By Nathalie Jacquemard
Cheerleading is booming in the UK.
A study published by the Department for Education showed that nearly two in five schools (37%) now offered cheerleading in P.E lessons. Even though cheerleading is on the rise over here, it is a discipline that is still met with scorn by many.
Last month British cheerleading team Southcoast Zodiacs attended the two-day National Championships in Atlanta, Georgia: their first international competition.
Andy Wicks and Natasha Whitehead set up the Zodiacs in 2005 and the National Championships in America was the culmination of their efforts.
What most people know about cheerleading is what they have gleaned from countless American high-school movies; namely blonde and not very bright girls throwing pom-poms in the air. The cliché is that said blonde girls go out with the school jock, are queens of the prom and make the resident nerd/goth/misfit’s life a misery. Oh, and they throw pom-poms in the air before and in between football games.
Well, it turns out that we are all wrong. Ok, maybe not wrong but ignorant. Thinking about the pretty girls and their pom-poms is having an erroneous view of cheerleading; it is failing to distinguish between side-line cheerleaders and competitive ones.
What’s the difference I hear you wail? It’s simple enough. Side-line cheerleading is all about the pretty, bubbly girls entertaining a crowd by doing a few twirls; we all remember the photograph of David Beckham staring at the cheerleaders at a basketball game, Victoria must have given him hell… or gone straight out to buy a cheerleader’s outfit… or both.
I met up with Thomas Curson, a Southcoast Zodiacs team member from Brighton, to try to find out more.
By this point, I should point out that Thomas is a friend. I had never before shown any interest in his cheer activities so he was surprised but pleased that I should want to meet up to talk about it.
Thomas took great pains to explain that what he and the Zodiacs do IS competitive cheerleading and that it has nothing to do with the American cliché people wave about.
Thomas said: “Competitive cheerleading includes lots of physical activity. Being a cheerleader is like being a gymnast. We have to learn to tumble and do stunts and perform lifts and tosses. The whole routine we have to learn and practice for competitions is only two and a half minutes long and we have to incorporate different elements into it.
“Just like gymnasts, when performing routines, cheerleaders are awarded points for difficulty, technique and creativity. It is incredibly demanding physically and injuries are rife.”
I can personally testify to that. In all the years I have known Thomas I have lost counts of the number of times I have seen him hobble around in pain, and it’s always because of an injury sustained during cheerleading practice.
Thomas just laughs at the view that cheerleading is not seen as a sport: “We train four to five times a week at Wickers gymnastic centre in Lancing. You have to be fit to take the pace. In addition you must do daily stretches to remain as flexible as possible. You have to be dedicated and know how to work as part of a team.
Cheerleading IS a team sport so without cooperation and synchronisation, no matter how good your technique is, you’re never going to win first place.”
He adds: “Before we went to America last month, we were even training on the night before we flew out. It was very intense. “
Travelling to the US was a dream come true for the Zodiacs says Thomas. It was the chance to compete and train in the country where the sport originated, as well as the opportunity to meet American cheerleading ‘stars’.
Thomas is certainly dedicated. He admits that between work and cheerleading, he has little free time and that his social life is almost non-existent. However for him, the sacrifice is worthwhile.
He says: “Cheerleading makes me feel alive. I can’t imagine my life without it.”
So there you have it. Whatever you may think of cheerleading, there is no doubt that the people who practice it are very passionate.
I have to say I am never going to be a fan of the sport; I find it slightly cheesy and for me it is up there with white picket fences, apples pies cooling on window sills, perfect white teeth and shiny diners: a superficial concept of the “American Dream.”
Nevertheless, I must grudgingly admit to a newfound respect for cheerleaders; such hard work and dedication cannot be derided.
Fresh from their trip across the pond, the Zodiacs are not resting on their laurels but training hard for the ICC Nationals next weekend in Nottingham.