Cheerleading is taking center stage in Anne Arundel, and around the country.

Moving from the sidelines

Arundel At Play

Recreation and local sports in Anne Arundel County

April 20, 2005|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For years, cheerleading seemed more of a sideline activity at football and basketball games than a truly athletic endeavor. But times have changed.

Over the past decade, cheering has become a competitive activity. Cheering, which combines the athleticism of gymnastics with the artistry and precision of a dance troupe, has plenty of help in growing in Anne Arundel County: Pasadena resident Billie Barber spends virtually all of her spare time on the activity.

Barber is the director of Rockets X-treme All-Star Cheerleaders, a Glen Burnie-based organization that teaches and competes at various age groups and skill levels.

The Rockets, Barber said proudly, have been ranked nationally since they formed nearly 10 years ago. They also are one of the state's top two teams at the All-Star level.

Cheerleading truly is Barber's passion.

She was a cheerleader at Rising Sun High School in Cecil County and later coached at what was then Fallston Junior-Senior High school for a few years, starting in the late 1970s. Although Barber works full-time in marketing and sales, she also devotes about 40 additional hours a week to the Rockets.

"I love working with kids," Barber said. "I feel like that's why I was put here. I may not be a doctor or a lawyer, but I feel like what I do with these kids will impact them the rest of their lives."

The Rockets have programs for children ages 4 though 18. Those with little or no experience can go into the novice program, while those who can do tumbling and cheerleading can jump into the advanced program, which goes to competitions on a monthly basis from November to April in Texas, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia.

There are different levels of competition, based upon age and skill level. Although there are a few boys in the Rockets, it mostly consists of girls, who make a commitment to practice three days a week, working on skills - including gymnastics - while tweaking routines that they perform in competition.

Bobbi Barber, 20, is Billie's daughter and began cheerleading during kindergarten. Bobbi, who attends Anne Arundel Community College, cheered with the Baltimore Blast pro indoor soccer team last year. She coaches the Rockets' junior open team, which has 27 members.

"It's in the blood," Bobbi said with a laugh. "Mainly, we're there because of the kids ... and because we've been doing it so long, it's something we love so much."

Bobbi's older sister, Stephanie, 21, also grew up cheering and coaches while attending Towson University. All of the coaches in the program, which has 72 participants, are volunteers. The Rockets have had as many as 125 children in the program, but with seven All-Star cheerleading teams in a 10-mile radius of Anne Arundel County, children - and parents - interested in cheerleading as an activity have many choices.

They also must work very hard.

Bob Barber has seen the amount of time his wife and daughters put into cheering. Bobbi and Stephanie did other things, such as playing lacrosse, basketball and soccer, but kept returning to cheerleading, although the razzing about it not being a sport would often come up.

"They hear a lot of that," Bob Barber said. "The girls don't like it. They practice just as hard as football players - sometimes more."

The sport has grown in popularity locally over the past decade, which is a reason that Mike Stamper opened the Cheer Academy in Glen Burnie about a year ago.

Stamper and his wife own the American Cheer and Dance Academy, a Severna Park-based operation that promotes cheerleading competitions.

Recently, they promoted the Reach the Beach nationals, which brought more than 4,000 competitors to Ocean City.

Stamper, who lives in Gambrills, purchased the former gym, expanded it, added cheerleading floors, tumble tracks, a trampoline and a retail pro shop.

"[Cheerleading] pretty much has exploded over the last three to five years," Stamper said. "I think one of the reasons is the competitions. Basically, they have gotten bigger, more elaborate, and there's prize money involved."

Other kinds of money also are involved. Colleges such as the University of Maryland, College Park offer cheerleading scholarships.

The Maryland Competitive Cheer squad placed second at the National Cheerleading Association's national championships, just behind five-time winner University of Louisville.

"It is amazing to see where we have come in only two years," Maryland coach Lura Fleece said on the school's Web site.

Highlights from this tournament will be on CBS at 2 p.m. Saturday, which Billie Barber said will help the sport.

"Whenever there is an opportunity for financial reward based on ability, whether it's academic or athletic, it gains in popularity because it gives [youngsters] a hand," she said. "It's a way to go to college when they don't think they can afford it, and it adds incentive."

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