Feature: Cheerleading in schools? Bring it on

Monday 3 March 2014 by Lise Smith

Not just about the glamour: cheerleaders rehearse a stunt. Image: Wikipedia

Minister for Sports, Equalities and Tourism Helen Grant got herself into hot water last week when she suggested in the Telegraph that teenage girls who don’t enjoy traditional sports might prefer to get involved with more “feminine” sports including ballet, gymnastics and cheerleading.

There was immediate backlash from gender equality campaigners, with Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates disappointed by the minister’s focus on “looks and femininity”; elsewhere, commentators questioned whether activities such as ballet and cheerleading qualify as sports or provide a sufficiently sweaty workout.

There has been concern for some years about the participation levels of teenaged girls in sport and fitness activities both in and outside of school. It’s impossible to generalise about an entire generation of females – there are certainly teenaged girls who take part enthusiastically in both team and individual sports, from football and hockey to athletics and swimming. But there is also a known tendency for girls to become disengaged with sport once they reach secondary school. So it is a small thrill for my PE department colleagues when they discover an activity that appeals to this difficult section of the population, that motivates them to take part, to learn and improve. It’s here that Grant has a good point to make, buried though it is underneath ill-advised commentary on sequinned socks.

I’m a big fan of cheerleading as a school sports activity for several reasons. As a discipline, the sport combines the skills of dance and gymnastics, encouraging the development of strength, agility, co-ordination and rhythm all in one neat package. The lifts and throws require focus and teamwork (few girls would wish to be the one who dropped their best mate on the floor by not paying attention during a lift) and the dance phrases require performers to work together as a team to create the strong visual effect associated with the style. Above all, the movements are energetic, accessible and fun, and made to be performed. Many girls participating in cheerleading show a great level of commitment, practising together in their spare time to perfect their moves and working at home on their own flexibility and strength. Independent practice is such a holy grail among sports (and performing arts) specialists that one wonders why the whole nation isn’t cheerleading.

Some commentators have expressed concern about the nature and purpose of cheerleading. Is it inherently sexist? Is it a sideshow for boys’ sports? Isn’t it just a lot of shaking pom-poms while wearing tiny skirts? This perception of cheerleading does seem to date from an outmoded model in which cheerleading involved, as the name suggests, standing on the sidelines and cheering for a sports team. Few skills involved in that, perhaps. But modern cheerleading has developed as an independent discipline, with its own framework of awards and competition, in both the US and the UK. Cheerleading as a high-quality activity is now more likely to be watched in its own right as a competitive or display performance, than to be the half-time entertainment at a sporting event.

Grant was unwise to focus to the extent she did on the “absolutely radiant and very feminine” appearance of women taking part in cheerleading, ballet and rollerblading, but the benefits of developing technical and performance skills, of working in a team, of training in a supportive environment and of performing at high-profile regional and national events are all recognised. Cheerleading combines these benefits with a fun, energetic, dynamic physical workout. To borrow a phrase from a well-known film on the topic, I say we should bring it on.

Read Helen Grant’s interview in the Telegraph here

Read more about competitive cheerleading at the British Cheerleading and UK Cheerleading Association websites.

Lise Smith is a qualified cheerleading coach, dance teacher and manager who writes about dance for many publications, including Londonist, Dancetabs & Arts Professional. A regular contributor of reviews and features to these pages, Lise is currently keeping our youth section packed full of interesting opportunities and information.

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