'Big Game' Atmosphere Colors Pageant of Cheerleader Teams

Times Staff Writer

Most everyone at the Miss Drill Team USA pageant in Santa Monica on Saturday was having a great time--from the sunbathers watching the outdoor cheerleading competition to parents rooting for their daughters' drill teams to the nervous clusters of dancers stretching and primping before their curtain calls.

But Kay Crawford, who invented drill teams almost six decades ago, appeared too busy to notice the enthusiasm that seemed to bubble from every corner of Santa Monica College. There were T-shirts to sell, tickets to be passed out and a small army of volunteers to supervise.

Crawford, wearing a magenta pantsuit, juggled her duties with surprising energy for a woman who reveals her age as "over 70."

"I never see her, she's always flying by," pageant volunteer Judy Vlastakis said. "She doesn't stop."

"I have to keep watching for problems," Crawford said, her eyes darting about. "It's much better to prevent them than it is to cure them."

The pageant, held every year in Santa Monica with finals at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, started as a project for a dance class she taught at the college 21 years ago.

"The first year, we had 237 girls," she said, "then it doubled the next year and doubled and doubled until we had more than 6,000." Plus, these days, a smattering of boys.

The competition now features teams from 22 different states. Many consider it the high school pep squad national championship tournament, the girls' equivalent to the "Big Game" in football.

'It's Wholesome'

"It's something they can compete in and they get the same things out of it as the boys do from football--it's physical, it's wholesome," Crawford said.

The girls approach the competition with the dedication all winning teams have.

Kym Weber, adviser of the Culver City dance team, had tears in her eyes after her squad delivered an electrifying performance.

"That's our goal, to make her cry," team captain Tara Petitte said, "because if we make her cry, we know we did good."

It is not all tears and intensity. The girls from Los Alamitos High School waited for their turn to compete in the novelty category in pretty pink dresses, pig snouts, ears and curly tails.

"We're going to win, we have the best routine in the whole world," said 16-year-old Suzanne Turrentine with a giggle, as her teammates oinked their approval.

Started First Drill Team

Crawford started the first drill team 58 years ago in Edinburg, Tex., with friends who had failed to make the cheerleading squad. Since then, the resident of Redondo Beach has coordinated drill teams for the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in 1984 and the Pope's visit last year.

And while she may not receive money for her work, she claims to be well-paid nonetheless.

"The real pay that I get is seeing how much fun everyone's having, seeing the friendships that are made and seeing the educational benefits people get," she said.

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