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 to McFarlin Auditorium. This building, which has a plain but imposing facade, is nothing more on the inside than a high school auditorium. It has the same wooden seats with the same wooden backs, the same stage at the front, and the same colorless, almost dingy stucco walls. By 3 o’clock it was filled with a collection of American youth ideal in the extreme. They were, like the neon signs in Las Vegas, so bright and dazzling that watching them was almost painful. Bright eyes! Smooth skins! Lean bodies! Gleaming teeth! They stood before the auditorium seats dancing back and forth and chanting, “V! I! C! T! O! R! Y!”
This victory was for no one in particular. There were no teams, no games, no crowds except themselves. It was summer. Nothing was serious. They were simply cheering.
Suddenly the red velvet curtain across the stage parted to reveal a rather plain woman in a styleless blue dress. She insisted that everyone sit down so she could explain the rules for the week.
“There will be no dates,” she said.
The cheerleaders booed loudly.
“There will be no drinking.”
This received some immediate boos that were quickly drowned in nearly universal cheers.
“The dorms will be locked at ten o’clock.”
I expected this to elicit, not a boo exactly, but a loud sigh of abandoned hope. Instead they cheered.
The woman in the blue dress now introduced Lawrence R. Herkimer, known to everyone as Herkie, the head of the National Cheerleaders Association. A short, rotund, balding man of about fifty, he is, beyond debate, the greatest cheerleader of all time. In the late forties he was he head cheerleader at SMU, where he invented that universal cheerleading trademark, the “Herkie Jump,” in which the cheerleader leaps up with one leg straight and the other one bent behind him. He has made a more than respectable fortune running these clinics and selling cheerleading uniforms, pom-poms, megaphones, and the like. And he or his staff has written virtually every cheer, except for the most ancient and traditional ones, that American sports fans have heard in the last 25 years. His appearance was greeted with the longest and most resounding cheer so far.
“Some of you here may be cheering for the first time,” he said. “I know how it is. The first time you’re up in front of people you’re shy and quiet. Then the next time you just go ahead and cheer. And then the third time you come out and say, ‘Okay, you lucky devils, here I am!’ “
Herkie then introduced the teaching staff. It was divided into two groups, the six boys and nineteen girls who would instruct the high school squads and the seven boys and four girls assigned to the much smaller college clinic. They performed some cheers and explained a few of the things they would be teaching that week. “We’re going to show you how to build effective pyramids that are real crowd-control pyramids,” was one promise. Then they dismissed everyone for dinner