LONG BEACH — The sun-kissed faces of the Wilson High School cheerleaders glow with the enthusiasm their job demands. They are ready, not tot ally, but almost, for an awe some night. The first football game is only hours away.
As Friday afternoon flies by, the 11 girls of Varsity Yell are practicing on the school quadrangle.
A long summer of hard work in preparation for the night ahead is almost over. Like the football players, they are psyching up, trying to shake the edginess before stepping into the limelight.
"I'm nervous, but I'm excited too," says Tanya Rodriguez, a junior. "It's my first year."
She doesn't seem too worried about messing up. If that happens, she says, "You just kind of smile."
Shannon Lynn, the head cheerleader and a blonde like most of the 11, is giving last-minute reminders:
"Don't overdo it at the beginning and be tired at the end. And when you have a chant, please jump."
Varsity Yell is an elite group at Wilson. The competition to become a member is intense. Tryouts start with 90 candidates. A girl has to display creativity, strength, endurance, flexibility, a loud voice, an ability to generate enthusiasm and an understanding of what a first down is. Good looks don't seem to hurt either.
"It's a big honor," Shannon says. "You get a lot of unexpected respect. Teachers commend you on it."
But despite their prestigious position, the girls believe they don't always get the respect they deserve.
"Everybody thinks it's a social, hair spray show," says Candy Toia, a senior. "People who don't know us probably think we're snobs. When I first came here, I thought it was stupid. I did it because my mom (a former cheerleader) wanted me to. But it's a big deal, we put a lot of time into it."
Shannon too is aware of the snob image.
"Some girls think, 'Oh, she's on Varsity Yell, she thinks she's cool, she's special.' " Shannon says. "But we're having too much fun to worry about that. As cheerleaders, we have a job. It's a priority we choose."
'Little Barbie Dolls'
Susie Platt, the group's most energetic member, says, "People think we're little Barbie dolls on the field . . . (who) act cute and keep our hair pretty."
Watching the practice is Joyce Van Zant, the sponsor of Varsity Yell who cheered at Wilson in 1979 and then with Cal State Long Beach, the Lakers and Rams. "The stereotype of cheerleaders is that they are dumb and silly," says Van Zant, who teaches dance at Wilson. "But these kids are sharp. They have to keep a certain grade-point average. They are popular and well-liked. And this group is unique, they really get along (with one another) well."
In this age of dancing professional cheerleaders, who attract crowds with flash and flesh, the cheerleaders at Wilson are in the traditional mold--a bit too much, some of them say. That is, they mainly just cheer.
There is a group called the Pepsters, 12 girls who are also practicing out here. During games, they dance to Varsity Yell's chants but don't yell themselves.
"We're friends and rivals with the Pepsters," says Varsity Yell's Candy. "They get to do little movements (to music) they won't let us do. It's in the cheerleading contract. It says Pepsters do this , Varsity Yell does this . We want to do things to music, but we can't."
But the girls have no desire to become imitations of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders or the Laker Girls.
"I don't think I'd want to be one," says Gina Ammirato. "I have higher goals than to be a professional cheerleader."
Gina, the other girls agreed, was the crowd's favorite. Dark-eyed and brown-haired, she has a full figure and the kind of face seen on the cover of glamour magazines.
"I want to be an actress," Gina says.
It is 6 p.m. and the cheerleaders, carrying megaphones, have returned to school wearing their game uniforms: white sweaters and pleated skirts with red and gold trim, gold socks and red and white saddle shoes, the kind associated with cheerleaders of the 1950s.
They go into a room where Van Zant teaches dancing, and turn its air fragrant. In the wall mirror they check faces and hair for imperfections that might have crept in since they left home. Like Barbie, though, they are flawless.
The traditional image of cheerleaders is reflected in this glass, and the year could be 1956, except these girls have names such as Shannon, Christen, Heather and Deanne, not Betty, Judy, Donna or Mary Lou.
Some of the Pepsters--who wear gold uniforms instead of white--are in here. "I was like tot ally late, like we were tot ally rushing," one says.
And another says with distress, "If I go down in my right split, I will never walk again."
There is not much mingling between the two groups.
Brownies for Squad
Van Zant has brought brownies she made. Distributing them, she asks, "Are you girls warmed up--hamstrings and everything?"
So, they stretch, sitting on the wooden dancing floor, their brownies laid on napkins next to them.
Then they bounce, kick and clap through a final practice routine.