blood, sweat, and cheer

confessions and reflections of a brown cheerleader

When I tell people I’m a cheerleader, I’m often greeted with wide eyes, an amused smile, and a question about whether I embody one or more of the characteristics associated with the cheerleader stereotype. Before I write this article, let me make clear that no, neither I nor my teammates are Tina Hammersmith from “Bring It On Again” or Santana Lopez from “Glee.” We are a group of intelligent, forward-thinking young women who study at an Ivy League university, work hard both in class and at the gym, and thrive in our art—the art of cheerleading.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I may now give you an idea of what our sport is really like (and make no mistake—cheerleading is a sport). Hopefully, I will convincingly debunk some cheer-related myths in the process.

First of all, cheer does not define us. My teammates and I do not walk around in our uniforms all day, every day, contrary to what is seen on many popular television shows and movies. In fact, we do not even practice in our uniforms—why would we want to get them gross and drenched in perspiration before game days? When I tell some of my friends back home that I don’t wear my cheer uniform to class, they are genuinely surprised. What people don’t understand is that our uniforms make us a united body for a few hours every weekend on game days, but at the same time, they minimize our individuality. We become a unit, which is exactly what we are supposed to be in those short hours. But after that, we strip the uniforms off and become our diverse selves again. We are not just cheerleaders; we are scientists, future doctors, dancers, aerial artists, writers, and gymnasts, and we speak about 10 different languages between us. Our uniforms make us the team you see from the stands and in pictures, but we are more than the black shells and short skirts we wear.

Secondly, we work really, really hard and get pretty hurt in the process. Weightlifting trips to the Nelson at six or seven in the morning are common, and you can probably find at least one of us panting on the treadmill or elliptical on any given afternoon or evening. This is in addition to the two-to-three-hour-long practices we attend three times a week and the sacrificed Friday and Saturday evenings cheering for sweaty sportsmen, when we really should be studying for midterms or writing papers. We basket toss our flyers meters into the air and press them up into full arabesques, various other one-leg stunts, and three-layered pyramids. Though all of the lifting and tossing may look easy-breezy on video, hours of toning and practicing go into the final product. Countless times I have seen flyers land on bases’ heads and necks or catapult to the ground in a heap of flailing arms, legs, and screeches of “Get under her!” Cheerleading can be very dangerous, and we cannot afford to have “off” days because we are—quite literally—responsible for each other’s lives. If a flyer hits the ground, the blame is on all of us who were bases, or who were spotting the stunt, because we should do everything we can to break a flyer’s fall. Practice can get very intense, but seeing each other in our most vulnerable moments is what brings us closer as a team.

On a more personal note, we are not bitches—well, no more than any other average, hormonal, and stressed young ladies. Yes, our captains and coach can be scary at times, but they do not act that way to hurt or belittle us, unlike Quinn or Santana on “Glee.” On the contrary, they are strict in order to ensure the safety of the entire team. As I mentioned before, our stunts are quasi-superhuman and require 100 percent dedication and concentration, which is something that our captains have to bring out of us from the first moment of practice to the last. It may sound cheesy, but any sassiness employed is out of love for the team.

Outside of practice or game days, people probably wouldn’t even think we were cheerleaders.  We do not walk around with our noses turned up at everyone else, and we do not wear our cheer jackets everywhere we go. In fact, my teammates are some of the kindest people I know, and they go out of their way to help others, whether it be academically, emotionally, or otherwise. (In fact, one of our teammates is a certified EMT!)

It frustrates me that, as soon as some people find out we’re cheerleaders, they automatically form an idea of who we are. At a house party, a person who seems only slightly interested in me will suddenly feel the urge to pursue me for the night upon hearing that I am a cheerleader—all in the name of being able to tell their friends that they “hooked up with a cheerleader the other night.” I am probably one of the most awkward, childlike, and un-sexy people you could encounter at a party, but that doesn’t stop people who only want to “get with” me because I can fulfill some twisted teenage fantasy, not because of who I am. I am aware that people do not consciously try to devalue who we are as human beings, but by reducing us to a stereotype, that is exactly what happens. Yes, I am a cheerleader, but I am not my sport. Cheerleading is an aspect of my life, one that I absolutely adore, but it is not the only thing I care about and do. I am a writer, a diplomat, and an actress. My teammates are TAs and presidents of various sororities and associations. We are more than our uniforms, and we are not objects, so stop staring at our butts and get to know our brains.