Cheerleading has always been a finely tuned barometer of social change. In my few decades on earth, I've seen the status of saddle shoes and cartwheels and megaphones rise and fall as steeply as the radical and corresponding shifts in sex roles, teen-age fads, parental attitudes and political ideologies.
In the late '50s, when my oldest sister was in high school, being a cheerleader was everything a girl dreamed of. It meant you were beautiful in a conventional (coveted) way, probably dated a muscle-bound athlete and certainly held honored membership in the most elite of social strata.
Problem was my parents considered it immodest and indecent to "kick one's legs around in public." My sister was devastated when they forbade her to partake. She sobbed for months.
By the time I hit high school in the late '60s, I viewed cheerleaders as shallow, stupid, blind participants in a particularly vile form of exploitation. Not only were they willing sex objects, but they cheered on an institutional brutality better described as assault than football.
My mother and father begged me to try out for the squad, to demonstrate even a vague interest in anything remotely "wholesome." They'd have killed to see me wave a pompom. I'd have sooner died.
I would've assumed that by now things had retreated to a more mellow, more moderate George Bush-type turf--a depoliticized, live-and-let-live zone in which some kids are into it, some aren't and most don't give it a whole lot of thought one way or the other.
But now I hear that cheerleading is entering yet another new phase in its evolution. According to a wire service report from Montpelier, Vt., there will be no cheerleaders at all when the high school football team stomps the gridiron this fall. Cheerleading there, and elsewhere, is verging on outright extinction.
No one--no one--at Montpelier High has expressed an interest in chanting and tumbling and building human pyramids this year. They tried out for field hockey instead--track and field, too. Some of them got after-school jobs. A few veterans from last year's squad are now managing the football team.
"The real issue," explained Principal Peter Clark, "is that there are lots of different ways for girls to get involved in school affairs. Cheerleading is not so much a way of gaining social status."
And could it also be that girls are no longer content to remain on--or be confined to--the sidelines?
That, after all, is the essence of what cheerleading taught us: how to play the supportive role, how to respond to our boys, to delight in their physical feats, to gasp at their injuries, to weep--it was so essential that we weep--when they triumphed, and especially when they failed.
The ultimate lesson was that boys, and only boys, were capable of taking the front line.
If it sounds as if I have some firsthand knowledge in this area, the truth, alas, is that I do. I was a junior-high cheerleader. I wore black-and-white saddle shoes, bobby socks, a little red jumper and a big black sweater when the weather turned cold. And yes, I probably shed a tear or two at the appropriate cue--a broken bone, a bloody nose, a pulled tendon--not mine, of course.
It was the mid-'60s, a transitional period. The startling thing at the time was that there were a few not-so-pretty girls on our squad, chosen by one of those ground-breaking, prefeminist gym teachers who wasn't so attractive herself and couldn't possibly have been a cheerleader in her day.
Anyway, I dutifully followed the script, having absolutely no idea what it meant. It never crossed my mind to actually play a sport, to go out for a team. I'm not at all sure there was one.
It is no mere coincidence that the decline of cheerleading is directly proportional to the ascension of girls' sports, instigated by federal mandate and fueled by the expectation of performing in the main event.
And what are girls learning now? To compete, to win, to lose, to be challenged, to be responsible to a team, to excel physically. To be players.
Makes me want to do the splits.