An Interview With a British Cheerleader

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4 March 2024

By Amy

The first thing that comes to mind for many people at the mention of cheerleading is the beautiful, popular, mean girls in exaggerated American high school films, clad in skimpy outfits and armed with pom-poms, who reign over the school alongside their American football star boyfriends, muscular, cocky guys, almost always named Chad, Chase or Bryce. What they don’t know is that the International Olympic Committee officially recognised cheerleading as a sport in 2021 and that 40% of British schools now offer cheerleading as part of P.E.

I talked to Imogen, a 15-year-old cheerleader based in the North East, who just recently performed at two different competitions with her club, Derwent Valley Allstars, where they managed to secure first and second place. She has also competed in America twice and is currently training for The 2024 Summit in May, which is the junior world championship for cheerleading, where teams from all over the world come to show off their skills. This article will prove that cheerleading is nothing like the titillating spectacle observed at men’s sports games that many imagine it to be, and rather a sport in its own right.

What does cheerleading involve?

The type of cheerleading that Imogen does is a combination of tumbling, jumps, stunts and dance. It doesn’t involve pom-poms and chants but it does involve an impressive fusion of strength, flexibility and coordination. Imogen started cheerleading when she was 10, after getting bored of gymnastics (which she has done since she was six) and seeing American cheerleading on TV. Her experience with gymnastics gave her a solid foundation of agility and strength to use. It’s important to note that cheerleading in the UK doesn’t involve cheering on athletes at games like they do in American high schools and national sports. Instead, cheerleaders compete against other teams by performing their routines in front of a panel of judges.

This kind of cheerleading is very physically demanding; Imogen trains for over eight hours a week and even up to 11 hours in the lead-up to a competition, as well as going to the gym regularly. This shows the dedication needed to be a cheerleader and contrasts with many people’s misconception that all they do is dance and chant.

When I asked what her favourite part of the sport is, she replied that it is the adrenaline rush when she walks onto the competition mat and how unexplainably exciting it is to show off a routine that they’ve practised for months. She also talked about the friendships that come with it: after spending hours with her team every week, they become like family.

Addressing stereotypes…

After reading about people’s opinions about cheerleading online, I found that they were mostly negative; countless forums and news articles expressed disdain for cheerleading, stating that it is a sexist sport that demeans female athletes by over-emphasising their feminine appearance with glamourous makeup and dazzling outfits that leave little to the imagination. To summarise it for you, I collated a few of my favourite comments on a Guardian article about the rise of cheerleading in British schools below, that clearly demonstrate people’s blind hatred towards anything deemed American, resulting in false stereotypes about cheerleading.

Ironically, one of the commenters has a problem with objectifying and sexualising girls when the comment above it calls cheerleaders “after-match hookers” whilst also complaining about girls being too promiscuous and lacking “grace and dignity”. When I asked Imogen whether she thought that the outfits cheerleaders have to wear objectify and sexualise girls, she replied that the uniforms are only there to make everyone look unified and the performance look neat.

In fact, the dressing up part is also what makes cheer appeal to many girls, as it adds to the excitement of performing. She also said that focusing on the appearance of cheerleaders misses the point of the sport. In the time spent worrying about whether or not the glamorous makeup and costumes objectify girls, we forget to appreciate their impressive skills and performance.

Utah School Bans Cheerleading Outfits

However, these negative views may be more associated with professional cheerleading, which is when adult athletes get paid to perform at national sports games. This is more justifiable because there have been many scandals in NFL cheerleading (America’s National Football League) in which the women have been underpaid, disrespected or even sexually harassed.

NFL cheerleaders

Is cheer different in America compared to Britain?

Cheerleading began in the mid-1800s in America and has since been deeply intertwined in their culture. I thought that this could make competing in the US intimidating for non-American cheerleaders, considering they probably hadn’t been exposed to cheer for their whole lives, but Imogen said that it was more of an honour. She also talked about the sportsmanship at the world championship in Florida and described the supportive atmosphere of camaraderie and respect for all the teams. Even though everyone is competing and there are some friendly rivalries, everyone cheers for the winners.

I also found it interesting that for 11-13-year-old American girls, cheerleading and attractiveness were related to social status in schools, and I wondered why there isn’t the same correlation in the UK. Imogen’s take was that you don’t have to be a certain type of person to be a cheerleader and that because most competitive cheerleading is done through clubs external to schools, it doesn’t really correlate with social status in Britain. Perhaps British cheerleading is more inclusive because we don’t have the same culture of sports games and cheerleading within schools, and therefore you don’t need to be of a certain social ‘rank’ to participate. This also means that young people who take part in cheer outside of school aren’t subjected to the stereotype, often found in American films, that cheerleaders are the ‘mean girls’.

To conclude…

I’d like to thank Imogen for taking part in this interview and giving me a lot of insight into the world of cheerleading. After watching a few videos, I already thought it was an impressive sport, but hearing about how many hours she spent training made me gain even more respect for it. I hope this article has opened your eyes up to the reality of cheer and disproven any misconceptions or stereotypes you may have had because of American high school films. As cheerleading becomes increasingly popular in the UK and in other countries, we can only hope that it will soon be part of the Olympics!

Imogen’s next competition is The 2024 Summit in Florida and her team is currently fundraising £4,500 to fly there. Her team, Royalty, would appreciate it if you could share the link around so that they can make it to the world championship! Thank you for your support.

Click here to donate: bit.ly/JustGivingDVA

For more information on the DVA or if you are interested in cheerleading, contact the Derwent Valley Allstars through their website here. 

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