Yes, cheerleading is a sport – check your prejudice

By Izzy Mclure

“Cheerleading is not a sport.”

I hear this phrase all too often when introducing myself as the Durham University Cheerleading Captain. It’s sad that I laugh and try to suppress my hurt, swallow my pride, and ignore the sexism associated with that comment. It merely furthers the stereotype that cheerleaders are all slim, bitchy, popular girls who only date rugby players and aren’t ‘real’ athletes.

Admittedly, cheerleading began as a means for young, attractive women to draw attention to men’s sport. But this version of the sport is now known only in history, and those who seek to perpetuate cheerleading’s misogynistic origins gravely undervalue what it has become today. Nowadays, competitive cheer squads perform carefully choreographed routines involving tumbling, dance, jumps and stunting.

Cheerleading has evolved from its misogynistic historical origins

All these skills require as much athleticism as the boys or girls out on the pitch we are supporting – and sometimes more. Those who doubt cheer’s status as a sport reinforce gender hierarchies and female subjugation, which inevitably reduces cheerleaders to second-class athletes when compared to participants in traditionally ‘male’ sports. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I believe that many people have an issue with the ‘entertainment’ aspect of cheer, as suggested by the media. And entertaining it is. In my role as DU Cheer Captain, I have encouraged the Divas to perform at events this year, from the DURFC matches to Aggression Sessions. We perform a 2-minute half-time show to entertain the crowds. In doing so, my aim is to promote cheerleading and the Divas, whilst also giving the individuals on our squads much-needed practice performing in front of a crowd.

Come January, they will be expected to execute a much more demanding performance in front of an entire stadium, so a rugby match is a great warm up. Competitions represent the culmination of all our hard work: the adrenalin and excitement reach fever pitch and make all the hours of training worthwhile. Cheer, then, is certainly more than ‘entertainment’.

Rugby matches are a great warm-up for stadium performances

What many people don’t know about cheer is the athleticism, pain and sweat that goes into making it all look so ‘easy’. I frequently leave practice with bruises, black eyes, and scratches after another flyer has fallen on me. Injuries are just as frequent – and painful – as in any other contact sport, with icepacks always on hand.

Illustration: Melissa Frateontonio

Furthermore, cheer represents a huge time commitment, with some individuals in the club training up to 16 hours a week – similar to the hours expected by the core BUCS sports, such as rugby, hockey and lacrosse. And that’s not including the extra gym sessions and hill runs we add to our training schedules.

It is also mentally challenging, with each piece of choreography set to strict timings and music. I wouldn’t recommend wandering onto the floor during one of our tumble sequences, where – as bitter experience tells us – nowhere is safe.

The time commitment required is similar to that of other core BUCS sports

A stunt group in cheer consists of a flexible top flyer who is thrown and caught by two main lifting bases and stabilised by a taller back. I always enjoy being asked whether I’m a flyer. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment and acknowledge that my 5ft 3in frame may explain this assumption, I revel in telling them I’m actually a girl who ‘lifts’ and that my main flyer is taller than I am.

This is what cheer is all about: people of different sizes and strengths coming together to fulfil specific roles. Our jobs are so specialised that any Cheer Captain will tell you it is nearly impossible to substitute someone into a stunt group without any impact on performance levels. That is rarely the case in a football team.

Cheer has never been a ‘female-only’ sport

When it comes to challenging these gender stereotypes, I also like to remind others than men were the first to cheerlead. Women were overlooked in the 1940s, and only permitted to engage in the sport when men were drafted into WW2. Our Co-Ed squad includes seven strong and committed male athletes, challenging every stereotype about cheer being ‘too feminine’ for men to partake in.

In fact, my male coach can tumble better than many of the females in our squads, having been to the International Cheerleading Worlds multiple times. Cheer has never been a ‘female-only’ sport.

I call for individuals of all genders to challenge their own stereotypes and prejudices associated with cheer; to celebrate the athleticism and strength involved; and to appreciate that sport now has many faces, even one with a bow on top of their head.

Photograph: roanokecollege via Flickr and Creative Commons

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