Nickia Jackson had heard all about what cheerleaders are supposed to be like: "They're easy and they're loose and they're ding-y and they don't take care of business."
But it didn't stop the 16-year-old Crenshaw High School senior from trying out and making the squad. In fact, it's the reason she tried out.
"I did it to get rid of the misconceptions. I'm not ding-y, and last year I had a 3.8 GPA and this year I have two [advanced placement] classes. When I tried out, my mother told me that cheerleaders don't have good reputations. I told her, 'I'm not going to have that reputation because I'm not a typical cheerleader.' You can be a strong woman and have goals and aspirations and still be a cheerleader."
High school is nothing like it was 20 years ago, thanks to the advent of metal detectors, drive-by shootings, AIDS and splintered families. But cheerleaders--and their reputation as stuck-up, perennially perky airheads in short skirts--are still with us. At first glance, cheerleading seems like an activity straight out of Ozzie and Harriet.
Look again. Cheerleading has become more athletic, more competitive, more demanding and more expensive as it has evolved from an extracurricular activity with pompoms to an actual sport. At some schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, cheerleaders can get a sports letter.
"There's been more emphasis on the competitive aspect in past years," says Jeff Webb, CEO of Memphis-based Varsity Spirit Corp., which runs cheerleading camps, sells merchandise and sponsors competitions around the country. "A lot of the growth in cheerleading has come from the suburbs . . . all the parks and recreational cheerleading teams, like Pop Warner. We have nearly 200,000 kids participating in camps across the country. There's a lot of visibility and a lot of popularity." In fact, participation has doubled in the last 15 years.
Still, from East L.A. to the Westside, the stereotypes prevail.
"People think cheerleaders are conceited and they don't talk to anybody, or they're all into football players," says Norma Carranza, a 17-year-old senior at Garfield High School. "I think once you get to know the person, then you can tell the difference. People talk to me, and they say, 'You're not like the stereotype,' and I say, 'Not a lot of us are like that, once you get to know us.' "
Within LAUSD, the number of people trying out has remained fairly constant over the last several years, an age of cynicism if there ever was one. But despite this enthusiasm, cheerleaders sometimes feel they bear the brunt of student apathy--just because they wear the uniform.
"Anything that goes on the field, the spirit squad gets blamed for it," says Alexis E. Troy, a 17-year-old senior at University High School in West L.A. "Anything that goes down, it's our fault, no matter what."
"It would be different if the morale at this school was better," adds her teammate, 17-year-old senior Leah Whaley-Holmes. "But we're just trinkets. If we weren't [at the games], they're not going to say, 'Where are the cheerleaders?' because they don't care. We don't get the respect that I think we deserve."
What's the source of all this disrespect? Most cheerleaders sum it up in one word: jealousy.
Says Femi Porter, a 16-year-old Crenshaw High senior and cheerleader: "Most of the time it's the people who tried out and didn't make it that are putting the cheerleaders down."
"As soon as you become a cheerleader," says 16-year-old Crenshaw high junior Charisma Bailey, "they think you've changed, that you're better than everybody. We're just normal girls showing our school spirit."
And the reaction from those who judge from the bleachers? Willie Vasher, a 17-year-old Crenshaw High senior, says, "I don't think there's anything wrong with what they're doing, they're supporting the players. But some people feel it's dumb, that it's not a real sport. People think they're ding-y and stuff, but I know for a fact they're not. I'm in the gifted program, and so are a lot of the girls."
"They're pretty down-to-earth," says Nsilo Welsh, a 17-year-old University High senior. "I know some of them. Some think they're all that and whatever, but most of them are pretty cool, not airheads like most people think."
And while he likes the cheerleaders' routines at games, he adds: "I think they're there for motivation, but I see them as like decorations on the dinner table."
Says 17-year-old Chastity Masters, a senior at University: "They could be better, they could have more rhythm and more spirit. [When they're cheering] they look like they want to get it over with. . . . I feel like they think they're better than everybody else. Sometimes they're in the classes I have, and I don't talk to them, but you can just tell--actions speak louder than words."