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FOR THE KIDS : Turning the Fluff Into a Rigorous, Demanding Sport : As cheerleading has become increasingly competitive, more classes offer dance, tumbling and advanced stunt skills.


If your kid is hot to try out for the school cheerleading squad, she (or he) might want to brush up on back handsprings.

Cheerleading today is more than pompoms, nice dance moves and hearty vocal chords. The sis-boom-bah days are over. Cheerleading is a sport.

Just ask Jody Dilgard, owner of the Cheerleader Athletic Training Center in Simi Valley, or Janice Kratz, adviser to Simi Valley High School's top-notch squad.

Dilgard calls it the "secret sport," because many people don't realize cheerleading has evolved into rigorous physical activity where some teams do tumbling and tricky stunts.

Kratz's 16-member all-girl team competed last weekend at United Spirit Assn.'s national competition in Anaheim. They placed eighth out of 24 competitors in their division.

"These girls are great athletes," Kratz said. All of them do back handsprings and some even do flips, a complete somersault in the air.

How did they learn all this? Some were cheerleaders in junior high school, Kratz said. Some had gymnastic or dance training. And some simply picked it up in high school, honing it through daily workouts that continue through the summer.

But lately, cheerleading classes are opening up for even younger kids. Several local park and recreation departments offer classes for children 6 years and older.

Dilgard, who opened her center last June, takes children as young as 6. She teaches several levels of cheerleading, which include cheer motions, tumbling, dance and the more advanced stunts, pyramid building and spotting techniques.

Last week, she put a class of four girls, ages 9 to 11, through their paces, beginning with warm-up exercises. They stretched, then cranked out push-ups, splits and laps around California Sun Gymnastics, where she operates her center.

They practiced cheers that included splits in the air, back handsprings and something called a basket toss, in which one of the girls is thrown into the air and caught.

For Lauren Quick, 11, of Thousand Oaks, her goal was clear: "I just really want to be a cheerleader in high school."

But JoAnn Luce, 11, of Simi Valley had something else in mind. She hopes to go into individual competition--a newly developing area of competitive cheerleading.

It's a whole different cheerleading world than the one Dilgard grew up with. Now 49, she was a high school cheerleader in the San Francisco Bay Area. The four-member squad must have been pretty good because they were invited to cheer for the San Francisco 49ers during the 1961 season.

"We were the first cheerleaders they ever had," she said. It was all dance and pompoms then, no stunts.

Having studied dance from the age of 8, she went on to become a professional dancer, performing in television and movies. She also taught dance and aerobics. After marriage and two children, cheerleading became a distant memory until her daughter, now 24, got into it nearly 10 years ago.

"When I saw how much cheerleading had changed, I became involved again," she said. She upgraded her skills by going to cheerleading camps, learning safety techniques, including how to spot during stunts.

Since then, she has coached several award-winning youth, high school and college squads, she said.

She has taken squads to national competitions, but has backed off some from the pressure-filled world of competitive cheering, concentrating more on seeing that the kids have fun.

"But the kids want to go to competitions," she said. "I tell them, 'When you're ready I'll find something.' "

Simi Valley High School's squad was ready for the national competition in Anaheim last weekend, but that, in itself, was quite a feat. Because the Jan. 17 earthquake badly damaged the school, students were temporarily relocated to Royal High School.

"We lost our gym--we had no place to practice," Kratz said. But they found a church with a high ceiling. Nonetheless, practice dropped from two or three hours each day, except Sunday, to about 90 minutes three days a week.

"It's been tough," she said.

Like other public schools, team members have had to raise the money necessary for the group to perform. To cut costs, Kratz doesn't have them buy new uniforms each year. And they don't go to cheerleading summer camp every year. They attend about every three years so that the cheerleaders get one opportunity to go while they're in high school.

Despite all that, the squad is one of the top teams in Ventura County. Two years ago the girls placed third in the all-girl large squad varsity division at the national competition. Last year, they took fifth place.

What about the lack of boys on the team? Is cheerleading a girl thing? Not at some other schools. "We would love to have boys," Kratz said.


Here's a freebie for families. The Conejo Recreation and Park District is holding its "Eggstravaganza" on Saturday at the Conejo Creek play fields, across from the Thousand Oaks Library on East Janss Road. The featured entertainment is a musical group called The Happy Crowd, which will perform at 12:15 and 2:15 p.m. The carnival, which runs from noon to 3 p.m., includes egg hunts, games, pony rides and train rides.


* WHAT: Cheerleader Athletic Training Center

* WHERE: California Sun Gymnastics, 480-2 Easy St., Simi Valley.

* COST: Monthly fee ranges from $35 to $85, depending on whether enrollment is for one 75-minute class per week or five classes per week.

* FYI: Call 582-1333

* ETC.: Cheerleader classes are also available through Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District, Conejo Recreation and Park District.

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