Storm clouds are hovering over the NFL, with players and owners negotiating to prevent a labor lockout. But for the Ravens' cheerleading squad -- a perpetual ray of light at M&T Bank Stadium even on rainy, sleety and snowy Sundays -- the high-flying, big-smiling show must go on.

Despite the uncertainty, the ever-chipper cheerleading squad kicked off its 2011 season with the first rounds of their annual tryouts this weekend at the Merritt Downtown Athletic Club.

"We're still planning for a season. We have to. We just can't have a team put together in four weeks and train them to learn the dances," said Ravens' advertising and marketing coordinator Heather Blocher. "The girls and the guys who make the squad at the end of March will start practicing twice a week in April. So they'll be ready whenever the season starts."

Of course, they have to build a team first.

As gym members trotted on treadmills and curled biceps in the weight room, about 230 men and women took over the basketball courts Saturday for open auditions. To prep for their five minutes in front of the judges, some practiced aerial stunts and gyrated through a choreographed routine to Jessie James' twangy dance hit, "My Cowboy," which pumped through the speakers on loop all weekend. Others read books, put rollers in their hair or caked on makeup as they waited for their number to be called.

"I'm ready to go. I'm ready to do it," first-timer Amanda -- the Ravens don't allow their cheerleaders to give last names to ward off unwanted advances -- said Sunday as she sat on the floor and dabbed on lipstick.

Once a member of the Chicago Bulls' dance team, the Luvabulls, Amanda now works as a physical therapist in Baltimore. But she still harbors hopes of cheering again professionally.

"I always said that when I finished grad school, I was going to go out and do it again," she said. "Life took me to Baltimore, and this was the only team I could imagine trying out for.

Amanda was one of 100 hopefuls -- muscular men in white T-shirts and fit women in oh-so-tight spandex tops and short shorts -- who survived the first round of cuts and returned for another tryout Sunday. They were again graded on eight criteria, from appearance and speaking skills to dance ability and stunt routines. That group was whittled down to 80 on Sunday evening. By the end of the month, the Ravens will select 40 women and 20 men for their 2011 squad. And more than 50 women tried out to be Playmakers, a team of 18 women who instead of dancing and building human pyramids, greets fans at home games and makes public appearances.

Members of the 2010 squad joined the competition Sunday after giving pointers to newbies and teaching the dance routine Saturday. Though they may have made the team last year, none were guaranteed a spot this time around.

"Yesterday I was the Pro Bowl cheerleader," said six-year veteran Jaime, who was the Ravens' lone representative in Honolulu. "Today, I'm not on this team anymore. … Everybody's on the same level."

This year, the hopefuls have a better shot: Only 30 veteran females came back to compete for their jobs in 2011."There are a lot of weddings, engagements and babies happening this year," Blocher explained. "So there are a lot of open spots. It's a good year to try out."

For some, it's not their first time, and might not be their last. Though she was cut in 2009 and 2010, Brittany was back again this weekend, hoping to capitalize on lessons learned from years past.

"I want to be on that field. I want to wear that uniform. I want to represent the Ravens," she said.

Eighty people advanced to the next round after their names were called Sunday evening -- an announcement that led to mascara-muddying tears from dismissed newcomers and veterans alike. In the next two weeks, each will be interviewed privately and their references will be checked, "just like a regular job interview," Blocher said.

For the first time, the final round will be an "American Idol"-esque tryout on March 26 at the Sheraton City Center where the 40 women and 20 men who make the team will be revealed on stage. The event is open to the public and tickets are available at the team's website. Twenty-five women will be named to the Ravens' dance squad, while 15 women, most of them former gymnasts, and the 20 men will make up the NFL's only stunt team.

You can see the tradition there," said four-year veteran Greg, who bounced an orange on his biceps to kill time between while he waited for the second round of cuts to be announced. "It's a very unique part of Baltimore football with the marching band and the co-ed cheerleading."

But will there be football festivities when those September Sundays roll around? The men and women vying to cheer them on, full of perpetual sunshine, are optimistic the storm clouds will pass.

"I'm hoping it's going to be figured out and I'll be on that field cheering for the Ravens," Brittany said.