Lucy sat curled up in an armchair, twisting a lock of hair round her finger. She looked up at me from under the relaxed tangle, “I’m pretty arty crafty y’know, Dad.” No worries. Fine by me. “Me. Sport. Yeah, right, bleagh!” she once said. So I was a little surprised when she took up competitive cheerleading.
Like Lucy, I’m not that into sport. I’m especially not that into spectator sport. And I have a special place at the bottom of a long list for spectator sports at the centre of conservative American culture and which keeps girls on the side line and off the field.
So, I shut all that away and we checked it out. I figured at the very least it might give her a different take on her dancing. For sure, some of our fears were immediately justified.
The sport in New Zealand is run by a crowd called Cheerbrandz, which appears to be both disappointingly commercial and startlingly brazen about it. I’ll dig into that a bit more in the future. And yes, the participants – at least at school competitions – are almost entirely girls. Mostly, the costumes are what you’d call skimpy: strong on glitz, weak on fabric. Moreover, the boys get costumed quite differently, in the same team colours as the girls, but always in trackies.
When we got to our first competition, it was like walking into a nightclub: loud music, techno lighting, people jumping around with not much on. I realised that Lucy’s team’s costume was pretty solid compared to most of the others, with both sleeves and a covered midriff. Plenty of others have only one shoulder, and there are belly buttons everywhere. Although I think most of the mini-skirts have built in shorts beneath (I didn’t like to check too closely). Everyone – everyone – wears a ribbon, adding to the overall Americana-cutesy vibe.
Fun facts: cheerleading is not new. Wikipedia traces its origins to early rebel-spirited teen pranks after the American Civil War when students borrowed English soccer fans’ predilection for chanting. At this point, it was a strictly all-male affair. Towards the 20th Century students at Princeton started coordinating the chants with movement, and over the course of the 20th Century it evolved as a thing in its own right, with or without a football match in front of it.
Women didn’t get involved until after the 2nd world war, allegedly because all the necessarily fit young men were off fighting (although I can’t help wondering, if that was the case, why didn’t the girls get on the field? You choose your battles, I suppose).
Lucy’s coach is a charming American called Windy, who’s a 4th generation cheerleader, and whose son is also into it. I like her: she seems good at motivating the keen ones and is intolerant of tardiness. I’m not sure but I think she threw one or two girls out for not turning up to enough practices (I suspect both she and Cheerbrandz lost revenue on that). Since then the team’s gone up a level. They’ve been to two competitions and come away with three medals, although some of those were in divisions with very few competitors.
Lucy is still “pretty arty crafty.” She still dances, although I think she might be looking for opportunities to make dance slightly more athletic. She enjoys the motivating aspect of competition, and cheerleading probably pushes her physically in a way that dance doesn’t, and creatively in a way that gymnastics can’t. And because it’s technically a school team, there’s a great social aspect too. The fact that there are medals-a-plenty to be won helps too, not unlike, say, scout badges.
I’m glad: I’d never, ever have seen anything like it. But when we go to the comps, I still take a good book.