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Cheerleading: more than a Hollywood stereotype

Is cheerleading the body-positive, team sport, we need?

Art: Lily Langman Art: Lily Langman

As American as a Mid-West mum armed with Costco coupons is ‘the cheerleader’, complete with blonde ponytail, pleated skirt, and perpetual enthusiasm.

Forged in the cultural imagery  of Kirsten Dunst’s cult performance in Bring It On and Lester Burnham’s wet dreams in American Beauty, the cheerleader is a cartwheeling contradiction: she is patriotically wholesome but vapid, virginal yet seductive.

Competitive or ‘All Star’ cheerleading seeks to shatter this archetype, and with 55,000 competitors nationally, 15 per cent of which are male, it looks to be doing a pretty good job. On 14 October, 4,000 cheerleaders competed at Australia’s largest annual Nationals Scholastics competition for primary, high school, and university squads.

According to Stephen James, Executive Director of the Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation (AASCF), modern cheerleading creates a welcoming space for young competitors: “girls like that feeling of belonging — of being part of something.”                     Competitive cheerleading has broken away from its American collegiate beginnings, with 96 per cent of competitors aged between 8 and 16-years-old, squads are no longer the sideline support for football games but  an attraction in their own right.

Complex choreography flips and stunting have replaced pompoms, and more and more teens are joining the ranks. James estimates a 40 per cent growth in enrolment this year. Basket Tosses (for which Australia holds the world record of 5.5 metres), Scorpions, and Bow and Arrows are just some of the intricate and physically grueling stunts. Bruised knees and torn ligaments are just as much the uniform of the cheerleader as the mini skirt.

Speaking above the throb of pop hits and cheers, James’ comments rang true at last week’s Scholastic Nationals. Unlike at dance eisteddfods, cheer squads applaud rivals and rush backstage to meet their favorite “cheerlebrities”. As for Hollywood-style squad romances? No luck. “Your team becomes your family,” Macquarie University Warrier cheerleader Ellie Orme tells me.

Similarly, the bitchy in-fighting and peer pressure within teams to lose weight is nothing but an inaccurate cheerleader movie archetype. AASCF Judge and coach, Toni Altschwager affirmed the cheerleading industry’s  body positive message: “Every body type is accepted, no one is excluded.”

Despite receiving Olympic recognition in 2016, many still harbor ‘Dallas Cowboys’ stereotypes about cheer, which James refutes, saying , “they are not just there to shake their booty, they are athletes”.

For most,the red lips, big bows and slightly-artificial-coconut scent of Le Tan is just another facet of cheer culture. But no extra marks are awarded for makeup, it is merely a “personal choice”, assures Altschwager. Strict uniform regulations also apply — “no midriffs for under 8’s” — and teams are penalised for inappropriate dance movements and song lyrics.   “We do everything we can to protect the kids,” Altschwager said.

As cheer moves away from over-sexualized convention it has also opened its doors to male competitors like USyd cheerleader, Oliver Kelly.“I like the fitness and the development of skills, there’s also a rush when you go on stage,” Kelly said.

For Kelly, being a good cheerleader is more than just big smiles.

“Spirit is … big, but just the willingness to put in the effort, learn the skills and have fun doing them. It’s not easy and it can get stressful.”

While cheer injuries rank low when compared to other team sports like football, when they do occur they can be severe. A 2016 US study found that 65 per cent of all catastrophic sports injuries among high-school girls were from cheerleading.

The most successful cheer squads put safety before attempting any as-seen-on-tv stunts.

Kelly and his USyd ‘cheer-mates’ offer a utopian glimpse into the camaraderie of cheer athleticism without the egotistic trappings often associated with college sport. And when your teammate is five metres in the air above you need trust, not poms poms.

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