On TV, Kitty Carter is harsh and abrasive and honest to Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders hopefuls. In real life, she’s the same. But the TV only shows the cruel words, not the hugs she gives after.
Kitty Carter is a former DCC, a dance studio owner, wife and mother of three boys. She began to attract attention during the second season of CMT’s Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team for being the team's harsh technical dance instructor.
On a Thursday night, I enter Kitty Carter Dance Factory, the studio Carter opened in 1980. I watch as Carter greets every dancer and their mothers with a, “Hi, baby girl.” She hugs and catches up with each of them.
On the opposite wall stands a Hardin-Simmons University student. She is home for spring break and taking Carter’s "Art of Auditioning" class, where Carter preps dancers who are trying out for college or professional dance teams. The student tells me she plans to try out for DCC in May.
Once the class begins, roughly 10 girls begin to stretch on their own. Carter asks each of them to “slate,” which is when the dancer stands at attention and introduces herself. The dancers this night range from a 14-year-old middle school student whose aunt used to be one of Carter’s students to a 29-year-old woman preparing to try out for the Dallas Cowboys Rhythm & Blue Dance Squad.
One woman stands up and slates. She announces she’s been a figure skater for 11 years.
“Is that all you can offer me?” Carter asks the woman.
That’s the thing. If the figure skater wants to be a cheerleader or dancer for a college or professional team, a dance background isn’t going to be enough to wow the judges. These women must be beautiful, smart, fit and have a life outside of dancing.
After some prodding, the figure skater reveals she’s an attorney practicing family law.
Carter recognizes the woman as someone who has taken her classes before. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?” Carter asks. She politely nods. Carter asks her to lift her baggy sweatshirt to see her tummy.
“Oh, you look great,” she tells her.
Carter’s Thursday night "Art of Auditioning" class lasts from 8 to 11 p.m. — sometimes midnight if she feels some women need extra help. The class helps the women with the technical aspects of their routines and touches on questions they might be asked in an interview. Carter does a lot of motivating in the form of yelling and chastising.
“I always say to put on a thong and bra and shake in front of the mirror. And anything that shakes, get rid of it,” Carter tells the class about being fit for auditions.
The women then begin their session of about 1,000 crunches in a 10-minute span.
After working out, the women line up to practice their kicks across the floor. Carter turns the stereo all the way up, but that doesn’t prevent her yelling from being heard.
Carter turns off the music and looks at one 17-year-old and says, “Did you hear me say your left leg sucked?” The girls nods. “Yes, ma’am," she says.
At the end of the three-hour class, Carter hugs all of her students goodbye. She later tells me, "I hug every student who leaves my class. I'm like, ‘If I pissed you off, you're going to hug me regardless if you want to or not to let you know I think you're great.’”
Thursday night, she had pushed some women to keep dancing when they didn’t want to and put other girls on the spot to answer fake interview questions like, “What are the six flags over Texas?”
As the dancers are leaving, Carter stops the girl from Hardin-Simmons. She tells her her hair is awful and suggests she let her box coloring grow out and use plenty of conditioner before auditions. The dancer’s eyes begin to well up. “Are you about to cry?” Carter asks. The dancer assures her that isn’t the case, but Carter hugs her just to be sure.
The next day, Carter is at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts instructing a jazz class. We make our way outside to sit on a bench and talk. While she’s been teaching there for 15 years, she’s not on campus every day, so it's a treat for fellow teachers and students to see her. One student stops to tell her about his college prospects. Carter gleams with pride. “That’s great, baby boy.”
Carter grew up poor in East Dallas and says she had to wash her clothes in the bathtub. She has been dancing since she was 3 years old and even though she didn’t make the Woodrow Wilson High School drill team, she went on to SMU to major in dance. It was during college that she cheered for the Dallas Cowboys — from 1972-1975 and Super Bowl '76.
It was the 1972 season when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders completely transformed. What was once a squad of local co-ed high school cheerleaders was now a squad of beautiful adult women wearing the uniform known today.
"It was just so shocking that there were going to be girls in two-piece outfits on the field,” Carter says. “My dad was a little bit conservative back in the '70s.”
He was so conservative, in fact, that he told his daughter she wouldn’t go to the Super Bowl in that uniform. By that time, Carter says her family was no longer poor, so her dad bought the entire squad matching monogrammed jackets for the big event.
In 1977, the Cowboys cheerleaders began gaining national attention. “When they came to us and said we were going to have to be on TV and needed to lose 10 pounds, I was out of there,” Carter says, laughing. “I wasn’t willing to do that. I knew I didn’t have a dancer’s body, but I didn't care. I was very talented from the knees up."
She left the squad and opened her own dance studio teaching jazz, musical theater, tap and more. Some of her former students include choreographers for Katy Perry and America's Got Talent — and one Dancing With the Stars champ.
That champ is Melissa Rycroft, a former DCC, who later went on to reality TV fame after appearing on The Bachelor and DWTS. When Rycroft appeared on the CMT show, Carter regularly picked on her.
"I feel like every season, there's always a girl or two that she picks on a little bit more because she sees something in you," Rycroft says. "I didn't know that at the time because she called me Shy Guy and called me out and put me through some experiences I had never been put through before in my life, and she scared me the first time."
Over time, Rycroft says she and Carter became friends. After Carter had hip surgery, Rycroft visited her and began to see her as someone different outside of the dance studio. "It's almost like a different person. I was sitting there talking to this person and I was like, 'I love you,'" Rycroft says. Today, Carter says she regularly babysits Rycroft's children.
Another dancer who has experienced the wrath of Carter is Vivian Williams. Before the women perform their solo routines during the final auditions, CMT films Carter critiquing some of the women. During the season eight episode, Carter calls Williams' solo in a Tin Man costume a "nightmare," "trainwreck" and "nosedive." But what the episode didn't show, Carter says, is that she bought Williams a new costume and helped her re-choreograph the entire routine before auditions the next day.
Even though Williams says she was discouraged when Carter first dismissed her routine, she learned to appreciate Carter for who she is. "She’s very strong, and for people that are used to getting things sugarcoated, she can be a lot to take in sometimes," Williams says. "She really cares about the dancers and puts in a lot of time to make sure we are ready."
Carter’s persona on the CMT show is not far removed from her real life personality. She does yell at the women and make sarcastic remarks and jabs at them, like, “Why do you have a BJ mouth?” (She says that to the women who keep their mouths open when dancing.)
Carter says nothing on the show is scripted. "Everything I say on TV is exactly what happens,” she says. “I’ve made girls cry — like break down in the middle of class — and I go over and hug them and say, ‘Look, I get you. And I totally understand, but you got to see what you're doing. I'm trying to save you from being embarrassed in front of America in two hours.’"
Carter swears on her children that she will not lie when a dancer asks her what she thinks. "I do have a heart and I do get it, but I'm not going to blow smoke up your butt if that's what you're asking.
“Girls will cry and say, ‘She thinks I'm ugly and she thinks I'm fat.’ No I don't, but you are fat and you are unattractive, so how can we fix that?"
Her brash personality has earned her a fair number of haters over the years. “I got one email that said, ‘You're a big fat cunt that doesn't know shit what you're doing. Your hair sucks and your makeup sucks and you look like an old hag.’”
But she says that doesn’t hurt her feelings. She says she’s doing her job to make the dancers better. And if they don’t want to be better, that’s fine, she says. “We can still be friends.”
Her time on the show might have lost her some potential dancers at her dance studio, she says, because some women are too scared to take her classes. But the women who can handle her critiques are the ones who are suited to be the best dancers and performers.
"A lot of people don't like me, but I don't care,” she says. “I’m here for the kids and to do my job that I've been assigned. I think God put me here to mentor and protect kids and push them to make them the very best they can be.”