Cheerleading: it’s just for bitchy US high-school girls and Kirsten Dunst, right? Wrong. Chris Mandle finds out what it takes to be a male cheerleader.
Are you a bloke? Are you tough? Would you put your body on the line, smile through the pain and wear a snazzy uniform, all in the name of spreading cheer? If the answer to these questions is ‘you betcha!’ then you might just have what it takes to join the Ascension Eagles – London’s biggest and best (competitively speaking) cheerleading squad. Based at Gallions Reach in Beckton, their award-winning programme has harboured hundreds of phenomenal young athletes.
Hundreds of phenomenal young athletes of which only two at the moment are male. (The boys have come and gone; in 2011 there were, fleetingly, more dudes than girls). It’s a situation which, shortly before Christmas, inspired the Eagles to put out an appeal: strong men of London, we need YOU!
Cheerleading does have a bit of an image problem, largely because it arrived here from the US, where cheerleaders are either high-school heroines, or nasty pieces of work – at least in films like ’90s teen flick ‘Bring It On’ (which in the name of research, I re-watched). The reality’s very different, of course: it’s a dynamic and growing modern sport. Forget sing-song chants at half- time shows: the Ascension Eagles promote no team but themselves, and compete at massive events where precision, synchronisation and athleticism earn them coveted prizes. The lifts, throws and jumps the squads have to master are courageous verging on suicidal.
Still, that US high-school stereotype persists. As Eagles director Angela Green tells me, it’s thought of as a ‘women’s sport’: ‘It’s one of the most challenging physical activities you can take part in,’ she explains, as I arrive at their base, a training centre located in a retail park. As if to prove that exact point, I’m introduced to Zach and Nikolay, two unnervingly muscular teens who’ve been cheerleaders for almost a decade between them. ‘It keeps you fit,’ says Zach. ‘I don’t think I’d be this size if I wasn’t training here four days a week,’ the15-year-old tells me, before performing a backflip with the same nonchalance with which I’d unwrap a Quality Street.
Still, I’m here to find out what cheerleading entails, and that means doing some. Plus, I hope the intense exercise might help tone my abs slightly (my dexterity with confectionery has rather let my body down over Christmas). We start with a basic move: the backflip. Cheerleading routines last two-and-a-half minutes and involve three elements: stunts (lifts), tumbles (gymnastics) and a small amount of routine choreography (dancing). Every member of the 30-strong squad can pull off supposedly ‘easy’ moves like this with absolute precision.
A piece of apparatus that resembles a giant, squishy wedge of cake is wheeled towards me and I’m encouraged to jump backwards on to it. At the same time, two Eagles tip the wedge, turning my legs towards the ceiling, and flipping me over in an arc that ends with my landing – catlike – on my feet.
That’s the idea, anyway. But once my hands hit the floor my body simply collapses on itself. There’s mutual agreement that we should move on to something else. Not tea and biscuits, unfortunately, but a lift. A bit suddenly for my liking, two Eagles grab my waist, throw me into the air and then hold me firmly by the ankles. ‘Stand up!’ someone shouts. And ‘Bum in!’ As I tuck my in arse and try to rise (all the while with a slightly constipated-looking smile on my face), I realise I’ve still got hold of Zach’s head, and am clenching the poor guy’s hair between my fingers like rosary beads.
And then… I’m doing it! Standing proud. It’s an incredible, paralysing thrill. I feel ten feet tall, which is about right, since I’m now four feet off the ground. But I can’t process my thoughts. I wobble, like a drunken tree. It’s terrifying. I bark at everyone to release me, swaying in an imaginary breeze, but my team are there for me – preventing my collapse with grace and poise.
Having been safely brought back to earth, I’m feeling prepared to get more stuck in to the other areas. We rehearse claps, knee-bends, star jumps and other complicated iterations of ‘The Hokey Cokey’. It’s fun yet skilful – a very elaborate form of gymnastics, in fact, which requires no equipment but your own body. Problem is, my body tends to need equipment. A bucket of wine, for example.
I’m not the man for the squad, it seems. But it’s still early days for the Eagles’ recruitment drive. ‘It’s something that will take time,’ Green says. ‘But we’ll continue to promote the activity for everyone. Anyone can be a cheerleader!’
So for the guys out there reading this: it’s time to put down the darts, give up the Sunday League kickabout and toe-punt the rugby ball back into the garage. If you’re a real man, there’s a real man’s sport out there: cheerleading. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.
Why stop there? Here are some more traditionally ‘girly’ sports now bringing in the boys.
London’s OTS (Out to Swim) Angels are the UK’s only male synchronised swimming club. Graceful, muscular and wearing tiny trunks, these water boys are proving they’ve got the full package – so to speak. outtoswim.org
Conceived as a milder alternative to baseball, softball had long featured co-ed teams. In 2011 the London Fastpitch Softball league expanded to include men-only divisions. Blokes beware: the ball is actually rock hard and massive.baseballsoftballuk.com
Indoor netball (think basketball without the dribbling, though you do wear a bib) is huge in Australia and South Africa, and it’s gaining fans in the UK, too. In addition to its women’s and mixed teams, the Indoor Netball Association now has a guys-only squad.ina-england.co.uk
Photography by David Tett
Here are three more alternative hobbies to get stuck into this year.