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American Cheerleaders

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When you think of cheerleading, many people jump to the stereotypical thought of blond girls in tight sweaters chasing after the high school quarterback, but cheerleading today is no longer about the sideline squad created solely to cheer on other teams. With national and international competitions cheerleading is about more than just (American) football games.  . “… those are like practices for us. I'm talking about a tournament. ESPN cameras all around. Hundreds of people cheering.” (Torrance Shipman – Bring it On 2000).

There are currently nearly three million cheerleaders in the USA and many more on dance teams. Everyday they risk injury from dangerous stunts, train incredibly hard and can get recruited for college scholarships just like the teams that they were traditionally created to support.  A study in the journal Pediatrics has declared "[Cheerleading has] evolved from a school-spirit activity into an activity demanding high levels of gymnastics skill and athleticism," the routine being composed of a mixture of tumbling, cheers, jumps, stunting and dance, usually lasting between one to three minutes.

Beginning in the USA, cheerleading has grown into a global phenomenon, with other countries becoming more involved such as Australia and the United Kingdom.  Exposure has been given by films; arguably most notably Bring it On and also Fired Up! and many celebrities admit to having been involved in teams, such as George W Bush, Halle Berry and Katie Couric.  The sport originally began with all girl teams but later co-ed teams gained popularity, especially within higher levels of competitions, where strength is essential for throwing and catching other members of the team.  It does however, still remain that there is 95% female cheerleaders in the USA. We also see exposure from professional teams used to cheer on sports teams.  Beginning in the sixties, organized by the NFL, most notable are probably the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who deemed revealing outfits which were widely seen and enjoyed during the Super Bowl of 1976.  Most would name the professional teams “dance squads” though as they do not perform the same stunts that competitive cheerleaders do. “College cheer is all about athletics,” says Maryland cheer coach Tina Simijoski, who directs the NFL's Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders. “The pros are more about glamour. They're two different things.”

The competitions are intense.  Divisions are based on age, size of team, gender of participants and ability level, the Cheerleading worlds being only for teams level five and up.  Points are given for creativity, difficulty, sharpness of movement etc.  It's taken very seriously and the rule of thumb is that you must carry on no matter what.  Cheerleaders, for fear of points being deducted, could be dropped from high levels, banging their heads or twisting ankles, only to be pulled up and continue with the routine, feeling the pain later.  Carla Sanchez, an example of how the show must go on, performed the routine topless.  Now this is, in the cheer world, the stuff of legend; the NYU cheerleader found her spandex top came undone fifteen seconds into the routine when the plastic snap came loose. Carla Sanchez explained her dilemma as she said “You have no idea, not even my mother has seen me naked.” However, she made the decision to just kept dancing, while the entire astounded audience watched on. Not wanting points to be deducted Sanchez continued baring all and didn't miss a single beat.  Her team ended up winning the division, and she was deemed a hero.  She took one for the team.

Whether or not cheerleading is a sport is long debated.  Using high levels of athletic ability, cheerleaders often compete with their routines, in some cases training harder and longer than other sports.  Twelve time national champions, Kentucky University cheer adviser T. Lynn Williamson jokes, “We're trying to be an inspiration to the basketball team.” Yet even though as many as twenty state high school organizations say it is a sport, the Federal Court has ruled that it is not a sport.  They were however, quoted as saying that it “may be in the future”, but at the current time, there is a lack of program development and organization.

Regardless of whether or not cheerleading is defined as a sport; we do know that cheerleading is incredibly dangerous.  Once seen as a fairly tame activity involving pompoms and hair-tossing, it now is being increasingly recognized as one of the most perilous popular activities, especially in the 2000's. As it doesn't have that organization most sports receive, it is not subject to the same safety regulations. Cheerleading routines are meant to astound and amaze people with the risky stunts, and participants often gain head, body or neck injuries while performing routines with moves such as catapulting people into the air, flips or pyramids.  Additionally squads might train on their own with no members or coaches with safety certifications or training, therefore enhancing the danger.  For example in the University of Nebraska, a girl landed on her head after doing a double back flip at practice, meaning that from now on she only has limited use of her arms and legs, the school settled a related lawsuit for $2.1 million.

Therefore it is clear to see that cheerleading is taken very seriously in America, and there is clearly more to it than just the girls shaking their pompoms at (American) Football games.  Maybe it will soon become a global phenomenon and have regular television slots of satellite television, as well as sell out arena competitions.  It is possible, but perhaps quite a way off in the future; for now their hard work continues and the cheerleaders appear mostly in the shadow of the team's they are cheering for.
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