In the aerobics room at my local gym, I practice side hurdlers and toe touches in front of the mirrored walls. My feet push off the ground and I swing my arms around, pull with my abs and whip my legs up and out. I rise only a pathetic inch or two off the floor before crashing down, landing with my sneakers sloppily separated. People from outside peek in periodically to see what all the thudding and groaning is about.
This isn't the first time I've prepared for a cheerleading tryout. For more than 14 years, that was my sport. And though I've been away from it for five years, I'm still ecstatic about cheering, and for good reason: I'm seeking a coaching position.
Most people assume that a 23-year-old female who still wants to yell, tumble and jump around in tiny shorts must be an obnoxiously spunky airhead. But you can't judge a cheerleader by her body glitter.
My introduction to the world of cheerleading came when I was 9 years old and a proud member of the "Comets" in Alton Park, Pennsylvania. I joined the youth recreation squad mostly because my friends made it look so alluring when they practiced their spread-eagle jumps at recess. I sported my blue-and-white pleated skirt and shook my plastic pom-poms with pride. But being a cheerleader involved more than that. I learned to move my prepubescent body, maximize my mousy voice, captivate a crowd and contribute to a team.
A year later I was old enough to join my Catholic elementary school's squad. The strict regulations of the Catholic Youth Organization required that we keep one foot on the ground at all times and that our conservative red-and-white skirts graze the tops of our knees. Maybe it was some kind of subconscious rebellion, but I once showed up to cheer at a basketball game having "forgotten" to wear my bloomers under my skirt.
My early cheerleading training served me well, teaching me the difference between a clap and a clasp and how to forcefully "snap" and "punch" high-V and low-V motions instead of merely striking poses. But it wasn't until my family moved to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, when I was 14 and began to attend public school, that my skills really soared. Unrestricted by church rules, I pushed off the shoulders of my bases -- the girls responsible for holding me high in the air -- and soared above their heads in a stunt called an extension.
At the end of the season, we soon-to-be-freshmen fought fiercely for three coveted positions on the high school's junior-varsity squad. Hard work and a natural knack for the sport earned me the spot on the squad and made me the envy of my peers. But the glory was short-lived. Within a few weeks, grueling summer practices began.
Under the hot sun, we worked ourselves to physical and mental exhaustion, preparing to attend a four-day National Cheerleading Association camp at Millersville University. We "threw up" difficult stunts and came crashing down on top of one another. Elbows slammed into heads, heads collided with noses, noses bled. Again and again, we tried to get our stunts to stick. Our arms and legs ached. Bases were bruised. Flyers were frustrated. Somehow, though, by the time we left for camp, we were looking polished and poised.
At Millersville University, it was tough to rise at six in the morning and stay "P-S-Y-C-H-E-D" until 10 at night. But it was inspiring to be surrounded by so many other young women who shared my passion and excitement for the sport. Besides working hard, we goofed around and cheered up injured or frustrated teammates with construction-paper megaphones. Cheerleading was still as much about making friends and earning team-spirit awards as it was about winning trophies.
My priorities changed in high school. As my skills developed, I began to care less about socializing and more about taking cheerleading seriously. Not everyone saw it this way. Many of the girls on my squad -- types who wore Daisy Duke short shorts and grooved to Jock Jams -- wasted valuable practice time revealing their crushes on various football players. I wore daisies in my hair, didn't shave my legs for an entire season, grooved to Phish -- and could barely name half the guys on the team.
Our divergent tastes in fashion, music and boys mirrored the contrasting ways we began to view cheerleading. Many of my squadmates appeared perfectly happy simply to support our school's male athletes. It seemed to bring them a sense of fulfillment to prepare for a big game by decorating the boys' lockers and buying them bags of candy. I wondered what their problem was. Why weren't we using that time to perfect our routines? Why was I spending money on a guy I hardly knew, and why didn't the players ever reciprocate when we cheerleaders were heading off for our own competitions?
Despite what some of my teammates and most of society thought, I believed cheerleading was for and about the cheerleaders. Even at football games, when I knew perfectly well that the crowd was primarily there to watch the boys on the field, I always felt as if it was actually our show. Was our team winning or losing? I didn't care; I'd just performed the best dance of my life.
By senior year, I couldn't take my teammates' ultra-girly idiosyncrasies any longer. I began bailing out on squad sleepovers and pizza parties. But I still gave it my all at practices, games and competitions. I was determined to prove that you can be a cheerleader and earn respect as an intelligent, hard-working female. When our school's administration finally considered us "athletes" enough to allow us to participate at the National Cheerleading Association competition in Dallas, I considered it a huge victory.
When I came to Burlington to attend the University of Vermont, I was disappointed that the school didn't have a squad. I knew I would miss cheering, but I didn't realize how much until I found myself entranced by the competitions broadcast on ESPN, performing my high school band dance when "Louie, Louie" came on the radio and yelling like a crazed Texas cheerleading mom at my younger sister's competitions.
Then, last month, a new youth cheerleading program in need of instructors offered me an opportunity to get back in the scream, so to speak. The self-contained Parks and Recreation-affiliated program is proof that the sport has come a long way since my high school days; being a cheerleader no longer requires having a boys' team to root for.
To train for the coaching tryout, I dug my beat-up maroon-and-white cheer sneakers out of the closet, put on my navy cotton shorts with "CHEER" written across the rear -- now reserved for sleeping -- and hit the gym. For two weeks I stretched every day, making my muscles feel like maxed-out rubber bands ready to snap.
My nearly nightly conditioning routine consisted of 100 crunches, 20 leg lifts on each side, as many pushups as I could stand, and these strange exercises that require you to lie on your back, hold onto the ankles of someone standing behind you for support, and use your abs to pull your legs up over your head in a straddle position. I also practiced several eight-counts of a dance set to music that started out enthusiastically, "It's party time!"
On the day of the tryout, my stomach twists and turns, just the way it did when I went out for my high school squad. But the thought of taking charge of my own team and sharing my enthusiasm and skills pumps me up to perform.
Inside the Burlington Community Boathouse, about a dozen contenders -- all but one of us women -- sit in a circle on the frigid floor. Most of my competitors appear to be in their late twenties and early thirties, a few a bit older than that. I'm surprised that the majority of them jeans. How can they jump in jeans?
I'm sporting my "CHEER" shorts, which leave my chalky-white legs on display for all to gawk at. But at least I look like a coach. When the program coordinators ask who is ready to perform, I'm proud to be the only one to pipe up. They tell me I don't have to exhibit my routine, but there's no way I'm going to let all my hard work go to waste.
"Ready," I begin, then pause. "Check us out, stand up and shout," I belt boisterously, punching out sharp motions. I execute my jumps with good height, full extension, pointed toes and clean landings. With just a slight motion mess-up, I finish the cheer with a victorious left-lunge.
After nailing the tryout and getting the job, my next challenge is to choreograph cheers, dances and stunts for 40-some kids, ages 4 to14. For inspiration, I attend a regional competition at Essex High School.
I'm not expecting much; the farther north you travel, the less developed the sport seems to be. But the sight of 36 squads battling it out on the blue spring-floor shocks me, and the fans squished shoulder-to-shoulder on the wooden bleachers show me that Vermont has caught the spirit.
The squads that usually stick to the gym's sidelines take center court tonight and elicit screams from the crowd with their technical, high-energy routines. During one number, three cheerleaders entice the fans with signs that read "GO," "FIGHT" and "WIN." The crowd reacts in a sort of mass hysteria.
Still, not everyone gets it. Over fast-paced, bass-thumping music I hear a girl behind me complain to her father, "I've been with cheerleaders all day. Cheerleaders. Loud, annoying, girly, screaming, laughing, curling-their-hair, squirting-hairspray-in-your-eye cheerleaders." I laugh. There is some truth to her generalizations, I think, remembering the Bring It On types I resented on my high school squad. But looking beyond the bouncing ringlet ponytails and sparkling body glitter, I see athletes here trying to win and to have fun trying, and I can't wait to be a part of it all over again.