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THE SCENE / ORANGE COUNTY

Pep and Circumstance : Whether you believe the stereotypes or resent them, give a little yell. Cheerleading used to be considered just froufrou and frosting, but it has evolved into a sport emphasizing advanced gymnastic and dance skills.

November 25, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As youth cultures go, few others have as long, as dedicated and as controversial a tradition as cheerleading.

General perceptions position cheerleaders somewhere between beauty pageant queens and models. They're admired as much as they're jeered. Cheerleaders are the embodiment of the all-American sweetheart to some, pretty young things in short skirts who garnish the sidelines while the tough guys have it out on the field. To others, they're the feminist foe.

The stereotype is that they are forever effervescent (translation: airheaded) and elitist (catty) and always dress and act the same (conformist).

Headlines in recent years haven't helped the image. Consider the Texas mother who conspired to attempt murder on a cheerleader because her own teen-age daughter didn't make the squad. Costs for uniforms and training camps, which can run into hundreds of dollars, compelled one Newport Harbor High senior to file suit against the district last month. The case reinforces popular opinion that cheer squads are open only to those who can afford to join them.

And what's a cheerleader to do when she hangs up her pompons? The joke is that she either becomes a trophy wife or, if she's forced to, takes a career as an aerobics instructor, fly-girl dancer or a pop diva on MTV.

"We're 'froufrou' girls, and all we do is jump around and say, 'Yeah!' We're just in a skirt to get popular," says Santa Margarita High senior Jeannie Naughton. "No one ever says, 'Oh, those football players are so cliquey.' " To describe the 17-year-old's words as sardonic is an understatement.

"That kind of thinking makes me so mad," adds Jeannie, who, for the record, has a 4.1 grade point average. When she gets to college, she says, "if someone asked me, 'What were you like in high school?' I wouldn't say I was a cheerleader. With that word comes a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions that I wouldn't want someone to connect with me."

But the role of cheerleading is changing in today's high school life.

Nearly 1,000 young women and men participate in high school cheer squads in Orange County alone. Although no exact figures exist, the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. in Tennessee and American Sports Data in New York estimate an additional 1.6 to 1.8 million do so nationwide.

Mainstream cheer has evolved into a sport emphasizing advanced gymnastic and dance skills with year-round practice sessions that regularly run 15 to 20 hours a week. Summer vacation is no time to rest, with daily classes in gymnastics and cheer, as well as off-campus cheer camps. With a schedule that rivals that of the sports they're there to support, cheerleading never goes out of season.

Athletic-wear companies have recognized the trend by designing high-performance uniforms from futuristic fabrics, and Reebok and Nike have developed cheerleading shoes. But while corporate America is cashing in, not everyone is rallying around its new incarnation.

Many parents and high school sports fans believe cheerleaders should limit their role to sideline support.

Jessica Hong, 16, a junior at Esperanza High in Anaheim, knows this attitude too well. Despite taking first place in three divisions on the national level, her team's accomplishments went unrecognized by the school.

"People just don't care," Jessica says.

"We're not some little campus club," she adds. "We put in so much work for our school. We have injuries as bad as other athletes."

Indeed, taped wrists, splints and massive bruises are common; at a recent Esperanza event, two members of another school's squad walked around in matching leg casts.

Jeannie, whose team at Santa Margarita High last year placed first in the state championship and fifth in the all-girls varsity division nationally, concedes that "it's an ongoing debate. We don't get the kind of respect we deserve when we work just as hard as athletes in other sports. We're not just pretty accessories."

*

There is a theater to cheerleading that embraces costumes, cosmetics, posturing and the overall image that is as integral to the performance as an actor's.

When hundreds of competitors showed up for the the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. regional championships at UC Irvine earlier this month, most came with clumps of pink or green rollers in their hair, layers of makeup perfectly applied to their fresh faces and bags filled with beauty tools.

The Bren Center foyer became a mass dressing room, where whole squads set up temporary camp to add finishing touches. Some literally changed into uniforms, precariously, without revealing anything. A pleated skirt was shimmied into over leggings, the leggings then slipped off. A Lycra mock turtle neck was pulled through the neck of a huge sweat shirt serving as a kind of body tent while the Lycra shirt was carefully squeezed into.

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