Had my mom not been a jaw-dropping high school cheerleader (if I do say so myself) for the Mount Vernon Mustangs and a winsome waitress at the local A & W drive-thru, chances are good I wouldn’t be here, and neither would many of you, sons and daughters of Eve, of cheerlead. My father won’t say whether it was the “I-scream” she served up or the poms she reached for Friday nights that sealed the deal, but I can’t imagine her status as a cheerleader hurt her any in his thumpedy-thumping heart.
Before today’s holier-than-thou, politically correct readers look askance at the “shimmy up a toothpick, slide down a straw” cheerleaders of yore, let me hasten to add that we lose more than we think when cheerleaders hang up the poms.
In my twenties I learned this lesson firsthand. I took a job as a small-town Iowa newspaper sports editor, and set up shop in the first few weeks of a snowy December when the white stuff flew so often we etched its preternatural progress on the office-front picture window the way Iowa grandmas and grandpas measure the heights of their sprouting teens via notches on the door jamb.
Spirits, however, fell that winter in inverse relation to the snow-rise. I spent better than a month covering basketball in a stuffy, could-hear-a-pin-drop gym before I correctly attributed the hush to the absence of cheerleaders. While sucking on a Twizzler rope one night at halftime, a high school teacher explained to me—duh—that today’s young ’uns want to go out for sports, not cheer for them.
That’s all well and good, I thought, but cheerleaders, by definition, lead a crowd in cheers not just for the sake of leading a crowd in cheers, but to enable that crowd to lift the spirits of the team. Arguing that cheerleading is incidental to the process is like claiming the drum core worthless to Civil War conscripts or the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy tragically unhip to doughboys.
Sadly, it’s become uncool to cheerlead in the traditional sense, but it’s uber fashionable to be a “whistleblower.” Post-Nixon, it seems it’s sexier to tattle tale, kiss and tell, or simply rat out those in the spotlight than make nice from the metaphoric sidelines. Better to be a disgruntled, often complicit, participant-critic—the whistleblower defined—than a “mere bystander,” especially a cheerful one.
In the new millennium, old-fashioned, sideline cheerleading, like many homegrown American habits turned exports, is now deemed distasteful, decadent, or simply déclassé by many so-called “real” Americans. But overseas, it’s another story. A May 2007 Newsweek feature headlined its coverage of the Cheerleading Worlds competition—described as “the Super Bowl of spirit”—by detailing the unlikely successes of the squad at China’s Nanning Middle School No. 26. The ever-industrious Chinese, writes Arian Camp Flores, have figured out that “cheer’s camaraderie will fight the isolation many of China’s studious children feel.” Ever since, the Chinese have been investing in it, and investing in it heavily.
It’s not that cheerleading has become passé in the U.S.—quite the opposite, in fact—it’s that what passes as “cheering” today is qualitatively different than the cheerleading we remember. Fifteen-year-old sprite Nicole Pelillo typifies the new brand of cheer. In a recent Time magazine article, she’s quoted as saying she hated “sideline cheering” because the fans packed the stands to cheer for the football team, not for her. The article goes on to mention that more than a dozen states now officially designate cheerleading a sport and that “competitive cheer” has become one of the fastest growing high school sports, bar none.
That’s cause for a celebratory toe-touch or a spread eagle jump, to be sure. But while cheerleaders and cheerleading survive in name, the purer virtues of “cheerleading” of the kind our grandparents did when they came to our games now find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid. Gran and Grampy didn’t root us on from the bleachers with an “unmet need” to take a turn at centerfield or to step into the game as a middle reliever. Theirs was an act of unselfconscious, unashamed “athletic support” whose unselfishness didn’t seem to them a lick self-sacrificial. “On the sidelines” for their generation didn’t have to be a pejorative, a slam, or an inexcusable dig—such divisive things as our media generation cheers; it could and often did simply mean “I’m sitting this one out, partner” or “I’m weighing my options, you go right on ahead.”
They knew what we whistleblowers sometimes forget—that in the end, one of the sweetest of Iowa sweet things remains service—selfless, saintly, and, yes, sometimes even sidelined. Naysayer or no, I’m more convinced than ever: we could do worse than have a little more “sis-boom-bah” in the Hawkeye State.
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