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Give Me an . . . Ow!

October 18, 1998|Debra J. Hotaling

"Heyyyy, burrito! Hey, hey, hey, burrito! Taco Bell, Taco Bell! Guacamole, cinnamon twist! Whooooh!" The estrogen-infused roar is deafening: hundreds of jumping, shouting, bouncing girls on their feet, chanting a fast-food menu as if they really mean it.

At the National Cheerleaders Assn. camp, a kind of funk 'n' spunk preseason training for local junior high and high school squads held four times a year at UCLA, such menu mantras are not unusual. Think boot camp, only with smiles. During the course of four days, the girls (only a handful of boys attend) tackle ground-up liberties, death-defying herkie jumps and rotating fan pyramids with the cool eye and precision footwork of well-trained Marines.

"Pull that leg in!" order strolling college-age instructors. "Snap that arm to your ear!" Knots of teenagers in strappy tees and matching ribboned hair dutifully comply.

"Schools today consider cheerleading more of a sport than they used to," says Tammy Martinez, who helps manage a half dozen camps at California college campuses. She escorts me to the group of girls from Desert Christian High School in Lancaster that's perfecting its ground-up liberty. Each girl is a base (the holder) or a flyer (the hold-ee), depending on size and experience. "I've been a base ever since I started cheering in the eighth grade," says Kimi Behnke, a senior.

A moment later, Behnke and three other bases surround their flyer, grab her feet and ankles, then hoist her smoothly into the air. Watching her in the clouds, her arm raised like Lady Liberty, I try to think of someone--anyone--whom I would trust enough to launch me into the air. No one comes to mind.

"OK, let's take her down," says one girl. "One, two . . . three." Something goes wrong. The flyer lands hard on the ground, the wind knocked out of her. "She's not crying," says one teammate. "She just needs to breathe." The flyer gets up. Slowly.

"People don't think cheer is hard work," observes a Bakersfield participant. "They don't see the elbows to the face, the foot in the eye. Before I took up cheer, I swam as a sport. But even swimming, I never got this sore." And she never had to do it smiling.

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