Cheerleading craze Popular 'sport': Starting as young as 4, more girls are joining squads and discovering being on the sidelines is hard work and fun.

November 08, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,SUN STAFF

They pout. They slouch. They want to go home. But they're cheerleaders.

"Straight line. Hands down at your sides. SMILES!"

At the coach's command the 14 girls, some in Lion King sneakers, perk up like news anchors before the cameras. They're 4, 5, 6 and 7 years old. And these girls of Gambrills Odenton Recreation Council will tell you they're "THE WILDCATS. WE ARE NO. 1!"

Plenty of girls want to don the pleated skirts. More than 3,000 girls ages 4 to 14 are cheerleaders in the Baltimore metropolitan area. More than 640,000 youths are cheerleaders in the country, according to the American Sports Data Inc.

But getting in isn't easy. Dozens of girls are on waiting lists in leagues in Baltimore City and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. On registration morning some mothers camp out with coolers and $35 to snag a spot.

"Cheerleading has just exploded," said Tracey Ziemann, president of the Harford/Baltimore County Youth Cheerleading Association. "It's huge. It's everywhere. It's not rah-rah-rah on the side. It's a big competition, a big sport."

Last year, the youngest of the Gambrills Odenton cheerleaders captured first place in a county competition. This year the Wildcats look to repeat. They practice three days a week, two hours a day to perfect a two-minute dance routine.

The peewee football team practices only two hours longer each week.

"We're here to teach discipline," said Lisa Medeiros, 32, a Wildcats coach. "If you want to cheer in high school . . . it starts at this age."

The cheerleading boom started about a decade ago. Parents who took sons to play youth football had daughters who idled on the sidelines. Cheerleading gave the girls something to do.

"She absolutely loves it. She can't take a shower at night or lay in bed without saying a cheer. I know the cheers," Jack Wolford, 32, said of his 6-year-old daughter Nicole, a member of the Gambrills Odenton squad. "If school was as fun as cheerleading, she would get straight A's."

It's hard to explain cheerleading's popularity, given that girls now can play basketball, soccer, softball and other organized sports.

Karen Miller of the National Cheerleading Association says to- [Cheer, from Page 1B]

day's cheerleaders are athletes. They run, weight train and do gymnastics to improve their stamina. They also attend daylong clinics and summer camps.

"It's not the same idea as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader," Ms. Miller said. "Today you have to be more athletic, well-rounded, not Barbie doll-like."

But on Homecoming Day last month, little of that change was evident. More than a 100 Gambrills Odenton cheerleaders in kelly green pleated skirts put on a 10-minute half-time dance that looked like a Broadway chorus line.

Afterward, the recreation council named a homecoming court of 11 girls. Ashley Hesgard, 13, came home with the queen's tiara and a sash that read "GORC 1995" in sparkling gold glitter. Ashley has cheered since she was 7.

This kind of fanfare makes people wonder how much cheerleading has changed. Carol Seefeldt, a professor at the Institute for Child Study at the University of Maryland College Park, worries about a lost innocence, about girls under 7 falling into a beauty pageant syndrome in which children become show pieces. She worries the older girls may be trying to fit society's image of women.

You're bombarded by these messages that girls need to look a certain way. Cheerleading is a way to put on a skirt and look cute," she said. "Women have worked so hard to prove we have brains and to put little girls in those sexy skirts -- there's something bothersome about our values."

Dr. Seefeldt says girls may be choosing cheerleading because few sports give them as much attention. "It's the value of our culture -- to be sexy, to be cute, to be cheering men on," she said.

Mary Brookman, 34, whose daughters Kristen, 5, and Amy, 13, cheer for Gambrills Odenton, says cheerleading builds self-esteem and gives girls opportunities. Dozens of schools, including George Washington University, George Mason University and Delaware State University, offer partial and full scholarships for cheerleading.

But sometimes the competition can be taken too far. In 1989, two rival squads in northern Anne Arundel County squared off with each other on the field and in the community. Parents videotaped competitions, convinced an older girl had been put on a younger squad to win the competition.

They showed the tapes to competition officials and local newspaper editors in hopes of disqualifying the winning team, but to no avail.

This competitive edge worries some coaches.

"I still think the basis of cheerleading is supporting the football team. Everything else -- competitions -- is like icing on the cake," said Bambi Nevel, 38, a former Baltimore Colts cheerleader and coordinator for Bel Air Recreation's seven youth squads. "First and foremost is the sports team you're cheering on. The cheerleaders are little ambassadors."

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