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A leap of faith

In 2009 I stumbled across the Australian all-star cheerleading scene, and ended up going all the way to nationals! This feature appeared in the A2 section of The Age on Saturday 14 November, 2009.

On a glorious spring Saturday, bronzed Aussie youths are bathed in sweat and sunshine as they practise their pyramids on the lawn.

“Keep up your hydration, guys – it’s warm today!” barks their coach Dave James: good-looking, young, with tousled, blond-tipped hair. Like many of his charges, Dave has a gymnast’s compact physique.

And he’s strong, too. Next day, I watch him hoist tiny, blonde Shelley above his head to stand on one of his outstretched hands. The stunt is called a “cupie”, presumably because Shelley resembles a kewpie doll on a stick. Alternatively, it’s called an “awesome”, which is fitting, too.

I’m at Sydney’s State Sports Centre for the 2009 Australian All-Star Cheer and Dance Championship, and these are Cheerleading Victoria’s Senior Outlaws.

Many people think of cheerleaders simply as hot chicks prancing on the sidelines at sporting matches, shaking pompoms and shouting: “Go team!” But all-star cheerleading (often called “cheer”) is a high-octane blend of jumping, tumbling, dance and stunts, a sport in its own right.

“I call it the triathlon of performing arts,” says Rosemary Sims, head coach at Cheerleading Victoria and director of this championship’s host organisation, the Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation. “You don’t need to be a master of one style, but really good at everything.”

A classically trained dancer, coach, choreographer and events organiser, Sims is also on the board of the 79-member International Cheer Union and, in 2008, was the first non-American to win the World’s Top International Cheer Coach award. She’s a tireless cheerleader for cheerleading. She enthuses: “I have been involved in cheer and dance all day, every day, seven days a week for the last 31 years. I love the sport and cannot endorse it enough. It isn’t a coincidence that it’s the fastest-growing sport in the world.”

The AASCF Nationals are held in a different city every year. (They’ll be in Melbourne in 2010.) As well as 2-minute cheer routines across various age and level divisions, they feature jazz, hip-hop and pompom (“pom”) dance competitions.

“All Star brings everyone together and determines the best of the best,” Sims says.

AASCF is also a member of the International All Star Federation, which means it accredits coaches to world standards and can nominate teams to represent Australia at the annual IASF Worlds championship.

“We have sent three representative cheerleading teams and two representative dance teams so far over the past four years and have managed to rank Australia in the top 10 every time,” Sims says.

But with only about 6000 participants, cheerleading is still a niche pursuit here. By contrast, it has an iconic status in the US, where 4.5 million people participate.

Student Miley Waldorf, 22, joined the Deakin University Cheer Squad during orientation week last year and quickly realised Australian cheerleading’s marginal status. “It doesn’t mean we are the most popular girls at school,” she says.

American cheerleaders are considered ambassadors for their schools, which subsidise their costs. However, Australian cheer squads are more like clubs and societies. Cheerleaders pay their own way, and competing in a school’s colours is no excuse for late assignments.

In the US, the sport’s prestige even drives people to crime. In 1991, Texas woman Wanda Holloway notoriously tried to hire a hitman to murder the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival.

Australian cheerleading just isn’t that cutthroat. It’s a small, tight-knit scene that expresses the sport’s core value of “spirit” through friendliness and generosity. And it welcomes participants of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes.

Japanese-born Waldorf hated PE all through school and didn’t exactly ace the Deakin try-outs. “However, I got a position out of 12 [spots on the team] in the end because they understand my passion,” she says.

At the nationals, Waldorf was cheering for Wildfire, an independent, Brunswick-based squad. Wildfire is run by Letty Fox, who has also coached the RMIT Redbacks and is editor and publisher of Australian Cheerleader magazine.

“Deakin’s exam week was the second week of this month, so it’s very hard to keep training,” Waldorf says. “Then Wildfire sent a message looking for extra people. Even though it was a busy time, some of us were eager to join because we love cheerleading.”

Training twice a week, the collaborative Wildfire team had just four weeks to pull a routine together.

Strident, high-energy music blares from within the State Sports Centre, accompanied by massed screams of such intensity you’d think the Jonas Brothers had just taken the stage.

Inside, the atmosphere is halfway between an eisteddfod and a school sports carnival. The merchandise stand is doing a roaring trade in short-shorts with “CHEER!!!” emblazoned on the backside. Meanwhile, the kiosk appears to offer only two cold beverages: water or energy drink.

Most competitors are wearing glitter make-up and hairspray. Their smooth, brown legs contrast with their crisp, white ankle socks and sneakers. I catch an acrid whiff of fake tan.

Almost every girl has long hair. The cheerleaders wear it in high, beribboned ponytails teased into pouffes or styled into ringlets. The dancers favour it loose and ironed straight; when they fling their bodies around it’s like a shampoo commercial.

There are male cheerleaders, too, from tiny pee-wees to man-mountains. But they’re still in the minority; while the worldwide gender balance among cheerleaders is roughly even, only about 10 per cent of Australian participants are male, and most get involved at university.

“This is undoubtedly due to the stirring at school,” Sims explains. “The teasing ends once the other guys realise how muscular the male cheerleaders’ bodies become due to lifting girls with equally impressive physiques. Sure beats lifting weights – and male cheerleaders thrive socially, hanging with talented, athletic, beautiful young women.”

Cheerleading has historically been male-dominated since University of Minnesota student Johnny Campbell yelled the first organised cheer at an 1898 varsity sports match. Women only began to participate on a large scale during and after World War II.

The grandfather of contemporary cheerleading is Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, now aged 83. From 1948, Herkie instituted hugely popular cheerleading camps. (One of his earliest pupils was Aaron Spelling, the TV mogul.) He also replaced heavy, baggy uniforms with the now-familiar pleated skirts and fitted sweaters, and in 1956 he invented the hand-held cheerleading pompom.

Done well, all-star cheerleading is incredibly exciting to watch – although that might also be my giant can of energy drink. Squads perform to a demented megamix of sped-up pop hits – favourites include Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas, Low by Flo Rida and Poker Face by Lady Gaga – with a stentorian voiceover thundering the squad’s name.

Performers cartwheel, flip and leap impressively high on the sprung floor, yelling and clapping in unison. They fan into rows to execute perfectly synchronised dance moves, hurl each other into the air in “basket toss” manoeuvres, and form elaborate, multi-level pyramids. Those anchoring the stunts are called “bases”, while those lifted and tossed are “flyers”. The best flyers assume triumphant poses with such assurance it’s as if magnets in their wrists and ankles are clicking together.

I’m fascinated by cheering’s body language: cocky nods, fist-pumps and finger-guns when a flyer “sticks” or a tumbler nails it; coquettish winks at the judges; celebrating a routine with spontaneous high-kicking.

Waldorf usually takes a side base position, helping lift girls heavier than she is. This year, she’s also been a flyer. “I did not expect how much they have to pay attention and focus, locking their legs on each moment,” she says. “Flyers get attention from the audience, but they get stress at the same time.”

In Australia, cheer is marketed as a family-friendly sport; the youngest participants are in the Tiny (aged three to five) and Mini (aged eight and under) categories. Their routines are adorably shambolic; the crowd goes wild. Still, it’s disconcerting to see little girls gyrating in midriff-baring outfits. Some squads wear high-waisted skirts and turtle-necked bodysuits under their tops, or expose skin in strategic shoulder cut-outs.

However, Evolution of Dance from NSW’s Hunter Valley are dressed like motorsport grid girls in fluoro crop-tops and tiny, low-riding skirts that barely cover their bloomers.

Judges can deduct points for lewd or suggestive routines, but the AASCF leaves decisions about appropriate uniforms to coaches.

“We offer firm guidance, but realise it’s a display sport and what the athletes wear can add to the glamour and excitement,” Sims says. She argues that cheerleaders’ outfits are streamlined for agility, likening them to those of gymnasts or triathletes: “There is never any mention made of this not being family-friendly or age-appropriate, and cheerleaders’ uniforms cover much more than both.”

All things considered, the event doesn’t feel sleazy. Perhaps that’s because all-star cheerleading doesn’t sideline its participants as eye candy but celebrates feats of athleticism.

Finally, the winners get their showy gold trophies. Sydney Altitude gets to compete at next year’s worlds. The Senior Outlaws win their level 2 division. In the same event, Wildfire comes third. Every participant gets a medal.

“It was pretty messy, but we did our best,” Waldorf says. “When the fifth place was announced, we were disappointed because we thought we were not placed anything. It was a great surprise to get third instead. I didn’t fall down, so it was a good achievement for me.”