Flyers taking a liberty, but not a pom-pom in sight

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Lucy Davies, 23

Day job: English teacher at St Lawrence school in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Other life: Cheerleader

"No, I'm not a blonde teenager. And no, I'm not from the USA. I know that's what most people mean when they think of cheerleading: a few American high school girls pouting and waving pom-poms. But that cliche is a world away from the truth.

My squad is currently practising a move in which we throw a girl - called a flyer - 30 feet into the air. At the top of her flight she will do a kick and then she'll twist her body as she falls to the ground, before four members of the squad catch her. It's called a kick-double, and we plan to use it at this year's British Cheerleading Association competition, which is being held this weekend at the 10,000-seater Nottingham Ice Stadium.

That's the world of competitive cheerleading; it's an athletic, disciplined pursuit. All-star squads like mine don't actually cheer for another sports team; winning trophies by perfecting amazing, crowd-pleasing routines is our focus. I started when I was a student at the University of the West of England in Bristol, and now I'm with the Bristol Crusaders: part of the all-girl seniors, one of the top squads in the country. In technical cheerleading-speak I'm what is called a "base"; responsible for throwing and catching the flyers.

Of course, catching a fast-descending 13-year-old (flyers are usually the younger, lighter girls) is rarely easy. More than once I've come close to breaking my nose. Bruised arms and legs are par for the course. Our routines demand physical courage, and a great deal of trust among the 25 girls in the senior squad.

Competition is fierce, and we take it seriously. That means that practice is the key; usually it's every Sunday afternoon, but in the run-up to this weekend's BCA competition we've been in the practice hall every day. Last year we came third in the advanced competition; a visiting American squad took the top spot. The US is still the gold standard, really. But British cheerleading is catching up.

So this year, we want to win. The nerves have been setting in for a while.

Routines are about two-and-a-half minutes, and judges are looking for excellence in four areas: stunts - the "flying" bits - jumps, tumbling, and dance. Good choreography is vital. The routine begins with a whole-squad dance before we segue into other sections; it's set to a medley of pop songs (Nelly Furtado's I'm Like a Bird was in there this year), combined with lots of explosion sound effects when girls get thrown in the air.

Costumes are a part of the spectacle, too - short black skirt, black top with sparkly rhinestones - and you have to maintain a wildly enthusiastic smile throughout. We try to make sure ours isn't too OTT, though. Some squads really do take them too far.

That chance to present something spectacular is a big part of what I love about cheerleading. I get a real adrenalin buzz when we're out there in front of an audience. Enthusiasm has got the better of me in the past: at my first competition, in front of a crowd of thousands, I was so excited that I did a huge high-kick as I was running off and fell flat on my face.

These days I'm a more polished performer.

Of course, the stereotypes that exist around cheerleading are frustrating.

If there's a cheerleader in a film, she's usually a ditzy airhead who giggles and goes to nightclubs a lot. But competitive cheerleading is a sport in itself, not a sexist way of putting girls on the sidelines. Just watch one of our younger girls performing a "liberty" - where we hold her aloft on one leg - and you'll understand. A few colleagues may laugh, but I see cheerleading as a key part of my teaching CV. The girls in my squad are in their mid-teens and I know some of them are real terrors at their schools. But I see a different side to those kids. Because of my hobby I know first-hand that pupils are not just faces behind desks, and even the most difficult can shine in the right arena.

That's why I'm starting a cheerleading team at my school. And yes, I want boys to join too: competitive cheerleading is for both sexes and there are plenty of co-ed teams around. There may be a few doubters at the moment.

But just wait until they see the presentation I'm going to give in assembly."

Lucy Davies was talking to David Mattin

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