The Sunday Times Magazine: Give Me A Why?

There are more cheerleaders in British schools than you can shake a row of pompoms at and now they want to be taken seriously

(Ophelia Wynne)A member of London’s Black Ice cheerleading troupe at the ExCeL centre (Ophelia Wynne)

Give me an “A”! Give me a “B”! Give me an “Urgh your fake tan’s coming off on me”. The Black Ice cheerleading squad are a scrum of glossy ponytails and fake smiles heaped on the inflatable tumble track. Around them, the air-hangar ExCeL London centre looks like a snow-globe of glitter in which poster-paint coloured miniskirts, sequin bows and sparkling spankies are all falling through the air in time to a Rihanna pop medley. Give me an “E”!

The stench is teenage-girl’s bedroom meets rugby-team changing room. Hairspray fused with Deep Heat and sweat.

But the smell is less overwhelming than the sound: a screaming, giggling chorus sung in time to a relentless chart-show soundtrack infused with clashing eponymous chants: “The red, white and blue/ Back and better/Ascension Eagles/Champions forever”. “Move over, that trophy is ours, MK Elite/but you can call us champions”.

And then, a heartbeat behind it, the generic cheer-training chant. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. “Come on, let’s go!” One. Two. The giggling stops. Three. Four. Ascension Eagles Mini Co-ed (ages 6-9) fall into three uniformed lines. Eight little feet encircle their smallest member and in a split second, eight sweaty little hands — main base, middle base, back spot, front spot — have hoisted a “flyer” head-height above them.

They suspend their flyer upright by her tiny ankles, and in one swift move she flicks a leg overhead, catching it in her hands. She holds it above her, her entire body balanced like an upright dart on a single white trainer. It’s an “elevated scorpion”!

Across the floor Unity Allstars Black (17 and over) execute their own elevated scorpion at double height; two male cheerleaders lifting two girls 7ft up. Hoisting them in the air like muscled plinths.

What was born an all-male activity has long since established itself as the ultimate refuge of the girlie girlCheerleading has come to Britain.

Give me a “Why?” There are no official numbers for the total number of British cheerleaders, though four of its main bodies — which hold 15 national tournaments a year between them — stump up impressive stats: the UK Cheerleading Association (UKCA) has around 123,000 members, 6,600 squads; the British Cheerleading Association (BCA) has 20,000 members, 800 squads; Scotcheer has 6,000 members, 62 squads; and Future Cheer has 25,000 cheerleaders in more than 1,500 squads.

Britain had just six cheerleading squads in 1982; there are 4m cheerleaders in America.

It is also, increasingly, big business: £150 for the average Varsity-style uniform (a multimillion-dollar US industry); around £25 to enter each tournament; £425 per Let Me Play cheer camp. One insider estimates that cheerleading is a business with an annual British turnover of £4m and growing. Like a speed-fuelled sorority girl set on world domination, it has already conquered 82 countries. It claims the kudos of being the fastest-growing sport in the world, and is now one of the fastest-growing sports in Britain. Last month it was named the fastest-growing sport in British schools: 62% of secondary schools now offer it. Yet despite cheerleading’s gleaming trophy cabinet of accolades, it remains beset by one mega smear. Everybody knows cheerleading is not actually a sport. It is a lifestyle choice.

What was born an all-male activity, “invented” by some screeching sideline American-football fans in the 19th century, has long since established itself as the ultimate refuge of the girlie girl. In the American dream, the cheerleader nimbly straddles the polar patriarchal constructs of virgin and whore. Cute, bitchy, innocent, promiscuous, wholesome, manipulative, youthful, available.

She is Grease’s apple-pie sex kitten Sandra Dee. The preppy, perky, baby-one-more-time Britney. The girl Taylor Swift dreams of being in her You Belong with Me video and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit sets out to destroy. And, somewhere along the line, she became synonymous with porn.

She is sexy, cute, popular to boot! Wanted, hot, everything you’re not. Pretty, cool, dominatrix of the school. (To paraphrase cheer-flick Bring It On’s chant.)

She’s rockin’, she’ll smile, many think she’s vile. She’s major, she’ll roar, she’ll swear she’s not a whore.

Cambridge University’s cheerleading squad, the Cambridge Cougars (18-24), are conducting “try outs” under the looming brown beams of a cold church hall. Thirty bluestockings are competing for a squad spot by showing off their tumbling skills to varying degrees of success. Cartwheeling, front hand-springing, round-offing, roly-polying, in tramlines of glossy ponytails and multicoloured kit (although their uniforms come complete with polo-neck modesty tops, they are still not allowed to wear them around campus). A demonstration by existing members erupts onto the floor as third-year material-science DPhil Cally Humphrey, classics scholar Catherine Vincent and chemistry research scientist Richard Fergusson hoist medic Becky Grant into the air. She pulls up a leg… elevated scorpion! Again.

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