The Joy of Cheerleading

Life has its ups and downs; cheerleading has only ups.

They were all summer children. They had shining hair and brown arms and bare legs, and as I watched them, under a blue sky in the dense heat of four August afternoons, nothing was serious.

They had come together, more than a thousand of them, for a cheerleading clinic given each summer on the campus of Southern Methodist University. This clinic is one of 200 the National Cheerleaders Association holds throughout the United States, but it is the largest of the 25 in Texas and attracts squads from high schools all over Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and even from as far away as Kansas City, Missouri.

My two sisters, in their day, had both made the long trip from Missouri to Dallas for this very clinic. Though something like carpetbaggers there, the cheerleading squads from our high school enjoyed a long domination at the clinic’s final overall competition. That domination was already well established when I was a senior and continued past the time when my sisters, one four and the other eight years younger, had won their places on the varsity squad. By then the burden of this winning legacy was almost too much for them. The competition at the clinic had become so fierce that, in order to have a chance of winning, my sisters spent almost six hours every day during the summer months practicing with the other girls on the squad to perfect what they’d learned during previous experience on the junior varsity and from years of tumbling and ballet lessons and untold hours of solitary practice in our backyard. By the time they were seniors, both girls could do an astonishing variety of front flips, back flips, somersaults, roll outs, kips, and—the heart stopper—aerials. Aerials are cartwheels without hands.

Our high school’s cheerleading glory has now sadly faded, but at the clinic I attended this summer there were plenty of other squads—it was easy enough to spot them—whose dedication and determination to win were as great or greater. So while for me and for the great big awful world beyond high school there was nothing serious at the National Cheerleaders Association clinic at SMU, in the very tiny, ecstatic world of high school cheerleading, there was much at stake.

The clinic began at 3 p.m. on a Monday. All that morning and early afternoon, groups of cheerleaders arrived in automobiles, vans, or buses driven by some dutiful parent or faculty sponsor. All these vehicles had long crepe-paper streamers tied to their aerials, school banners draped over their doors, and signs taped to the windows reading, “Dallas, Here We Come,” “ SMU or Bust,” “Honk If You’ve Got Spirit.”

By 3 o’clock all but a few squads had arrived, found their rooms in SMU’s rather prosaic red-brick dormitories–the girls in buildings far from the boys—dressed in their uniforms, and made their way

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