The half-time bell rings. We wait at the edge of the court for the university basketball team to saunter off. Several thousand spectators start standing up, looking for handbags, coats and money to take to the snack bar.
We surge forward, doing back flips, no-handed cartwheels, jumps and shouts. Suddenly the crowd sits down, focused on centre court again. We take up our positions, not a pompom in sight.
Cue Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’.
(Life is a mystery) Stacey is lifted by four team-mates into a crucifix position.
( (Everyone must stand alone) They give her a big push, and she flips back into the air, landing in a standing position on the shoulders of two team-mates.
(I hear you call my name) Hidden behind Stacey and the other cheerleaders, I stand on the clasped hands of the four male cheerleaders.
(And it feels like…) They hurl me up and forward into the air over Stacey’s head.
(…home) When I’m 15 feet above Stacey’s head, I do a mid-air toe-touch on the word ‘home’, then propel my body forward to land in the arms of my team-mates.
The crowd gasp and applaud. The routine has started. Five minutes later, after dancing, cheering, tumbling and stunts, Mary is thrown from the ground straight on top of a three person-high pyramid. She lifts her arms in the air, and we all shout ‘Panthers!’
The crowd goes wild. There’s stomping, clapping, shouting. We run cheering off court as the players walk on. The crowd starts making its way to the snack bar. All week, other uni students, some I’ve never met, congratulate me on the routine. For at least a year afterwards, my two-year-old nephews keep asking me to ‘jump high, Aunt Jill, jump high!’ They didn’t see the guys hurling me into the air and apparently think I’m a mini Michael Jordan.
Today’s cheerleaders are nothing like the fluffy, blonde stereotypes you imagine them to be, and they’re as far removed from professional cheerleaders (think Dallas Cowboys) as Olympic wrestlers are from their professional counterparts. The only real cheerleaders are at amateur level, reaching the pinnacle of their careers at university. Cheerleading, which originally consisted of men simply leading the crowd in cheers, has turned into one of the most physically demanding sports in America. It now includes advanced level gymnastics, death defying stunts and complicated dance routines. (Remember Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ dance moves? Those were straight from the cheerleader handbook.)
Most of America’s three million cheerleaders still perform at American football and basketball games, but many now compete against each other competitively as well, and those who do are as fit as Olympic football players and gymnasts*. In fact, some teams now exist solely to compete against other cheerleaders.
It’s a far cry from when I started in the 1970s. At the age of four, I was the mascot for a team of 12-year-old cheerleaders. My job was to wear the uniform, try to follow their cheers and look cute. For most of my first season, I was useless. My mom has video evidence in case I ever forget. I just sucked my thumb and stared at the team captain, Pepper, my hero. She was blonde, wore cool sunglasses and knew how to do a split.
The next season, though, it was time for the big leagues. I had to try out for a place as a proper cheerleader. Forty of us went to the football field for a day of lessons, then at the end, we were assessed. I made it through to the final 10. Go me!
As I grew up, so did the sport. Stunts became more exciting and routines more advanced. Cheerleaders were expected to practice 10 hours a week for 10-12 months of the year and attend a week-long cheer camp (like boot camp, only the days are longer, the activities are harder and you have to do it all with a smile on your face).
Some people still see cheerleading as a sport for girls more concerned with their looks than their sport. Tell that to Kristi Yamaoka from Southern Illinois University. “I’m still a cheerleader – on a stretcher or not,” Yamaoka said. She was carried off court in March after falling 15 feet from the top of a pyramid onto her head.
Despite having a concussion, a bruised lung and spinal fracture, her cheerleading instinct came through. As she lay on the stretcher, the band started playing the school fight song, a common salute to injured players. “As soon as I heard that, I knew my job and just started to do my thing.” Her arms weren’t strapped in, so she used them to join her teammates in the fight song routine as she was carried off court. The fans went wild.
Would they have gone so nuts if a basketball player started making slam-dunk motions as he was stretchered off court? Probably not. Cheerleaders hold a special place in the hearts of most Americans. That’s because they’re seen (rightly or wrongly) as being optimistic, well-liked, loyal and, of course, leaders. It’s how America likes to think of itself, and once you understand that, you’re just a little bit closer to understanding Americans.
COME ON, BRITS, YOU CAN DO IT!
For this simple chant, do a High V (straight arms held in a V above your head) and some claps (with closed fingers, bring your hands exactly together at chest height).
Go! Panthers! Go! chant
Go! (High V)Panthers! (Clap on ‘Pan’; clap on ‘thers’)Go! (High V)PAUSE (Clap on the pause)Repeat three times.
Finish with a herkie jump. This was invented by famous 1950s cheerleader Lawrence Herkimer. With your legs together, bend a little, then jump off the ground, extending your right leg straight out to the right and bending your left leg with the knee facing the ground. At the same time, put your left arm on your hip and your right arm straight above your head. Land with feet together.
TWO, FOUR, SIX, EIGHT – MYTHS WE DON’T APPRECIATE!
Myth: Cheerleaders are dumb
Nearly 85% of high school cheerleaders have a very above-average “B” grade or higher*, and many go on to become industry and political leaders. To paraphrase Kirsten Dunst in cheerleader movie Bring it on, America ‘is not a democracy. It’s a cheerocracy.’ The sport has been around for little more than a century, yet four of the 17 presidents during that time have been cheerleaders, including (sigh) the current cheer-tator – George W. The other three were Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, Churchill’s main ally during World War II was a cheerleader. I’m not surprised. Other famous high-achieving cheerleaders include numerous US politicians, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Madonna, Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, Samuel L Jackson, Jimmy Stewart and Kirk and Michael Douglas.
Myth: Cheerleaders are mean
At cheer camps, the most coveted prize is the Spirit Stick, which is given to the team who are the most helpful, friendly and liked by the other camp attendees. No points for nastiness. (My team, rather surprisingly, won the Spirit Stick once. Go us!)
Myth: Cheerleaders aren’t athletes
In a study at Michigan’s Wayne State University comparing high school competitive cheerleaders to Olympic gymnasts and football players, competitive cheerleaders shared the same level of fitness. Are your kids that fit?
Myth: Cheerleading is a popularity contest
Cheerleaders win their places on the team by going through an arduous try-out process judged by coaches and professional cheerleading judges. There is no school where a cheerleader wins her position based on votes by the student body or other cheerleaders.
Myth: Cheerleading is only for girls
More and more boys are getting back into the sport they started in the late 1890s. (Women didn’t join in until the mid-1900s.) While 97% of cheerleaders at high school level and below are still female, at college that drops to around 50%. Let’s hear it for the boys!
CHEERLEADERS AT THE CINEMA
Bring it on
This is the closest Hollywood comes to portraying real cheerleading moves and routines. Plus, it’s funny. (Courtney: Darcy thinks she should get captain ’cause her dad pays for everything. Whitney: He should use some of that money to buy her a clue.)
The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom
In the early 1990s, a Texan woman plotted to kill a cheerleader’s mom, hoping the cheerleader would be so grief-stricken, she’d do badly at try-outs, and the woman’s daughter would make the squad instead. This is all entirely true and was big news in America. The plot was foiled and the woman jailed. Holly Hunter won an Emmy for this made-for-TV movie, which is amusing, in a sick and twisted kind of way.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This cheerleader/vampire spoof movie is ridiculous – in a good way.
*Survey by American Sports Data, Inc