Thursday, November 27, 2008

America's Saintsations cheerleaders bring their wholesome good cheer to the UK 

Posted by Sasha at 9:38 AM ET

By Celia Walden
The Telegraph
25 Nov 2008

Bethany is as honey-glazed and all-American as blueberry pie. In a gold lame vest top and black hot pants, she is one of five nymphs sitting in a prettily disordered semi-circle around me.

US Saintsations cheerleaders have come to the UK to dispel some myths surrounding their on and off-field activities
Photo: Jeff Gilbert

They are members of the Saintsations, one of the US's most famous cheerleading teams, all twenty eight of which have travelled from New Orleans to London to spread their message last month — and support the New Orleans Saints in their NFL game.

"Being a cheerleader is about more than dancing on the side-lines cheering," Bethany says in the sweet, nasal, faintly questioning tones one might expect. "It's about spreading good cheer - literally, which people could do with at the moment. And you know what? We don't actually cheer. We never have done."

There are a lot of preconceptions surrounding cheerleading - that bizarre US-born mix of dance and gymnastics which now boasts 11,000 disciples across the UK and is being steadily assimilated into cultures across the world - some true, many not. It's quintessentially American, and, like all quintessentially American things, provokes a mix of derision and unbridled fascination.

"It's their otherness," says the photographer philosophically, as we discuss the reason for their appeal beforehand. An hour later, his lens pointed tremulously towards Bethany, Ashlyn and a handful of Amandas as they shake their stuff, I'm thinking the reasons may be less lofty.

The cheerleaders practise their moves ahead of the NFL match between the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium
Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Several things have recently contrived to give cheerleading a more established place in our consciousness: the Olympics, the High School Musical phenomenon (breeding in young girls a fervent desire for exotic not-entirely-wholesome High School experiences like pom-pom shaking and reaching "second-base" with quarterbacks at keg parties) and those pictures of David Beckham, looking straight past his shapeless wife at the bouncing curves of a cheerleader at an LA Lakers game back in May. David, just like us, was mesmerised by the girls, risking the wrath of his invidious wife to gorge on one last eyeful.

"People, especially here in the UK, are intrigued by us because we're mysterious," says Amanda T, one of the least enigmatic girls I've ever met. "People don't quite understand the point of what we do abroad because mostly they've never met a cheerleader in their lives, but we visited a school in London yesterday and the girls all said that they would love to learn cheerleading if given the opportunity, so it's definitely catching on."

Earlier that week, the Saintsations performed at Cardiff football club. Predictably, the reaction was rapturous.

"They really loved it," says Ashlyn, baring racks of white teeth. "I think the English fans would actively want more cheerleading in football. It would certainly help diffuse any fights, that's for sure." A ripple of knowing laughter spreads through the group. "They'd be concentrating on other things," giggles Bethany.

The girls see themselves as modern day Vera Lynns, using their positions on the team to work with numerous charities
Photo: Jeff Gilbert

They enjoy sending themselves up, but for Ashlyn, Bethany, Dianne and the Amanda's, cheerleading was always more than a hobby or part-time job — what it technically is now.

All dancers from as young as five, the girls see it as a higher calling, a literal spreading of happiness like ENSA during the war. Only these girls are busy pursuing different careers in the meantime. Dianne is a medical student, Amanda S is studying marketing and accounting, Bethany T is a biology student, while Amanda T, the rookie of the bunch who has not yet been with the Saintsations a year, is a Film and TV graduate.

Far from being human Barbies, or, as one critic described them, "pole-dancers without the tips", these girls are all high-achievers, something they are known for in the US but which has been lost in typecasting overseas.

"Most cheerleaders work hard at school and because lots of us aspire to have a career in human relations, we see it as an activity which will help our future careers," says Dianne, who has the PR patter down to a fine art. "The rewards are not just on the field - they're about being role models for young girls in the community. We aspire to making a positive impact." "We're great role models because we're such well-rounded individuals," adds wide-eyed Amanda T, "and we take care of our bodies so in terms of feminism we're cheerleaders for that as well."

Cheerleaders as modern-day feminists championing their sex? That might cause a cough and a splutter from the Germaine Greers of the world. According to feminist author Kate Orman, what the girls do can be reduced to "providing sexual entertainment for men at sports events". "Give me a B," reads a website entirely devoted to a pathological hatred of cheerleaders. "Give me an I. Give me and M. Give me a B. Give me an O." But when I tell the girls about they site, they laugh it off. "People call us names but it just rolls right off us," shrugs Dianne.

The Saintsations range from a UK size 8-12 and are aged between 18-28
hoto: Jeff Gilbert

"Cheerleading is an art form - or a combination between sport and art. We're just as much of an important part of the game as the players, besides which, because we actually go out and shake hands with the fans, we serve as ambassadors too."

There's a lot of talk of "giving back to the community," a notion I at first find ridiculous, until I realise that the girls really do see themselves as modern day Vera Lynns, using their positions on the team to work with numerous charities, including helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina, in which a member of the Saintsations lost everything.

"My aunt was a cheerleader," chirps Amanda S. "Seeing all the things that she achieved - how well-educated she was and how she ended up working for the Governor's office in Louisiana - made me see cheerleading as a big part of her accomplishments, not just something pretty girls did in school."

"Of course there are some moves that are sexy, 'crowd-pleasers' if you like," interjects Dianne, "because we do have to keep up with what's new in terms of choreography, but what we do is not in the realms of the pole-dancer. Beads of perspiration break out on the photographer's forehead as he wonders whether we'll be treated to the "crowd pleasers" later on. "But remember," chimes in Bethany, "there are kids in the crowds so it needs to stay family viewing."

Cheerleading didn't always have the libidinous associations it has now. Born in the US in the late 1880s as an all-male activity, the word was simply used to describe the organised cheers which went up during university football games. Women only began to participate in 1923, largely because of the lack of collegiate sports available to them, hence the incorporation of gymnastics, "tumbling" and megaphones. Today it is estimated that 97 per cent of cheerleaders are female - with famous former members including Madonna, Beyoncé and Janet Jackson.

The US-born mix of dance and gymnastics that is cheerleading now boasts 11,000 disciples across the UK
Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Feminist rants aside, there are more logical, parental concerns about the sport: cheerleading is frequently blamed for promoting low self-esteem in young women as they go through their most fragile pubescent years. Yet these five girls (though all above averagely good-looking) are not identikit white, blonde teenagers. They range from a UK size 8-12 and, though limited to four years on the team, are aged between 18-28. "People expect us to be cookie-cutter shapes," explains Dianne, "but that's another stereotype. We're all real women: you don't have to be a certain height to be a cheerleader or have a certain hair-colour or a certain look. Yes we have to be careful what we eat, because we have outfits that, you know, show things off, but it's not all brown rice and vegetables."

The image, peddled by American films, that cheerleaders are always the most beautiful and popular at school, is also myth, say the team.

"I wasn't at all popular," explains Amanda T. "Actually I was a real outcast because I was always dancing, so I missed out on a lot of social activities. I don't think cheerleading gives girls low self-esteem," she shrugs. "Everybody goes through an ugly duckling phase - I know I did."

Now, the girls' perfect, bubble-gum good-looks can cause problems of their own. "We have to keep them tightly regulated when it comes to men," the team manager, Royce Mitchell, tells me as the girls bound off like pups held inside too long, and start limbering up for their rehearsal. "They have bodyguards around them just in case. As you can imagine, they do attract a fair amount of attention." My question - do they ever get involved with the American footballers? - is met with an ardent shaking of the head. "No - that's a big no, no. They do their stuff on the side-lines and that's it. There's strictly no communication between the two."

The popular High School Musical series has fueled a surge in cheerleading
Photo: Jeff Gilbert

As we speak a tiny silver bomber jacket is being slipped over my shoulders, and I am handed two gigantic pom-poms and instructed to grip the metal handles hidden within the balls of tinsel. "No, no," I explain gently, "I'm just here to watch..." but it's too late: loud syncopated music fills the gym and I am ordered to throw my leg to the right, to the left, twist and turn until I'm laughing so hard at my own, chronically disjointed reflection, that I am forced to pull over to the sidelines.

"The rush," Bethany tells me later, flushed and still breathing heavily, "of running out onto that field to the applause, is unbeatable. If ever I get tired, I just look up at the fans and that gives me the energy to carry on. It's pretty nice to have a job, nowadays, that's just about making people smile."

As the photographer and I walk off, both for our respective reasons still chuckling, I think I know what she means.

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