Smells Like Team Spirit

7 years ago

Let's do a little test. I'm going to write a word and you're going to tell me your immediate gut reaction in the comment box of this post BEFORE you read the rest of the post. Write down whatever memories, feelings, or ideas the word evokes. Don't peek at the rest of the post until you've done this exercise. Got that?

Here's the word:


Michelle - 2001After you leave your reaction in the comment box below, return to this point in the post to continue reading.

Revered or hated, annoying or awe-inspiring, unlike other athletes, cheerleaders evoke a visceral reaction before they've ever clapped their hands or performed a c-jump. Feminists have dissected the pleats of those short skirts, movies have cemented the cheerleader's status in the social food chain, and countless bloggers have recounted their own experiences with cheerleading from the positive memories to the hurt that comes from being cut from the squad in the first round. I could definitely identify with this thought:

It’s been 20 years since I tried out for cheerleading. It’s taken 20 years to get over the horror of not even making first cuts. I DIDN’T EVEN MAKE FIRST CUTS. Only the losers didn’t make first cuts.

Once I saw Lucas (I had a crush on Kerri Green since seeing her in Goonies), I knew that I had to be a cheerleader. And to cement my placement on the team, I didn't just rely on the fact that my older sister was friends with people on the squad (therefore, by my thinking, they had to take me if they expected to be invited to her next birthday party). I took a cheerleading class that girls were encouraged to attend who wanted to be on the squad. Think of it like a pre-squad, with equally short white pleated skirts, a red top, and high ponytails bouncing as we jumped.

When the time came to try out, I was nervous but confident. What I lacked in gymnastic ability, coordination, and rhythm would be balanced out by my sheer will. I wanted this so badly, and that had to count for something. Plus, I was little and cute, two characteristics I thought were most important to being a cheerleader.

You may have noted the part where I admit that I couldn't turn a cartwheel in a straight line (actually, let's be honest--my best cartwheel was really a crooked round-off), couldn't clap and move at the same time, and danced like Elaine. I understood that if I couldn't throw or catch a ball, I couldn't make the baseball team, but I didn't extend those same sorts of facts to cheerleading. Now, 24 years later, I understand why I didn't make the squad, but back then, it was soul crushing and confusing.

I waited all night for my call to come from the head cheerleader, who was telephoning each girl at home if they made the squad. As the minutes ticked on, my heart began to feel too large for my chest, pushing its way into my throat. I finally got up the courage to call a girl on the squad who was considered the nicest of the cheerleaders, an older sister of a girl in my class and a peripheral friend of my sister. She was sympathetic and feigned to not know what was happening with the phone calls. She told me that if I made the squad, someone would call me shortly--and those words gave me renewed confidence to get through the next hour. Of course she knew my status, having been one of the girls who judged the cheerleading tryouts, but it was a long, slow, deflating letdown as the clock reached 10 p.m. and it was clear that it was too late for cheerleaders to be calling our home.

I cried myself to sleep.

The next year, I armed myself with spirit and skills. I may have had a wonky herkie jump and maybe I still hadn't mastered a back walk-over (who am I kidding? My cartwheel was still a crooked round-off), but I could do the splits--both a left leg front split AND a side split. I had practiced my hitch kick and could do it on whatever number they asked for, chanting beforehand: "hitch kick on 5, 6--5, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2, 3, 4, hitch kick, 7, 8." I paid attention to the placement of my arm, my posture, the loudness of my voice. I e-nun-ci-ate-d.

I went in with a great deal more confidence because I now had some of the skills, if not all the skills, plus I still had the burning desire to be a cheerleader and the heart behind the words. I meant it with all my heart when I chanted that the football team should tighten up the defense line and hold. that. line (clap, clap, clap, clap).

This time, they posted the results at school and I had to carry the news with me on the school bus home. My mother met me on the front lawn, knowing that I would be learning my fate that day and when I saw her hopeful face, I immediately crumpled into tears, wailing in the swale of our yard that I hadn't made it again. But my friend did.

Back then, I saw cheerleading not as a sport, but a marker of popularity. If I step back and look at the reality of cheerleading, I'm not sure why it's something I would have ever wanted to do. I didn't like gymnastics. I didn't like to be in the spotlight and performing. I was afraid of heights and would have never wanted to participate in the pyramids. I mostly wanted to be able to say that I was on the squad and wear the uniform to let everyone else know that others saw me as popular and squad-worthy. Not really good reasons at all.

I burned with jealousy whenever there was a game and I had to sit next to my friend in her tiny maroon and white uniform. I wanted to try it on, but I didn't know how to admit how jealous I was since I had already made clear in a sour grapes moment that I was actually thrilled to not make the team. And, at the same time, it was freeing to release myself from the yearly tryouts, to cut my loses and dedicate myself to art classes and the literary magazine.

Were the cheerleaders popular? Yes, but only because movies and culture made us consider them the popular girls. But they were also athletes with amazing skills. They soared through the air and defied gravity. They also had more injuries than any other girls sport, about 61% of "all catastrophic sports injuries among high school females." Cheerleaders aren't just clapping their hands and smiling for the boys. They are a sport in and of itself, combining gymnastics with rhythm, tumbling, and dance. And, of course, high-energy poetry shouted over claps and jumps.

So in honour of National Cheerleading Week, which runs from March 1--7, I challenge you to revisit the words you wrote below, peruse some cheerleading videos on YouTube or read posts about cheerleading, and reexamine the sport for what it's worth--an act of coordination, gymnastics, and just a hint of bravery/insanity. After all, it takes a lot of courage to be a flyer. As KJ points out, watching her sister sail through the air: "I didn't know, however, that the first thing they did in their routine involved four guys throwing her as far into the air as they could. I think I stopped breathing. I didn't, however, stop taking pictures."

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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