LONDONDERRY — A Londonderry High School graduate will be one of the first male cheerleaders on the New England Patriots cheer team in decades.
Driss Dallahi, 23, of Londonderry was living in Harlem in New York City, training in dance at the Broadway Dance Center, when he decided he wanted to try to become a professional cheerleader.
He was auditioning for gigs on cruise ships and off-Broadway shows, working in weddings and flash mobs and holding down a full-time office job when he saw that Quinton Peron and Napoleon Jinnies, two men on the L.A. Rams Cheerleader teams, became the first male cheerleaders to perform at a Super Bowl.
“It’s the first time I had seen anything like that,” Dallahi said.
It inspired Dallahi and another man, Steven Sonntag from Vermont, to try out for the Patriots Cheerleaders.
They were among 300 applicants, 70 who made it to finals, which was winowed to 50 at boot camp in March and ultimately a final team selection of 34. Dallahi said even people who were on the team last year have to re-audition every year to stay on.
“It didn’t matter so much that we were men, but more so: ‘Could we do what everyone else was doing as well as they were doing it?’” Dallahi said.
Dallahi met Sonntag at an earlier workshop in January, and the two worked together to write the playbook on how to navigate the female-dominated cheer scene.
“Through the whole audition process, we kind of leaned on each other a lot,” Dallahi said.
They also connected with Peron and Jinnies, who provided advice and support.
During the same workshop, Dallahi also connected with fellow Londonderry native Kendall Pope, who is returning as a member of the team this year. Dallahi said they had been in the same graduating class in high school, but that he didn’t get to know her until this year.
“It was really nice to have that Londonderry spirit there,” he said.
For the past 15 years, Dallahi’s focus has been on dance, but he started doing cheerleading with a volunteer team called Gotham Cheer, which has performed at charity events in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Dallahi said it didn’t seem like recruiting men this year was a goal for the team. He said they just wanted to bring on the most talented, genuinely good and hard-working people they could, regardless of gender.
Tracy Sormanti, the director of the Patriots Cheerleaders, said the Patriots had men on the dance team in the 1970s.
“In the early 1980s, their role transitioned more to gymnastics, tumbling and stunting,” Sormanti said in an email. “In the 1990s, when the squad was reformed after the Patriots had a brief window without cheerleaders, the Patriots Cheerleaders became an all-female squad.”
She said there was no policy against recruiting men, but this year will be the first time since 1984 that the Patriots Cheerleaders will have male dancers on the team.
Dallahi hopes there will be more men trying out for the team next year.
In the meantime, Dallahi said he and Sonntag are getting special uniforms made for them, and he’s looking forward to performing in their first game.
“It still doesn’t feel real, quite yet,” he said.