When I was in high school, the sum total of my knowledge about cheerleaders basically consisted of: They wear short skirts. They are “peppy” and thin. They run around shouting stuff. I, of course, was beyond all of this. My high school didn’t even have sports teams, and I don’t think I knew a single person on the squad at the regular high school. (Did MHS even have a cheerleading squad? I have no idea.)
And then, I went to college, and I met Leah.
I met Leah because we lived in the same house, and because we happened to be touring the gym on the same day. My first impression of Leah was: woah. She is a serious athlete. And she was. This girl was ripped. She was tremendously strong and toned and powerful and she asked questions about the gym equipment which suggested that she actually knew what she was about. In a crowd of pasty liberal arts majors, that tends to make you stand out, and I couldn’t help but being curious about her.
She happened to sit down to lunch at my table one day, and this being in the early days of school, we introduced each other, and I found out that Leah was a cheerleader. Everyone at the table kind of sneered when she said it, immediately re-evaluating her shampoo commercial hair and her lean, toned body and the fact that she got up at six every morning to go running. “What’s a girl like you,” the implication was, “doing at a place like this?”
As it turned out, Leah had turned down several cheerleading scholarships to attend this college. She was an extremely talented cheerleader in very high demand, but she’d decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She had strong academics, and she worked hard to get into this college because she decided that’s where she wanted to be.
Leah taught me a lot about a lot of things. I was somewhat reluctant to accept the idea that cheerleading was a sport which demanded real athletic skill, even after my first impression of her, until she got gangpressed to assist with the choreography on a dance piece I was in. The idea was to use me as a flier (this was back in the days when I weighed around 110 soaking wet). Two gents were appointed as my bases, and she spent hours patiently working with us, trying to do a relatively simple lift.
We couldn’t do it. Hans, one of my bases, was extremely strong, but he didn’t have an aptitude for this kind of athletics. Kenyon, my other base, was a liberal arts major like me (but about a foot and a half taller), and both of us were utterly lacking in athleticism, let alone grace and coordination. We tried and tried and tried, and we couldn’t do it, and the segment was eventually scrapped. But I left the studio that day with a new appreciation for Leah and for cheerleading in general, and I started loosely following cheerleading after that, because it interested me.
I don’t understand why cheerleaders get so much disrespect. Cheerleading teams regularly have their budgets cut or are cut entirely. Squads that want to be competitive are replaced by “spirit squads” and they are disdained. Cheerleaders are loaded with every stereotype you can imagine, and then some. Men who join squads are mocked. Bases are belittled because they don’t look like cheerleaders are supposed to look. Strong, powerful women are told that what they do is not really a sport, is not deserving of respect.
In a way, it’s kind of amazing. Cheerleading was originally a male sport, which gradually became filled by women. Women started being used as eye candy and sex objects to entertain people at sports events, diverging from the original purpose of cheerleading (uhm, leading cheers) to doing routines on the sidelines. And then, women started changing the nature of cheerleading, turned it into a serious, hardcore, competitive sport. They took it back. And their reward is eternal mockery from other athletes and lay people who have no idea what they are talking about.
What do cheerleaders need to do to be taken seriously? To be treated with respect? Their sport is already the leading women’s sport in terms of injuries. What more does the public want? Do we need to have a PSA informing people that cheerleading is a real sport which demands a serious level of athleticism, skill, and talent?