onto the field,” Pe Benito says. “You can quite literally feel the ground shaking. There’s no better feeling.”
Pe Benito’s road to pro cheerleading ran straight through Northeastern. Though initially attracted to the university because of the co-op program, she joined the dance team her sophomore year and eventually became captain, traveling to national competitions and choreography conventions while balancing a full academic workload.
That demanding schedule proved an effective training camp for her future. Cheering for the Eagles involves hours of evening practices, home game Sundays, and a packed calendar of community appearances around Philadelphia — in addition to her day job as an oncology study manager for pharmaceutical giant Merck.
“My time at Northeastern really prepared me for what I’m doing now,” Pe Benito says. “Because if you think about it, I was either in classes or on co-op. And then in the evenings, I would have dance team practices late, and we’d also [perform at] games. So this mimics a routine that I’m used to and enjoy very much.”
Tchaikovsky to Black Eyed Peas
Pe Benito grew up in East Brunswick, a New Jersey town that represents contested NFL territory among Eagles, Jets and Giants fandoms. “I’m an hour from New York and an hour from Philly, so in my family it’s pretty split,” she laughs. Even her NFL cheer career thus far reflects that: Prior to joining the Eagles squad, Pe Benito was a rookie member of the New York Jets Flight Crew for the 2021-2022 season.
She had been a complete newbie to dance teams just a few years before. After spending her freshman year getting acclimated to campus life, she was ready to get back to dancing her sophomore year, at least recreationally. Northeastern, however, had no ballet program. “I would sometimes take drop-in classes at Boston Ballet, but as a college student, I didn’t have the money to take class nearly as much as I used to growing up,” she says. In search of a more accessible option, she saw a Facebook ad for Northeastern Dance Team auditions and signed up.
Thanks to ballet, “she was a really strong technical dancer,” remembers Nicole Vicino, who captained the team when Pe Benito joined and has served as its head coach since 2019. “Her level of training is rare in the dance team world. She could turn really well, she could kick really high and her toes were always pointed. Our style challenged her because it’s so different from what she was used to, but she was fearless about diving in and trying new things.”
Before long, tiptoeing to Tchaikovsky had fully given way to stomping and hair flips in formation to “My Humps” by the Black Eyed Peas in front of halftime crowds in Matthews Arena. It put a different type of toll on her body, too. “In ballet, most of my injuries were lower-extremity related, a lot on the feet and obviously on my toes because you are in pointe shoes,” Pe Benito says. “I get fewer blisters now. But for cheer teams, you’re whipping your neck. So you really need to make sure you warm up your neck.”
‘At the height of college dance’
Pe Benito came on during a period of evolution for the dance team, now in its 21st year as a Northeastern club sport. “When I joined, we were mostly a game day team,” says Vicino, who graduated from Northeastern in 2016 and has danced professionally for the Boston Celtics. “We would perform at men’s and women’s basketball games and a random competition here and there.”
Under former coach Kayla Harkness, who was also a Celtics dancer, the team began focusing on competitive dance in addition to its sideline appearances. The Huskies competed in the NDA’s National College Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the first time in 2015; in 2023, they grabbed third place in the U.S. for Team Performance. Harkness also started the tradition of sending team representatives to Pro Action Dance, a top-level cheer and dance choreography convention in Las Vegas.
“I’ve noticed a huge shift in the athleticism required of our dancers,” Vicino says. “We’re really at the height of college dance right now, and it’s a neat place to be. Schools are investing so much money into their programs, and it’s elevating everything. Your stamina level needs to be higher, you need to be able to do acrobatic tricks — that’s just the expectation.”
Pe Benito’s technical prowess and work ethic made her well-suited to that demanding milieu. She captained the team her senior year, and along the way got her first exposure to the world of dancing for professional sports teams. In recent years, Northeastern’s team has been a potent pipeline to NFL and NBA sidelines. Another former coach, Alexandria Walker, cheered for the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots and now serves as the Patriots’ cheerleading manager. Another graduate, Kelsey Zimmerer, also cheered for the Patriots
That success has a ripple effect, Vicino says. “For me personally, I didn’t think that I was a good enough dancer to be on a professional team. It was my coaches who said, ‘you should absolutely audition.’ Seeing someone do it who was in your position years ago is really important.”
Pe Benito’s audition for the Eagles took two months, consisting of an open casting call and choreography training session in April and culminating with a solo dance in front of a panel of judges in June. She was one of eight new dancers selected for the 33-person squad, out of hundreds who auditioned.
She got there all while on a career track that has included co-ops at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a physical therapy clinic, as well as a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University in regulatory science. Now based in New York, she regularly drives the two hours to Philadelphia after her 9 to 5 for practices and games.
Pe Benito and Vicino both say that type of relentless schedule is typical in the dance team world, where even those at the very top levels are doing it out of passion rather than a way to make a living. In addition to coaching Northeastern’s dance team, Vicino is a corporate communications executive in Boston’s financial industry.
You can quite literally feel the ground shaking. There’s no better feeling.
Chelsea Pe Benito, 2019 Northeastern University graduate and cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles
“I think dancers naturally crave being busy all the time,” Vicino says. “It’s something that I crave. I’ve never had a free Saturday in the 30 years that I’ve been alive.” She notes that the Northeastern dance team’s combined GPA for fall 2023 was a 3.81, and every single member made the Dean’s List.
According to Pe Benito, it’s no different in the NFL. “All of our [Eagles] team members either work or attend school full time,” she says. “There are cancer researchers, a physical therapist, a historian, chemists, teachers. I’m just so grateful to be in a position where I can pursue both of my passions.”
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