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Sis boom bah

by Brian Clarey

The ticket line at NewBridge Bank Park wends around the corner and halfway down the block. A sizable crowd is building — not Willie Nelson numbers, but not bad, considering the Grasshoppers are in West Virginia playing the Power, it is 100 degrees outside even at 6 p.m., according to my dashboard thermometer, and the gates just opened about 10 minutes ago.

They’re streaming through them already, dozens of them, hundreds, maybe more. In the end, about 3,000 will pass through the ballpark this night for the NewBridge Invitational Football and Cheerleading Jamboree, more than any given precinct in the city will draw for the next general election.

Most of them tonight are teenage girls in double-knit short skirts and varsity tanks — high school cheerleaders, 23 teams worth, in from five counties of the Triad. And you should see ’em go — coiled springs of athleticism and pep, every last one.

They’re pacing the concession ring now in small, uniformed clusters, working off nervous energy, stretching, bouncing from one end to another.

On the field a team gathers into a scrum then hurls one of their own into the air, perhaps 20 feet, where she flexes and twists before dropping back to earth where her teammates soften her descent with a cradle catch.

It’s an amazing display of organized strength and grace, and it illustrates perfectly why cheering should be taken seriously.

It’s easy to make fun of cheerleaders — as vacuous mean girls or cartoonishly exuberant prom-mongers or vixens who are always getting gym teachers fired. But here in the flesh, on the grass, all the stereotypes recede and the institution of cheerleading is put in proper perspective.

Like jazz music and the comic book, cheerleading is an American invention, begun in 1898 at the University of Minnesota by a dude named Johnny Campbell — in the beginning, all cheerleaders were men — who led fans of the Golden Gophers on organized cheers and formed a squad of “yell leaders.”

Women joined the ranks in 1923, and more or less took over the sport during World War II. Thank God.

Notice I call it a sport — there’s some controversy there, because the sport is supposed to be the thing down on the field for which the cheerleaders are actually cheering. But to see these girls in action is to witness sport in every aspect of the word. Acrobatics. Dancing. That thing where they toss the girl in the air. These are acts of athleticism worthy of a platform diver, shotputter, a volleyball team.

There are cheering scholarships, cheering camps, cheering profes sionals.

Entire companies are devoted to uniforms, accoutrements and culture — one, Varsity Spirit Corp., boasts more than $240 million in sales annually. That’s a lot of pom-poms.

And there are competitions like this one happening all over the country, with participants as young as 5 years old. Tonight’s contest has rules, just like any sport. Routines may not exceed three minutes, and each must include a cheering or chanting portion. The five judges, all former or current UNC cheerleaders, will analyze each routine for fundamental skills, ability to engage the audience and overall performance.

Here to root on the high school squads, the crowd outside the gates has grown so thick that the first round is delayed nearly an hour as parents pack the house. And there’s even a high school football team here, in game jerseys, to return the favor for the girls who cheer them on.

The cheerleaders are up in the stands along the third base line, a patchwork quilt of red, green, navy, maroon, gold and aquamarine, and the Reidsville Rams are representing, busting out a call-and-response chant and dancing in time.

They’ve got the spirit, yes they do. In the first round, the girls make a strong case for cheering as a sport.

Each routine is a burst of screaming energy, an aerobic workout.

Take the first group, the Green Dragons of West Davidson High, a dozen or so pep-balls with strong pipes and great posture. They’ve got the choreography — much of modern cheerleading is pretty much hiphop dancing — and a couple of decent tumblers, but they’re not quite in sync and their pyramids are a bit wobbly.

The East Forsyth Fighting Eagles nearly drop a pyramid and a couple tumblers almost collide. The South Davidson Wildcats come on strong but lose steam during their traditional cheer.

Like all good sports, cheerleading is hard. And it’s exhilarating. Like when the Carver High School Yellow Jackets entrain a serious beat without the benefit of recorded music, or when the Glenn High Bobcats fling their tiniest member soaring 20, 30 feet into the air or the McMichael Fighting Phoenix absolutely nail their pyramids and one executes a perfect scorpion. At least I think it’s a scorpion.

At the end of the day, the Ledford High Panthers win the day for the second year in a row, while the verve-y Rams of Reidsville capture the Spirit Award for the third time in as many years.

The boys’ event is next week, held at high school football fields throughout the Triad. Count on the cheerleaders to show up.

The football portion of the NewBridge Bank Invitational Football and Cheerleading jamboree will be held on Friday night at West Davidson High School in Lexington, Mount Tabor High School in Winston Salem and Rockingham County High School in Reidsville. All scrimmages begin at 5 p.m. For more information go to www.newbridgebankjamboree.com.

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