Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 30, 2008

Friday Night Pyramids

Kate Torgovnick, author of a Friday Night Lights for cheerleading, tells Gelf what Bring It On missed.

Jim Chairusmi

For most of us, cheerleading is a subject of fleeting fascination as we channel surf past ESPN2 and pause for a few seconds to watch cute girls in short, pleated skirts fly high in the sky and spell out the name of their school. But there's another, competitive side to cheerleading that barely scrapes the public consciousness. In Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders, Kate Torgovnick follows three teams as they prepare for their one shining moment—and a shot at a national championship in college cheerleading.

Kate Torgovnick. Photo by Lizz Torgovnick.
"Modern cheerleading has become something very different—something close to an extreme sport like skateboarding or moto-cross."

Kate Torgovnick. Photo by Lizz Torgovnick.

Torgovnick writes, "Almost every other sport has had its story told—football in Friday Night Lights, basketball in Season on the Brink, soccer in Fever Pitch—the list could go on. I wanted to tell the story of competitive cheerleaders."

Gelf interviewed Torgovnick over email about the fascination with cheerleaders, the accuracy of the cheerleading movie Bring It On, and the chances of cheerleading becoming an Olympic sport. You can hear Torgovnick and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, October 2, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What's the appeal of competitive cheerleading?

Kate Torgovnick: When I first started looking into cheerleading, I thought I knew what the appeal would be—the pleated skirt, the bright makeup, the easy access to the quarterback. But the more I researched cheerleading, the more I realized that that was based on cheerleading 25 or 30 years ago. Modern cheerleading has become something very different—something close to an extreme sport like skateboarding or moto-cross. Here are some of the quotes that stick in my mind from the cheerleaders in this book: "Cheerleading is addictive." "I live for competing." "As soon as I step out on the mat, all eyes are on me—it's straight adrenaline." "I love the danger of flying high." "Cheerleading is like a drug." For many cheerleaders—especially the "flyers," the women you see being thrown 25-feet in the air when you channel surf by cheerleading on ESPN2—the thrill is actually the appeal.

GM: While reading Cheer!, I kept flashing back to the movie Bring It On to understand all the nuances of competitive cheerleading. While meant as a parody, it seems the movie was a relatively accurate portrayal of that world. Would you say that is the case?

KT: Oh, Bring It On is extremely accurate. It gets at the drama that's inherent in cheerleading since it's one of the few sports where women and men compete together. It gets at how teams create their routines, and it gets at the absurdity of what goes on backstage at a cheerleading competition.
But there are two things Bring It On misses. The first is just how intense this sport is. What drew me to cheerleading—and I was a major skeptic before I started this book—was being at College Cheerleading Nationals for a story I was writing for Jane Magazine, and seeing a level of passion in the competitors that I had never witnessed before. This is a sport where a team's entire season comes down to the two minutes and 15 seconds when they compete at Nationals—there is no second half to make up for a mistake; there is no do-over. This is a sport where 150 people try out for three open slots on a team. It's a sport where people are recruited out of high school and get hefty scholarships. And since there is no four-year eligibility rule, some cheerleaders cheer for six, seven, or even eight years in college.
The second thing Bring It On misses is the guys. Over half of college cheerleaders are men, and I find them pretty fascinating. The grand majority played football, baseball, or rugby, and either had an injury that took them out of their original sport, or didn't get the kind of scholarship they were hoping for in college. Someone (usually a girlfriend, sometimes some random woman who sees them in the weight room) suggests that they give cheerleading a shot and they end up becoming obsessed. The reigning stereotype of guy cheerleaders is that they're kind of effeminate. Not to replace one stereotype with another, but most of the male characters in Cheer are guys' guys, the kind who guzzle beer and tear phonebooks in half.


The University of Memphis in a last-minute practice the night before Nationals, with concrete underfoot. Photo by Gary Bogdon.

GM: How did you choose the 3 schools to follow in Cheer?

KT: Casting the book was harder than I expected because the week I started making phone calls, the Duke lacrosse scandal broke. Instantly, some of the schools I'd been talking to said, "Nope, no reporters on campus." Only a few coaches were willing to have their teams participate in a book where a journalist would not just watch practices—but hang out with the cheerleaders and really get to know them.
I feel so lucky that I ended up with the perfect three teams. I decided on the Lumberjacks from Stephen F. Austin University because they'd won at Nationals four years in a row, and were feeling a whole lot of pressure to bring home a history-making fifth championship trophy in a row. This team is one of the most creative and powerful in the nation, and even though it's a fairly small school in Texas, they attract cheerleaders from California to Massachusetts.
The second team I decided on was the University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers. I liked this team because, even though they don't have male teammates who can naturally do heavier-lifting, they always try to do stunts and pyramids the way a coed team would—and they often succeed. They're one of the teams propelling All-Girl cheerleading to a higher skill level.
For the third slot, I wanted a team to give me a different perspective. At first, I was thinking Brigham Young, because I thought Mormon cheerleaders could be interesting. But then I read an article in a cheerleading magazine about the Jaguars of Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge. In 2002, they came in second at Nationals—they even beat out Stephen F. Austin. But since then, they'd had trouble raising the money to get to Nationals. I wanted to see if this was their year.

The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks perform their Nationals routine. Photo by Beth Fandal.

GM: It seems that cheerleading is very popular at Stephen F. Austin. Were the cheerleaders viewed as popular athletes there? It seems crazy to me that cheerleaders such as Sierra Jenkins would transfer there solely to cheer.

KT: They aren't popular like basketball or football stars—not everyone on campus knows their name and worships them, though little girls at football games do flock to them and ask for their autographs. As a team, they're local celebrities—they appear frequently on television, they're in parades, and at venue openings. And the students at these schools are well aware that they have stellar cheerleaders.
And, oh yeah, about two-thirds of the cheerleaders in my book said they had chosen their college exclusively for cheerleading. Cheerleaders dream of ending up at Stephen F. Austin, the University of Kentucky, the University of Central Florida, or Morehead State to cheer. I met one woman during my research who had a 4.0 GPA and high SAT scores—she'd gotten into two Ivy League schools, but was waiting to hear if she made the cheerleading squad at the University of Louisville.
Cheerleaders transfer schools frequently. Many will go to a junior college with a great cheerleading program for two years before trying out for one of the big schools—it's almost like a minor-league system. And there's even a term for a cheerleader who transfers from school to school hoping to win a national-championship ring—a "ringchaser."

GM: Cheerleading seems like a cross between gymnastics, trampoline, and synchronized swimming, all of which are Olympic sports. Any chance we'll see cheerleading in future Games?

KT: That's a pretty great description, actually. And it's funny, I have heard several people—usually cheerleaders or cheer parents—say they wished cheer was an Olympic sport. Maybe it will happen one day. Cheerleading is very uniquely American, but it's starting to get popular in countries like Japan, China, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. There's actually a competition called Cheerleading Worlds held every April at Disney World where different countries bring teams to compete. It's fun to watch how the different teams interpret cheerleading. I remember seeing one team with dramatic robes over their uniforms.

GM: The Texas Cheerleader Mom scandal; Florida high schoolers beating up a fellow cheerleader; the two Carolina Panthers cheerleaders arrested for a bar fight after making out in the bathroom. It seems whenever cheerleaders make headlines, it's for the wrong reasons.

KT: It's true—people love a story of cheerleaders gone wild. Cheerleaders are American icons; they're up there with the bald eagle and apple pie. If you make a list of the cheerleaders in pop culture, they really fall into two categories: They're the chaste, A-student who's worshiped from afar; or the snobby, short-skirt-wearing queen bee. I think as a culture we project some very complicated views about women onto cheerleaders. They sort of straddle that fault line between virgin and whore, and anytime they land on the wrong side of the line, that's a really appealing story.

GM: I've noticed that more schools have a dance squad and a cheerleading squad cheering during basketball games. Is there a rivalry? Even having an all-girls and a coed squad, like Memphis, seems like a cause for conflict.

KT: Most schools do have a pom squad and a cheerleading squad. The programs are generally under the same umbrella, so they practice together and often know each other well. Their competitions are held together, so I think that school pride trumps any rivalry that might develop.
As for schools that have both a coed and an all-girl team, the two are usually supportive of each other. But I think it can be hard for an all-girl squad because the coed team is generally looked at as the main event. They're often considered "varsity" while all-girl is thought of like JV—they might get smaller scholarships, and they cheer for sports like volleyball rather than basketball. At the University of Memphis, this created some conflict, because while all-girl is seen as secondary by the school, they're actually the ones in it to win nationals.

GM: You were researching an article for Jane Magazine, and that was the inspiration for Cheer. Any other articles you've written that would have made for a good in-depth book?

KT: Absolutely. I'm starting on a new book project now and it's also based on an article I wrote. And someone needs to write a book about bike polo. I wrote a story for The New York Times about a group of players in New York and they were pretty intriguing.


The Jaguars of Southern pray after their routine. Photo by Beth Fandal.

GM: I remember Jane Pratt's Sassy being a really risqué magazine for teen girls to read in middle school. Do you think another magazine could have that same effect on a whole generation? Or do you think the Internet has made that impossible?

KT: I adored Sassy Magazine. I was actually inspired by a Sassy article to dye a blue streak in my hair, something I still have 15 years later. Sassy introduced young women to good music, good books, and writing that had personality. I hope someday there'll be another magazine with that kind of influence—I do think it's possible. Someone would just have to be more concerned with making a great publication that speaks to teenagers where they're at, rather than in making money from advertisers who have a very different vision of what teenagers want to read.

GM: I read in your bio that you are a competitive swimmer. It said butterfly is your stroke. So imagine if you were beating Michael Phelps with the wall five feet away. Would you glide in or take a half-stroke to the wall?

KT: Ha ha. Well, I do the 100-meter fly in 1:35 and Michael Phelps does his in 50 seconds, so I'd need a good minute head start for this scenario to be in the realm of possibility. But that said—glide and kick for my life!

Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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Article by Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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