Vipers cheer, dance, win

Competition: All-Star squads in Harford take first place at the Ameri- Cheer Championships held at Disney World.

April 13, 2003|By Katherine Tiernan | Katherine Tiernan,SUN STAFF

A few minutes before 7 p.m. on Wednesday, teen-agers begin filtering into the Viper All-Stars gym in Harford County.

Most are wearing the blue V-neck windbreakers awarded to the winners of the AmeriCheer National Cheerleading and Dance Championships.

They gossip and talk about their week as they begin their stretching exercises before practice. These are the members of the small co-ed senior squad and first-place winners at the AmeriCheer Championship held in Disney World on March 21-22. The squad consists of 22 female and four male high school students.

All of the Viper teams that competed in Disney World placed. The small seniors and the large junior teams both had second-place wins and the large senior team took third. They are coming to the end of their competitive season, which culminates with the All-Star Challenge in the First Mariner Convention Center this weekend.

The Viper All-Stars is a nonprofit organization that falls under the umbrella of the Maryland Cheer and Dance Authority. The Vipers have been in existence since 1999. Formerly the Bel Air Recreational All-Star program, the Vipers became independent when they had trouble finding training facilities. The Calvert Hall Coed Cheering Squad joined the Vipers in 2000.

The Vipers have 160 cheerleaders and dancers who participate in five competitive cheer teams based on their age, tumbling ability and interest. To make either the small co-ed senior team or the small senior team, which are the elite teams, one must be able to complete a standing back tuck.(A standing back tuck looks like a cartwheel with no hands where the tumbler manages to spiral her entire body around and land on two feet.)

Competitive cheering has begun to earn more recognition as a sport during the past 10 years.

"Athletically, they are in great shape," said Viper coach Beth Kenney. "They have to be flexible to do tumbling and jumping, along with having strength, balance and courage."

The elite Viper squads practice twice a week for 2 1/2 hours and attend a 1 1/2 -hour tumbling class each week. The squad runs and does push-ups and abdominal exercises.

After members stretch, they begin their warm-up by tumbling and practicing each stunt they will perform. Every stunt has a name such as cradle, pyramid, basket toss and the Death Drop.

"The Death Drop is our signature stunt. The whole country's talking about it, and I'm not kidding about that," Kenney said.

The Death Drop consists of hoisting a girl into the air and holding her up by one foot. She lifts her leg and turns to smile at the crowd. She then falls forward, over a teammate in what looks like a dive to the floor and catches herself on that teammate's waist.

The group aims her body forward, still holding her foot and lifts her back into the air in less than 20 seconds.

The routine consists of stunts, motions, tumbling, dance and cheering and must be completed in 2 1/2 minutes. Points are deducted for routines that run longer.

"It's like doing the bench press for 2 1/2 minutes while talking," Viper coach Beto Sanchez said.

Cheer routines are judged on a variety of categories such as jumps, tumbling and stunts to choreography, effect, execution and synchronization.

It is a sport similar to ice-skating with subjective judging where presentation is a key aspect to winning over the judges.

"When you do other sports, you're playing a game. This is a performance," said senior co-captain Kristen Nevel of Bel Air.

The Vipers compete in nine local competitions and three to four national competitions each year. The competitive season runs from November to April, but the teams practice year-round.

Since the Vipers are nonprofit, every parent must pay the roughly $3,000 in fees. Most look to fund-raising activities like selling pizza and working booths at the Orioles and Ravens games.

As the competitive season comes to an end, the Vipers are preparing for the May tryouts. This year's tryouts will run differently than in prior years.

The coaching staff will spend a month assessing the tumbling ability of prospective Vipers in order to place them on the appropriate squad.

Tryouts often attract burned- out gymnasts, cheerleaders and dancers who are looking for something different and more challenging.

As the seniors on the small senior coed squad finish their careers as Vipers, many plan to continue participating in cheering-related activities -- whether it is dance, coaching or cheering on the college level like Stephanie Tucker will be at University of Delaware.

However, others do not.

"A lot don't [cheer in college] because they go from competitive cheerleading to cheering on the sidelines again," Kenney said.

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