Of Good Cheer

December 09, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

It's easy, if you want, to diss The Cheerleader.

Easy to ridicule the stereotype, write her off as the popular, skinny, vapid airhead. Easy to consider her role outdated and one - in this era of Girl Power and female presidential candidates - that should have been phased out with the introduction of Title IX. Cheerleaders are regularly mocked and ridiculed on television, in film and in literature, and the outcry, usually, is minimal.

But cheerleaders are as much a part of football Americana as chin straps, face masks and marching bands. The idea of school spirit, however uncool to some, is essentially the idea of community, a belief system that is as old as organized sports. It's uniting to encourage our team to vanquish your team and, in the process, make us proud.

Although the inner Gloria Steinem in some of us might cringe, there is something quintessentially American about pompoms, human pyramids and polyester skirts at a football game. The fact that President Bush was a cheerleader at Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, Mass., is - regardless of your political leanings - a testament to how ingrained it is not just in football culture, but also popular culture.

Which brings us to JennaMarie Hill, a thin, 15-year-old River Hill cheerleader with sandy blond hair, blue-gray eyes and an innocent grin almost always stitched to her face. Late last month, in her high school cafeteria, she stood with her hands on her hips, her brow wrinkled, casting a glance toward the front of the room. Her expression was as serious as a Secret Service agent's.


A booming voice echoed off the linoleum. Nearly 40 teenage girls stood still.

"Who here doesn't know Dynamite? Don't be embarrassed."

Several girls sheepishly raised their hands. Others shook their heads, ponytails sashaying from side to side. Hill broke into a smile and whispered in the ear of the girl standing next to her.

"Pay attention! Watch someone who knows," barked one of the older cheerleaders, Nadine Osong.

With a clap, Hill broke into a hip-shaking, shoulder-wiggling, leg-kicking version of DYNAMITE!, a complex, precisely choreographed cheer for the River Hill Hawks cheerleading squad. Even in a crowd of bubbly cheerleaders, her enthusiasm was hard to miss.


"Our team is DY-NA-MITE!"

"Our team is tick ... tick ... tick ... BOOM! DY-NA-MITE!"

Seeing Hill nail complicated routine after routine on this particular afternoon was hardly a surprise. She made the River Hill varsity cheerleading squad last year when she was a freshman and has been practicing everything from handsprings to rhythmic handclaps since she was in the third grade. And it has all been, essentially, for one reason.

She loves football.

"I just love being around the game," Hill, a straight-A student, says as she shrugs her thin shoulders. "My dad played football in college at Virginia Tech, so we'd watch games together all the time. It's just a huge part of our family. When my brother started playing [in youth leagues], there was no cheerleading squad for his team, so I begged my mom to let me do it. She finally agreed to be the coach, and I've been doing it ever since."

There are thousands of girls like Hill and her teammates across the country, attending competitions, organizing pep rallies, honing their leg kicks and encouraging young men to get that ball across the ("Woo!") goal line. Some do it for the competition, others to get a toehold in the cutthroat high school social scene and some, like Hill, to support someone they love.

She does it mostly to support her brother, Jonathan Hill, a linebacker for the Hawks, who will attend the Naval Academy and play football next year. He has returned the favor a few times.

"I remember he came to one of my competitions once, and he told me afterward, `You did such a good job,' " Hill says. "I was so proud. I know that sounds really corny, but it was pretty cool."

Cheerleaders such as Hill are genuine athletes. The debate over whether cheerleading is truly a sport will probably rage on - though many schools, such as those in Howard County, have sanctioned it as an official varsity sport for three years - but it takes flexibility and grace to make it onto most varsity cheerleading squads these days. No one would show up for basketball tryouts without knowing how to dribble, and it's increasingly less likely for cheerleaders to go to tryouts without basic gymnastics and tumbling skills.

"Cheerleaders - not all of them, but most of them - truly are athletes," says Kerri Finkelston, River Hill's cheerleading coach, who cheered at Clemson. "I think, for most of them, it's a natural transition from dancing and gymnastics."

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