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Here’s cheers to the toughest sideline a girl can have (buffy mention)

Emma Tom

Tuesday 25 April 2006, by Webmaster

CHEERLEADERS have always copped lots of flak. There’s a scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when one recovering cheerleader sarcastically tells another that she’ll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with her arms. And this is in a show that’s relatively kind to the genus jumpus skirtupicus.

Cheerleaders are also making headlines in Australia. Earlier this month, three pompom packers from the Wests Tigers Kittens were sacked for fraternising with (instead of simply shouting "yay" at) footy players. Then, last week, Gymnastics Australia ordered all cheerleaders to begin covering their shapely midriffs in case lumpy chicks felt insecure.

The most recent scandal involves Canterbury Bulldogs fans who decided to share their thoughts on cheerleading’s paradoxical nexus of gender construction, sexual agency and scopophilia by calling South Sydney Rabbitohs cheerchicks sluts and whores and pelting them with cans, bottles and food at a game on Easter Monday. Now that’ll show ’em who’s vacant!

Before March 6, 1997, my opinion of cheerleaders was also low. The ability to flash one’s lycra underpants while wearing a pleated micro skirt just didn’t seem particularly skilful. Then, on that day, I joined the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs cheersquad and everything changed.

The decision wasn’t entirely my own. The features editor of my newspaper suggested it as a novelty story idea and I acquiesced after having the following exceedingly foolish thought process: "How hard can it be?".

Cheerleading, as it turned out, was very, very hard. Apart from being many years older and many cubic centimetres larger than everyone else, my lubberly attempts at this gruelling fusion of dance, gymnastics, drill and sports acro were beyond bad. I couldn’t believe one five-minute routine required so many weeks of practice on flea-ridden gym mats. And I was constantly in trouble for picking at my crack-crawling lycra unitard and not knowing what a straight line was.

The day I performed in front of 20,000 football fans (many of whom were cleverly shouting "show us ya pompoms") was terrifying. Convinced that the exceeding greasiness of my palms would mean I’d send my rubber-handled pompoms flying, I almost introduced an unrehearsed vomiting sequence into the routine.

What got me through was the camaraderie of the rest of the squad. Far from being a pack of vapid man slaves, these young women were smart, funny and extraordinarily irreverent; amazing given that the powers-that-be went out of their way to remind them that they were nothing but baubled subalterns. "Cheerleading is not the main event," sniffed one official reminder, "nor is it a profession, it is a sport to complement a sport."

Yet as we sat around the sidelines waiting for someone to score a try so we could chuck a couple more false hip rolls, my feisty fellow cheerers showed zero signs of submission. The football is the worst part, one grinned.

Cheerleading isn’t taken seriously partly because of the accessories. But to me, pompoms, flop socks and tan fishnets aren’t any sillier than footy’s inflatable tackle shields, flavoured mouthguards and kicking cones. Then there’s the offensive embargo on partying with players. None of the pompomers I met had any interest in the blokes they wrote off as boofmeisters.

But so what if they did? Given the unsavoury recreational activities of so many footballers, sacking cheerleaders for attending a team birthday party (the heinous crime of a trio from the Wests Tigers) is an absolute outrage. Forcing cheerleaders to cover up is also iffy. Gymnastics Australia probably means well, but its belly button ban has unsettling parallels with a new, fundamentalist law in Indonesia that proposes jailing women who flaunt sensual body parts such as their navels. If Gymnastics Australia is really so concerned about teenage girls’ body images, why not hire chunkier cheerers?

Cheerleading is not intrinsically degrading. It’s tough and athletic and takes as much dedication and team work as any other sport. What does need an overhaul, however, is the attitude of sports fans and cheerleading organisations.

And if these dinosaurs need help getting the message, I’m sure there are plenty of cheerleaders who’d agree to spell it out for them using not only their arms but their middle fingers as well.