Cheerleading is probably not what you think it is. You may have visions of teenage dancers in two-bit skirts and coloured pom-poms whipping up the crowd at some sporting event. But it has become a tremendously demanding and technical competitive sport for real athletes. It is a mix of acrobatics, tumbling, stunts and dance glued together by formations, pyramids and ridiculously high spirits.
We have come to Telford for the third year running to the Midlands Cheer championships. There are hundreds of over-excited young people buzzing around.
The auditorium is dark. In the centre is a square area about as big as a gymnastics floor. Around it, rows of seats crawling up the staging against the walls. Eventually, we spot our cheerleading daughter H and effortlessly hurdle a row of chairs to get to her.
Our senses are mugged by the unrelenting sound, beat and rather wild enthusiasm. Our ear drums are deeply massaged with the uninterrupted rhythmic thud of the music, like some manic physiotherapist digging her fingers into our heads.
At the same time, every time something vaguely dramatic happens on the floor, the sharp nails of girly screams scrape inside the blackboard of my skull.
I have always wondered how that sound forms and how it is released. Is it involuntary or voluntary? An instinctive female animal noise automatically released to frighten the scary thing away, or a calculated manipulative screech to hype up the mood? Just one of those impenetrable feminine secrets I guess.
Cheer is decidedly American in origin and presentation. There are over 1.5m participants in the US and 100,000 in the rest of the world. It is the fastest growing participation sport amongst girls in the world. The disco lights flicker. Behind the stage an array of stars switch hypnotically between red, green and blue. Somewhere in my head it feels like Christmas.
Random communal dancing breaks out in any spare space. By some mysterious process they all seem to know the moves; swaying, gyrating, clapping and bouncing in casual harmony. Like something we used to attempt at the office party. Nothing too strenuous or organised, but the overall effect is rather pleasing. I rather wish I knew the moves too. I feel a bit left out.
Every 3 minutes a 2.5 minute performance breaks out. They start at 8am and cheer through another 14 hours, with short breaks to dish out prizes. We could watch a tantalising 215 performances today, if we don’t weaken.
Teams converge on Telford from as far away as Plymouth and Edinburgh. Their names are usually their location followed by a suitable symbolic description. We have the eclectic animal contingent; panthers, swans, hornets, coyotes and cougars. Then we have the jewellery section; sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and gold. In the celestial corner we progress from stars to rockstars; allstars to supernovas. The mythological division comprises phoenixes, angels and sirens. Then the more mischievous teams – vixens, rascals, shockers and warriors. But my favourite team is the antithesis of cheer, the Yorkshire martyrs. They never win but, eh up lad, when they lose, they can sulk better than anyone.
Each team comprises around 20 members of various shapes and sizes, typically aged between 12 and 25. Bases are big and flyers are little. They are mainly girls but (for the co-ed categories) a few lads are thrown in to add strength. Some of the bases are fit and gymnastic, others are just big, and really should be in looser clothing.
My daughter is a flier, competing for York Hornets. She has danced and done gymnastics all her life, and also climbed, which helps when they launch her 20 feet in the air, because she knows how to get down safely.
We sit amongst the Hornets team through a number of routines. I volunteer to fetch drinks. It is a relief to get away from the relentless pulse. In the large room next door gaggles of girls are warming up, taking photos or just having a nap. Outside, incongruously, some girls are smoking.
An unreasonable proportion of people I see are hobbling or bandaged up from some injury. A worrying few are on crutches. Apparently, the sport takes safety very seriously. A team can lose 5 points just for holding a flyer’s ankle wrongly. But twists and tumbles are inevitable. Two-thirds of young females sporting injuries and fatalities in the US (4 or 5 a year) are as a result of cheerleading. H tells me this is because they do it on basketball pitches. Here the floor is bouncy when you hit it.
There is a cheer-shop. I resist the temptation to buy the ‘I am a cheer dad’ t-shirt, although clearly I am. And they don’t seem to sell crash helmets or ear-plugs.
So I return to the arena. It is time for my daughter to perform in her stunt group. This is a small group doing just stunts – three male bases, two fliers; H and her friend. We “go down” to kneel at the edge of the stage, getting down with the kids.
The routine is almost perfect – her bow-and-arrow and scorpion are lovely. All performed with an infectious smile, completed with a lovely pyramid and a final punch in the air. It is genuinely stirring stuff. My aged male larynx can’t quite generate a scream.
I take a break and go shopping. I am glad to breathe in the calm, quiet drabness of Telford. I return with some anticipation for the stunt results. A balding man booms out the top four placings in reverse order. He would be more at place compering darts or world-wide wrestling.
Yesterday they came fourth. Not this time. Nor third. We hold our breath. Either they are worse than fourth or better than third. Nor are they second. Our hearts beat. The darts man pauses, teases. And in first place, York Hornets!
H and her four teammates are running and bouncing madly onto the square with undiluted glee. I feel like running on myself, maybe weaving in a dad-cartwheel. It is exhilarating. After the quick presentation it is hugs, kisses and twirls all round. She doesn’t seem to want to let go of the rather big trophy.
We stayed for the evening and a never-ending cycle of performances, music and screams. At one stage the music system breaks down leaving the unfortunate troupe frozen in position. We live in hope – but the sound system is quickly repaired. H performs again, this time with the full team. This time there are too many major infractions (dangerous mistakes) in among the throws, libs and Herkies.
I leave before the final results. Enough excitement for one day. Outside it is quiet and cool. Checking that nobody is watching, I spring a quick tumble and back-flip between the cars and climb up on the Focus to demonstrate a quick switch-tock, low-high and a final fluorish – my chin-chin.