Cheerleading--'90s Style : High School:...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in the good ol' days, high school cheerleading was a rather quaint endeavor.

First, a few dozen gutsy girls would take turns shaking their pompons before a jury of their peers. Then the student body would cast its predictable vote for the eight most popular girls, regardless of ability.

The envied eight would show up at every football and basketball game decked in the same plaid skirts, initialed sweaters and saddle Oxfords. They would yell, "Push 'em back," do some cartwheels and build a pyramid.

Nary a cheerleader came near a swim or track meet, unless her boyfriend was on the team.

That was then.

Over the past decade, the art of cheerleading has vaulted to greater heights.

Today, Orange County public schools use outside judges to make cheerleader selections, which are based entirely on talent. Thirty or 40, rather than six or eight, cheerleaders comprise the squads so that every athletic event--from wrestling to girls' soccer--can be supported.

Squads hire special coaches, and even choreographers, to teach elaborate dance steps and acrobatics. Cheerleaders strut their hard-earned showmanship on television at national competitions.

And--an outgrowth of all this new-found regality--the cost of cheerleading has jumped skyward.

Uniforms alone average around $700 in Orange County--and that total doesn't include all the accessories, such as megaphones, shoes, jackets. Add $200 more for cheerleading camp, then an additional $200 for miscellaneous purchases--cookies and carnations for the football players, crepe paper for streamers, poster board for signs.

At the very least, cheerleaders buy into a thousand-dollar extracurricular activity that--unlike the sporting events they rally behind--is not funded by local school districts.

"When I first heard the amount, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, where am I going to get that much money?' " recalled Mary Wille, whose daughter Dina DiFabio is a cheerleader at Valencia High School in Placentia.

Wille was a divorced mother on a tight budget when Dina announced her intentions to try out for cheerleader four years ago. The high school freshman brought home release papers for Wille to sign warning parents of the expense.

"This was before Dina was old enough to get a job, so it was a bit of a struggle," said Wille, a hospital social worker.

Now a 17-year-old senior, Dina waits tables so that she can split cheerleading costs three ways with her mother and father. "This kid's no slouch--she takes responsibility," said Wille, who recently remarried. "I don't know how some single mothers do it."

Only a young person could maintain Dina's schedule--which balances school, studying, cheer practice, a three-day-a-week job and games. "I thought about dropping out of cheerleading this year," she admitted. "Sometimes I get frustrated and I think, 'If I quit, I could have so much more money.' But I know I'd miss it."

Fortunately for Dina, her high school recycles uniform pieces, saving repeat cheerleaders about $200.

"I tell my girls that they have to use at least two of the same pieces from the previous year," said Valencia High pepster adviser Jonna Robinson. "We don't change our uniforms' style every year. The crowd doesn't notice if you have two stripes or three on your skirt."

Most Orange County schools start from scratch each fall--partly because the uniforms endure a lot of mileage over the year, and partly because cheerleader championships have made appearance all the more important.

"We get new uniforms every year because we want to look our best for the competitions," said Judy Trujillo, pepster adviser at Los Alamitos High. "I hate spending that much money, but then again, the (cheerleading) wardrobe gets worn a lot. And it cuts down on the number of school clothes the kids need."

Once upon a time, cheerleadering attire would not be referred to as a "wardrobe." But now it's just that: a football uniform, a basketball uniform, a day uniform, a night uniform, a camp uniform. "My sweater this year cost $183," said Los Alamitos High cheerleader Thomas Schwartz.

Vicki Pailes, whose daughter Brandy is entering her fourth year as a cheerleader at Marina High in Huntington Beach, said: "I've never sat down and totaled what we've spent on uniforms. I don't think I will--I'm afraid I'd go into shock.

"My husband and I have not encouraged our 11-year-old daughter to be a cheerleader," Pailes added, half-seriously.

Spiraling uniform costs provoked the Orange Unified School Board last spring to impose an annual ceiling of $600 per wardrobe. "My concern is that the expense has reached a point where it has become prohibitive for some children to participate in cheerleading," said school board member Russ Barrios.

While most public school sports are covered by district funds, virtually all cheerleading expenditures are the responsibility of students and their parents. "Should cheerleader outfits be paid for by taxpayer money?" Barrios wondered. "That's a good consideration, but I'm not advocating it, because I have no idea where we would get the money."

Said Joanna Marconi, pepster adviser at Tustin High: "I definitely think it's unfair--every sport on campus gets their uniforms paid for, but cheerleading is still not considered a sport. "

Most athletic uniforms, she conceded, are three-sizes-fit-all and never go out of style. Since they can be passed down easily, they are a more feasible expense than custom-made cheerleading uniforms. "You couldn't find a different set of girls to fit the same set of uniforms year after year," Marconi observed.

Public schools already must scrape by on limited resources, without the burden of costly cheerleading outfits. "I would have trouble justifying funding cheerleaders when we have had to cut back on special classes for Spanish-speaking students," said Peggy Kaytis, pep squad adviser at Orange High.

Still, advisers worry that the system, as is, might deter many students from cheerleading. "I think we would have a better turnout of girls trying out if the cost wasn't so high," Marconi said. "Not even 100 people tried out this year, and we have more than 2,000 students (at Tustin High)."

High school officials claim that, when necessary, they can find a way to aid cheerleaders who are from low-income families. "We have a booster club, and we have fund-raisers such as car washes," said Teri Bailey, pepster adviser at Esperanzo High in Anaheim.

"But it's embarrassing to a teen-ager to ask for financial help--don't you think?" she mused. "It's too bad, because we would keep the request private. But teen-agers are proud."

Out-of-state competitions can drive up the price tag even further. Most high school squads, however, make participation optional on an individual basis.

"I'm trying to save $700 for the (upcoming) championship in Florida," said cheerleader Schwartz, who works 25 hours a week at a video store.

Cheerleading's metamorphosis into a competitive sport has been a boon for participants, despite the additional cost, Kaytis noted. "They spend all their time supporting other athletes; so little of what they do is for themselves," she said. "Championships give them a chance to show off what they've learned."

Rey Lozano, cheerleading coach/choreographer at Los Alamitos High, attributed his specialty's new professionalism to television.

"The dance and gymnastic movements we see on TV have been incorporated into cheerleading," said Lozano, a former trainer for the Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders. "Everyone has watched the gymnasts perform during the Olympics. Everyone has seen videos of Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul."

As cheerleading developed into an athletic sport in its own right, tryouts became serious business. No longer is popularity the only requirement--or, for that matter, a requirement at all.

School advisers concurred that the modern method of allowing objective judges to choose cheerleaders is a fairer approach than polling students.

"I was new in school when I tried out at Tustin High in '79," said Marconi, who has returned to her alma mater. "I was a talented gymnast, but because nobody knew me, I didn't make it. I thought it was silly--you wouldn't choose your football team by student vote."

The unbiased selection process may indeed result in an adept squad, but the downside, Marconi said, is that "cheerleading has lost some of its aura."

Kaytis of Orange High agreed. "I can remember when cheerleading was the absolute pinnacle, but it doesn't carry that same prestige anymore," she said. "I think deep in their hearts all girls still want to be cheerleaders, but today there's this outward attitude of 'no big deal.' "

High school students, Kaytis believes, have become less class-conscious in general since her cheerleading days at Anaheim's Loara High 25 years ago. "We're a much more egalitarian society," she said. "Back then, there was a definite pecking order that we didn't resent or give much thought to. We just accepted that the cheerleaders were only for football and basketball games.

"Now the students expect them to come out and support all the athletes. The cheerleaders even go out and put banners up for tennis games. It's an interesting change; I think it's neat. I just wish the students would realize how hard these cheerleaders work. They have to attend a minimum of three events a week."

Even though cheerleading tryouts are no longer a popularity pageant, the most esteemed girls often still manage to make the squad, Valencia High's Robinson said.

"It doesn't seem fair, does it?" she laughed. "As if being popular wasn't enough, they're also good athletes."

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