The B-52’s’ “Love Shack” is booming over the Rose Bowl, cue for UCLA’s aptly named Spirit Squad to mobilize into a Lego-like pyramid. In less than five seconds, they scramble to complete a stunt that M.C. Hammer can’t touch.
Milarose Baleva pops into pyramid-making position, with one foot on K.D. Frankel’s shoulder and the other on Rob Homsy’s. Likewise, Valerie Nichols copies the move on the shoulders of Chris Talone and Glenn Valois. Meanwhile, Dan Wilson launches Michelle Santos into the air. The second tier of cheerleaders grab her hands as Santos positions her feet on their shoulders and then goes into the splits.
Like Atlas supporting the Earth on his shoulders, the stacked smiling faces and unflinching bodies of the Spirit Squad freeze for five seconds before they dismount. Without the benefit of a net or stand-in doubles, Santos and squad are back on terra firma.
Basket tosses. Cradle catches. Suspended splits. Cheerleading is not the same old song and dance.
Today’s cheerleader must be an amateur acrobat and gymnast who, in theory, is unafraid of being lobbed 30 feet into the air from a tarp, rolled like a bowling ball toward a line of megaphones or balanced on top of a suspended human surfboard. Cheerleaders, college coaches and officials from national cheerleading organizations say that cheerleading has become more physically demanding in the last five years.
But power pyramids and swan dives are not the only evidence of a new era in cheerleading. At many colleges and universities across the country, the days when squads were composed primarily of the mythological party-loving blondes are over.
“We’re not the Stepford cheerleaders,” says Santos, a 19-year-old Filipina beginning her second year on the UCLA squad. “We’re ethnically mixed, and there’s five guys and five girls, so we’ve got that one covered too.”
Bobbi Zeno, marketing and camp director for the United Spirit Assn., a cheerleading organization based in Mountain View, Calif., says collegiate squads nationwide are becoming more ethnically mixed--reflecting the growing cultural diversity on many campuses--with squads that include Latinos, Asian- Americans, African-Americans as well as international students.
“That’s something new we have been seeing in the last five years, especially in California, because schools are recruiting more types of students with different backgrounds,” Zeno says. “So, you have a larger selection to choose from. You aren’t locked into one kind of cheerleader. Five years ago, you may have had your one token ethnic person, but not anymore.”
Zeno says when minority students see other minorities cheering on their team, “they feel they have a chance to become part of the squad, too. They feel that cheerleading is not just for blondes but for everybody.”
Everybody who is willing to be a role model, that is.
“Today’s cheerleader needs to be so much more versatile than in the past,” Zeno says. “They have to be dancers, gymnasts, speakers, even public relations representatives for their schools. They aren’t just the cutie-pies with pompons.”
Men are getting into the act in greater numbers “because cheerleading is getting respect,” says Scott Tavenner, a 21-year-old senior and head of USC’s all-male squad whose 10 members prefer to call themselves yell leaders. (At UCLA and USC the dance squads are all-female.) The squad is one of three all- male teams in the country, Tavenner says.
“It’s as demanding as any sport. It’s become athletic and requires strength and agility, and guys are showing that they are as strong and as talented as the athletes they are cheering for,” Tavenner adds.
“The fans like to see us do dangerous stunts. They see us having a good time on the field. They hear about some of the traveling we get to do, and that type of thing they definitely see as a benefit. So, some guys out there think it’s kind of cool.”
Still, other males don’t think it’s so hip to be a cheerleader and poke fun at the men on squads.
UCLA squad member Dan Wilson says he and his four male partners take the harassment in stride.
Women also get their share of harassment.
“Sometimes people are looking for bimbos on the field,” says Baleva, a 21-year-old Filipina nursing major and third-year UCLA cheerleader.
“I hate to be referred to as a ditzy girl. Last year on our squad we had people who graduated to law schools and medical schools. We have to maintain our grades and be pros at managing our time.”
Lawrence (Herkie) Herkimer, 65, a Texas cheerleader during the 1940s, and founder and chairman of the board of the 40-year-old National Cheerleaders Assn. in Dallas, has seen cheerleading change through the decades.
Tumbling, vaulting, swan diving, basket-tossing, cradle-catching, popping, pitching, piking “have replaced yesteryear’s ‘rah-rah-rah, sis-boom-bah,’ ” says Herkimer.
“It used to be that cheerleading was 90% personality and 10% skill until about 10 years ago,” he says. “Now it’s 90% skill and 10% personality. Sometimes I think cheerleaders go a little overboard on the gymnastics stuff and have forgotten about the cheering.”
But Herkimer and officials from the United Spirit Assn. and the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. in Memphis, hope to change that trend with the hundreds of cheerleading camps they conduct across the United States every summer.
“Our philosophy is that cheerleading should be a fun, safe activity and the No. 1 reason those kids are on the sidelines is to lead the crowd,” says Becky Reginelli, instructional program director for the association.
About three years ago, officials from seven of the largest cheerleading training organizations in the country met to develop a set of national safety recommendations for junior high and high schools and colleges, Reginelli reports.
Herkimer says that in the last few years a college student died in a pyramid stunt and a couple of mini-trampoline-related accidents resulted in paralysis. Mini-trampolines have been outlawed by the seven cheerleading organizations, which also ask that the height of pyramids be limited to 2 1/2 bodies for college students and two for high-schoolers.
“We don’t have a governing body for cheerleaders and there aren’t any cheerleading police out there, but the guidelines are honored because coaches and students believe in safety first,” says Rod Flynn, USC’s yell leader coach. Flynn also coaches the co-ed squads at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and Pepperdine University in Malibu. His company, Flynn Productions, puts on the California Spirit Championship, a statewide junior high, high school and collegiate cheerleading competition held every March at Universal Studios.
“Cheerleaders today are doing great, incredible stunts in order to grab the crowd’s attention,” he says. “Crowds have become more demanding. They want to be entertained and so as a result cheerleading has become more athletic than it has ever been.”
“But the safety factor is always on our minds during practice, at games, at training camps and at competition.”
Flynn, a former University of Utah cheerleader, says that less than 10 years ago, “cheerleading used to be comprised of minimal stunting or easy stunts that involved mostly lifts. In 1981 you didn’t have the basket tosses of today.”
While the job of providing the school spirit for a sport may appear glamorous, it is also grueling.
Starting with the tryouts. Cheerleading associations report that, for the last four decades, most colleges have used panels of judges--including administrators, coaches, band officials and students--to select squad members, rather than leaving selection up to a popular vote.
Cheerleaders (and dance squads) at UCLA and USC are selected by such a panel. The panel conducts interviews with the students who later perform before the panel. They are scored on gymnastics skills, partner stunts, a fight-song routine and are quizzed on their knowledge of football.
Other criteria are personality, a 2.0 or better grade-point average, theatrics and the ability to be fearless in front of 90,000 spectators who want to be entertained every second of every football game.
Squad members at UCLA and USC must learn how to juggle a full load of classes (12 units or more) with part-time jobs and extracurricular commitments as well as requests to appear at hospitals, elementary schools and malls as ambassadors for their colleges.
They rearrange times for taking tests, spend weekends on the road en route to away games and endure endless hours of practice for performances of the Flying Wallenda kind in turbo-oven sweaters in 115-degree temperatures.
And on top of all this, they are expected to be perkier than Mary Hart.
“The college cheerleader needs to be a student leader. We’re almost like ambassadors for our school and we are involved with the alumni association,” says Braedon David, 25, a senior on the USC squad studying international finance and marketing.
“We’re out there on the sidelines to whip up enthusiasm and not spend all our time doing circus stunts, just having a fun time. It is kind of awe-inspiring, though, to be able to motivate thousands of people.”
Says squadmate Tavenner: “The feeling of walking into the Coliseum when it’s completely filled is an amazing thing. You look up and see the crowd and it’s just great. I feel the spirit from the people and their willingness. That’s why I do it.”