(Published in FW Weekly, on: Thursday, July 6, 1998)
In a sweltering gym in Arlington, Texas, a gaggle of young girls grunts and sweats its way through a series of stretches, splits and other calisthenics. They seem impervious to the heat. Two giant fans blow the humid air around in a futile attempt to keep it less miserable inside the metal building than it is in the 100-plus degrees outside.
“Come on, push it. I can see air. You’re not flat … stretch … streeeeetch,” a coach scolds. “We’re not through until you get it right.”
The teammates groan in unison, frowns creasing smooth faces. They bend and contort their 6-, 8-, 11-year-old forms into configurations that seem impossible for the human body. Muscles bulge, tendons pop. Some mop the sweat from their faces with their forearms; others just let it pour, licking the corners of their mouths with parched tongues. One, arm in a wrist-to-elbow cast, struggles to do the exercises and keep her balance.
For the next hour and a half on this Texas summer day at Spirit of Texas, just as they do three times each week, these grade-schoolers will jump and flip and vault their way across the gym floor, all. “You have a choice. You can have fun,” the coach goads, “or you can win.” There’s no time for small talk, no time for socializing. An invitation to national competition is on the line.
This is serious sport – this is cheerleading.
In the ’90s, cheerleading has evolved into a grueling cross between gymnastics, tumbling, dance and the rah! rah! rah! of the old days. Competitive cheerleading – not for a team but for points in competition – is becoming the diversion of choice for thousands of little girls and a growing number of little boys all over the country. If the training is tough and sometimes dangerous, however, the goal hasn’t changed – popularity and status is what these “athletes” are training for, not breaking records or winning Olympic gold.
Odds are, if you grew up in Texas, cheerleading has been a part of your life. This is, after all, the state in which an organization as inarguably tacky as the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders can achieve cult status, not to mention where one doting mother tried to off another girl’s mom to give her own daughter a better shot at the high school squad.
In the good old days, being a junior high, high school or college cheerleader in Texas could gain a girl glamour, popularity, special favors from teachers and, most important of all, high-status boyfriends. (Males were virtually unheard of in the field except at Texas — where there were no girls and the yell leaders have always been men.) It’s hard to explain to someone from somewhere else just how socially important being selected as a cheerleader could be; it could mean the difference between being “out” or “in,” unwanted or desirable. Arrayed in her school colors with that big initial on her chest, a girl always seemed to have a better brain, bigger hair, a sunnier smile and a sexier butt than her non-cheerleader competition. She still does. Today, however, the competition for the 10 to 15 varsity cheerleader slots at each high school is stiffer, and training to get there can begin while a kid is still in Pampers Pull Ups.
“There are very few things in a school situation, where in a short five- to 15-minute [try-out] period your social placement is set for the year,” conceded Karen Halterman, associate vice president of the National Cheerleading Association and herself a former high school cheerleader. “There is no other spot in the school hierarchy – editor of the yearbook, student body president, even captain of the football team – that is as visible on a week-by-week basis as cheerleader. That’s why so many kids and their parents get so involved.” Beyond the perks of popularity, today’s parents are looking for ways to distract their kids – and they are willing to spend big bucks to do it.
“It’s too dangerous where most of us live to just let our kids hop on their bikes and go,” said Carol Oldham, an Arlington mom whose 12-year-old daughter Britany has been competing for almost five years. “We have to create ways for them to get the play time and interaction with other kids that we used to get playing in the neighborhood. If you can find something that will help them fit in at school, so much the better.”
Why cheerleading, though, instead of basketball, or volleyball or softball? Why a sport that includes hairbows as part of the official uniform? Could it be because, like getting into a prestigious preschool with a long waiting list, making an all-star squad is seen by many upwardly mobile parents as a way for their kid to get a leg up on the competition when they get to high school?
“It is a parent-driven industry, especially in the younger age groups,” said one mom, who asked not to be identified and then went on to explain why. “Parent paranoia is what we moms call it. Among ourselves we do talk, but we know who we can trust and who we can’t.
“Why should I have to be afraid to say what I think about competitive cheerleading, the good and the bad, for fear that it’ll be taken out on my daughter?” she asked. “It is crazy, but there it is. Not only would some of these girls ruin her at cheerleading, they’d ruin her at school. In junior high, that would be the kiss of death.”
After all, a position at the top of the high school food chain can land a girl higher grades, acceptance into a good college, even a rich husband.
The competition to make the prestigious, championship-winning squads is vicious even in elementary school, the mother said. “A few years ago, you’d go out and spend big bucks on these little t-shirts with sparkly things on them or colored pictures or something to make your kid stand out from the others,” she said. “That got so out-of-hand – I mean, people were spending $65-$85 on a t-shirt for their daughter to wear to tryouts – they finally had to put a stop to it.”
High schools in some upscale neighborhoods, like those in Arlington, have had to adopt tryout restrictions, too, another paranoid parent said. “People were spending hundreds of dollars on outfits, just for cheerleader tryouts,” the mom said. “It got to be such a big deal, the mothers would sit out in the parking lot and wait for tryouts to be over and when they posted the names of the girls who were picked, we’d all run over to look at it. Some of them were so sure their daughter would make the squad, they’d have these big congratulatory gifts for them. The girls who didn’t make the squad would cry and their mothers would get hysterical, she said. “Sometimes mothers would get into a scream fight right there in the parking lot.”
Shelby Ratliff is up in the air. Held aloft by her squad mates, Shelby listens for her cue. On “three,” they throw her tiny body into the air and she falls, gracefully back into their arms. Bouncing back to a standing position, she stiffens as the other girls lift her above their heads, then she raises one knee and, balancing one foot on the outstretched palm of a teammate, raises her hands in a “V” above her head and beams at her imaginary audience. Later, as the girls go through the routine again, someone misses her step and Shelby falls farther than she should. Her teammates catch her just a couple of feet above the gym’s padded concrete floor. It is a throat-grabbing moment for the uninitiated, although the kids and the parent spectators ignore it. Near misses aren’t unusual.
Shelby doesn’t seem concerned, either. She springs to her feet, breaks into a chipper smile and slaps her arms smartly to her sides, allowing no “air” to show between them and her body, just as she has been taught. Then, at the urging of the coach, she starts the maneuver all over again. “It doesn’t scare me,” Shelby says, big blue eyes attesting to the truth of the statement. “I’m used to it.”
Shelby is what’s called a “flyer” for Arlington’s Cheer Zone junior (fourth grade and younger) cheerleading squad. She is 8 years old, soon to enter the third grade at J.L. Boren Elementary School in Mansfield, where she likes reading and writing and “learning stuff I never knew before.” Four feet tall and weighing maybe 65 pounds, she is small for her age. Shelby likes horses and puppies and playing with her two brothers and three sisters, but most of all, she loves cheerleading. She practices three times a week, a total of six hours, with her squad. What does she do for fun in her spare time? “Practice,” she says, without even thinking. “Practice is what I like to do – not the toe-touches, that’s not the fun part, or the crunches. I like to practice my stunts.”
To learn how to perform their dangerous stunts, flyers stand one-footed on bricks and go through their routines so they get used to having to keep perfect balance, before they ever go up in the air. During a routine, other squad members act as “bases” to support the flyer and “spotters,” who make sure that everyone is in place and has their feet, arms and bodies in the correct position.
Cheerleading can be dangerous, although most gym operators claim that the worst injuries they routinely see are broken arms and busted lips. Since they are private businesses, there are no federal or state safety regulations governing competitive cheerleading like there are for public school and college squads. Instead, the gym owners and the organizations that sponsor competitions police themselves. For example, National Cheerleading Association competitions always include judges who do nothing but look for kids performing “illegal” stunts, said the NCA’s Halterman. Teams caught can have points deducted or be barred from competition, Halterman said.
The older the kid, the more difficult and dangerous the stunts she is allowed to perform. It would be considered “illegal” in competition for a 7-year-old flyer, for example, to do a 1 1/2 tuck (a somersault to the uninitiated) in the air.
“We feel a real responsibility to our reputation and our customer base,” she said. “That’s why we monitor ourselves. It is [the children's] responsibility to make sure they do their job right, though.”
Shelby knows what she is doing and he isn’t concerned, her dad, Gene Ratliff says. “I have six kids and if I worried about every one of them with every thing they do, I wouldn’t have time for anything else,” he said. “If they do something physical like that, there’s always the opportunity for them to get hurt. That’s just life.”
There are dozens of nationwide and state cheerleading associations that sponsor summer camps and competitions, oversee cheerleading programs in schools and colleges and train coaches. The National Cheerleading Association, United Cheerleading Association and American Cheerleading Association are the Big Three in North Texas. Not coincidentally, all three have affiliated companies that sell cheerleading supplies like uniforms, shoes, socks, pompoms, megaphones and hair bows. They also put out instruction and motivational tapes and videos and cheerleading newsletters and magazines.
The National Cheerleading Association, the first (founded in 1947) and largest, was established to manage high school and college cheerleading programs. Its founder is former SMU cheerleader Lawrence Herkimer, a squad-mate of television producer Aaron Spelling. Herkimer, now in his 80s and still active in the cheering world, is the inventor of the pompom, the spirit stick and the “herky jump,” the familiar cheer-ending jump (straight up in the air, one hand on the waist and the other pointing overhead, front leg bent at the knee and held high, back leg straight with toe pointed) that is still common in cheerleading routines.
Ten years ago, the NCA, sensing a need and a way to increase its market share, founded All Stars competitive cheerleading. Last year, at the NCA nationals in Dallas, more than 6,000 cheerleaders from 7 to 42 years of age participated.
“Cheerleading has grown tremendously and continues to grow because of the increase in athletic skills required,” said Halterman, who started out as an NCA instructor 30 years ago. “Back then, we taught handsprings and standing back tucks. Now, with cheerleading on tv and everything, the world has become educated to its athleticism.
“Indeed, the University Interscholastic League, which regulates public school and college sports and other competitions, meets this month and one of the things its board members reportedly will be discussing is whether cheerleading should be classified as a sport and be brought under UIL rules.
Unlike more accepted sports such as gymnastics, ice skating or basketball, however, there is not much of a future for little girls like Shelby Ratliff, who says she wants to be “still a cheerleader” when she grows up. A handful will win college scholarships and fewer still will be hired by the associations and gyms that pump out more little cheerleaders. A handful of way post-pubescent 30- and 40-year-olds will continue to pay money to one gym or another to let them compete on teams. Most, however, will have only the memories. Of course, there’s always that “professional” squad in Dallas. “I don’t think so,” said Shelby, in a snooty voice, wrinkling her nose. “They aren’t really cheerleaders, are they?”
Still, when the scholarship money and media attention started rolling in, not surprisingly, so did the males of the species. Now several co-ed squads are on the competition circuit, most of the people who run the competitions are men, and so are most of the coaches. “Cheerleading is getting to be thought of less and less as a ‘girly’ thing,” said Darren McCoy, spirit coordinator and cheerleading camp director for SMU.
The first sports “pep club” was started at Princeton University in the 1870s, and the first organized cheer for a sports team – “Rah! Rah! Sis! Sis! Sis! Boom! Aaaah!” – was performed there in the 1880s. It wasn’t until Princeton graduate Thomas Peebles brought the yell, along with the sport of football, to the University of Minnesota in 1884, however, that cheerleading as we know it began.
Cheering was pretty much a random act, though, until Johnny Campbell, an undergraduate (who may or may not have been drinking) decided to stand up before the crowd at a University of Minnesota football game and direct them in a yell. Students and alumni were so taken with Campbell’s actions that the idea was taken up by the university newspaper, Ariel, which led to the organization of a squad of “yell leaders.” The squad, which included Campbell, were all men. They cheered at their first football game on November 2, 1898. For years after that, cheerleading was for men only. Jumping around and working up a sweat would have been unseemly for the few delicate females enrolled in college in those days. World War I put an end to that. With the men gone away to war, women moved in to cheer on the (draft-exempt) gridiron heroes. Thus spoiled by a “girly” image, cheerleading became an almost female-only preoccupation.
By the 1930s, colleges and high schools had begun sponsoring mostly female squads to lead cheers and perform pompom routines. With the advent of women into cheerleading, of course, came the sex angle. “Naughty” cheerleaders began to find their way into male fantasy fiction and later into the movies. It was only a matter of time before the virginal-but-slutty Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and their hot-panted, go-go-booted ilk came on the scene.
If, in the good ol’ USA, money equals worth, however, professional sports didn’t put much stock in their contributions. Today’s the Dallas Cowboys pay their cheerleaders $50 for each home game – a season’s worth of workouts and dancing for $550. Quarterback Troy Aikman, on the other hand, recently signed an 8-year contract for $20 million. While one or two pro football cheerleaders have turned their boob-bouncing talents into careers in show business, the job prospects for cheerleaders aren’t good.
Content to make money off selling cheerleading paraphernalia to little girls and their parents, of course, the cheerleading industry tries its damnedest to downplay the sex thing. “Many of us don’t consider [pro football cheerleaders] cheerleading,” Karen Halterman said. “There’s a place for it, but that’s showbiz not cheerleading. That is not the image we want to project.” Subtly, however, the sexuality is still there – the little girls in makeup, the bouffant hairdos, the midriff-revealing tops and ultra short skirts.
Although their owners deny it, some gyms have become infamous for the sexy little touches like hip grinds and bottom shakes they sneak into their routines. A couple, in fact, have been sanctioned for the sexually suggestive lyrics or dance moves in their routines. Others, some parents say, have won championships with them.
If the competition between cheerleaders – and their parents – is tough, it pales in comparison to the rivalry between gyms, which can get downright dirty. That’s not surprising considering the pots of money involved. Spreading rumors and trying to entice away each other’s best coaches is common. Like a political candidate in a close race, some have resorted to dirty tricks to beat their competition.
”I’ll never forget one time at nationals, when [an Arlington gym] tried to slip a ringer onto their junior all-star squad,” one mother said. “There was this girl who was 13 or 14 – a really good tumbler but really tiny – and they washed off her makeup and put her in with the second-through-sixth graders. Some of us recognized her and somebody must have let on we knew because she sat out the routine. … Too bad – we could have gotten them disqualified.” Others have tried intimidation. “One team showed up at nationals last time wearing camouflage shorts and t-shirts, with ‘This Is War’ printed on the front,” another mother said. “They didn’t even place.”
Competition among girls – and their parents – to win a spot on one of the championship squads is fiercer than the contests themselves. “When you are national champions, talent floods your way. They flock to the teams that win,” said Kathy Jones, owner of the aforementioned Spirit of Texas Cheer gym in Arlington, home of two national all-star champion squads.
“There is a saying in cheer circles: If cheerleading were easier, it would be called football,” Jones said. “This is not fun. These girls are athletes. Most of them have put in years and years of training, and they’re not that old.”
The gyms – clever, perky-sounding places like Club Cheer, Cheer Energy and Cheers to You – are scattered across North Texas. Fort Worth has a couple, and Euless has one. To those involved in the sport, however, it is Arlington that is known as “the Mecca of cheerleading.” There are no fewer than six gyms in the city, and most of them boast at least one state or national championship crew.
”Squads come to nationals, in Dallas, from other states, but by far the largest number are from Texas,” said Carol Oldham, Britany’s mother. “Last year, every third squad in the junior division was from Arlington. There are more girls per capita, here, involved in cheerleading than anywhere else in the country.”
The gyms offer one-on-one lessons and squad training. Kids have to try out for the four or five squads that each gym sponsors. Those who don’t make it go away disappointed, often in tears. There is no place for losers in competitive cheerleading, the adults say. Some give up. Others, like her daughter Ashley, “suck it up and try again,” said Mary Plumleigh, owner of the Cheer Zone in Arlington.
“She tried out here three years ago – we didn’t own it then – and she didn’t make the squad,” she said. “She was devastated. Her best friend was doing it, and her life was over, and the whole scenario.” Instead of quitting, however, “we took private tumbling lessons every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday and tumbled in a structured class every Monday and Thursday, from April until mid-July. She made the squad three days before they were supposed to go to summer camp.”
Plumleigh, a chubby redhead with a sunny smile, was so intent on her daughter climbing to the top of the cheering heap that she bought the gym. The hard work paid off, 14-year-old Ashley made the Mansfield High School freshman cheerleading squad and has dreams of making the NCA All American team and winning a college scholarship.
Competitive cheerleading requires more than just a pushy parent and a kid with a lot of tenacity and too much time on her hands. Although not everybody has to buy a gym, it does cost an average of $1,500-2,500 a year to keep a kid in cheerleading. That includes squad training (6-10 hours a week, at $55 a week) and private classes (2-5 hours a week, at $30 an hour), plus the competition uniform and three or four outfits of camp wear (including hair bows). One week of summer camp (at which teams compete for invitations to nationals) is extra, as is the $150-200 it costs just to try out for a squad. It’s not enough for them to just show up at tryouts, coaches and parents say, cheerleader wannabes must have a “professionally” choreographed routine, two or three days of instruction and an audio tape to use to practice at home. A videotape of the routine costs another $5-10.
“To me it is all worth it,” said Plumleigh, while sitting at her desk tabulating a two-inch stack of checks. “It is one of the best things I could have done for my daughter. I don’t know how to describe watching her go from this kid who was so unsure of herself to this outgoing girl who is so confident of her abilities.”
Despite all the talk about empowering girls and building self-esteem, the adults involved admit that cheerleading isn’t for everyone. Gymnastics ability is a necessity, as is a sense of rhythm, an outgoing nature and that good old cheerleader spirit. But, like Cinderella’s sisters lining up to try on the glass slipper, the unathletic, pimply faced or homely girls need not apply.
“I hate to say it, but they do have to fit a mold,” NCA’s Halterman said. “By that, I don’t mean they have to be a certain size – if they’re not in shape when they start, they will be – but, they also have to have a certain look, a certain attitude – enthusiastic and energetic and most of all, sincere. We want our kids to have the look of ‘There’s nowhere on earth I’d rather be,’ and have it be the truth.”
The air in the main room at SMU’s Moody Coliseum is buzzing. On the floor below, a sea of jazzed elementary schoolers are hopping and bopping and waiting for their chance to show their stuff. Some wear t-shirts or tank tops and tiny sports bras, with shorts. Others, however, have gone all out in cheerleading uniforms with midriff-revealing tops and traditional inverted-pleat skirts. Little girl cheerleaders must, as a group, support the hair-bow industry. Nearly every head is adorned with 4-, 6-, 8-inch bows.
Some squads wear identical hairdos – parted in the middle into bow-adorned dog tails or cascading ringlets tied back with gigantic bows in the back. The girls, even the smallest ones, wear makeup, but not the overdone, Jon Benet Ramsey eye shadow and blush that are the norm in the little kid beauty pageant circuit. The lights glint off the Vasoline some have smeared across their teeth to ensure their perpetually perky grins.
Shelby Ratliff, the 8-year-old flyer for Cheer Zone, is excited. Shelby is outfitted in her red, white and black cheerleading uniform – sleeveless black and white top with a silver “Rockets” patch on the front, and short black skirt with red hemline stripe and white inserts. Her long, blonde hair is tied back with a red, white and black bow the size of her head. It’s almost time to fly.
The red-and-white-clad camp counselors – all current and former local high school and college cheerleaders – are nauseatingly cheery. They urge the little ones on by spontaneously vaulting onto each others’ shoulders and doing somersaults. The loud throbbing music and exhortations manage to work the “campers” into a squealing, frenzied mob of little girl energy. One squad at a time, they come forward with what is known as a mini – a shortened version of their best routines, combinations of cheers, gymnastics and tumbling, flying and not a little butt-shaking dance.
They cheer their little hearts out, all in an effort to win that elusive invitation to nationals, the World Series of the cheerleading world – at least the NCA cheerleading world – where they will have the chance to compete with teams from all over the U.S. Those who don’t get the nod will try again in a few weeks, and maybe a few weeks after that, at another summer camp at still another college. Shelby doesn’t have to worry about that, though. Her team has won its invitation. She grins her gap-toothed grin and does a little hop.
Most of the coaches, to their credit, encourage the kids to cheer for each other, applaud other squads and congratulate the winners. These are cheerleaders, after all, and every one is trying her doggone best to be sunny, bouncy and exuberant. That can’t be easy when you’ve just watched someone cartwheel her way over your dreams.