Titans of the mat: Inside SMC cheer

At nearly every football game, near the salivating crowds and fanatical cultists rooting for their favorite team, are the cheerleaders. So stereotyped and sexualized has the image of the cheerleader become, that it is easy to forget the artistry, aerobic skill and physical endurance that comes with the title. While the ads, movies and sports magazines have turned female cheerleaders in particular into display dolls for daydreams, cheerleading itself is a dedicated activity, one which would be officially recognized as a sport if there was any sense of fair play in this world.

At the Santa Monica College Corsair Pavillion on Monday evenings, the SMC cheer team trains and prepares not only to entertain crowds at campus games, but to compete. With the fevered drive of Mongol warriors, the cheerleaders, both male and female, stretch, tumble, sweat, practice and attempt to perform routines into beacons of precision.

"It's difficult, we're getting our routine ready for nationals," said Tiffany Smith, in-between training runs. "Tumbling is gymnastics, aerial gymnastics and landing on the floor, back flips, cartwheels." For those who claim cheerleading is not a sport, Smith said, "they have to come in and actually try it. They don't know until they try it. I have plenty of friends who try it and say 'that is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do.' It's a difficult sport."

It is surprising to discover that cheerleading actually began as an all male affair. The very first cheerleader was a gentleman of the name Johnny Campbell, who in 1898, directed a crowd ,out of sheer devotion to his University of Minnesota football team, to chant an organized cheer. Thus, cheerleading was born. Soon after the University of Minnesota organized a "yell leader" squad composed of six males. If the Romans cheered on the bloody combat of the Coliseum, then our (somewhat) more civilized age would then organize the cheering of our rugged national sport. This is an astounding fact when considering that statistics calculated 97% of all cheerleaders are female today.

In the SMC gym, coach Jessie Moorehead drills her team with the intense passion of both an army commander and film director. She is forming these men and women into not just efficient cheerleaders, but into healthy, robust athletes. As the cheerleaders form rows and do sit ups, stretches and other warm ups, Moorehead explains that there are various levels of cheerleading, which accounts for some of the confusion over classifying it as a sport. For example, before her tenure at SMC, cheerleading was just that, cheering. Under her direction, Moorehead's program is now competitive.

"They did a few cute dances, and they were cute kids, and I prefer to run a competitive program," explained Moorehead, "they might not be exactly where I need them but that's why I'm working them so hard. I want them to be healthy, fun and educated," she said.

"Flexibility and strength training are fundamental to any sport success," said Moorehead in explaining the need to prepare the body thoroughly for cheerleading.

When it comes to the classification of cheerleading as a sport, Moorehead feels it isn't a battle worth arguing about at the moment. "I can say that in any other country, it is considered a sport," she adds.

Observing the training of the SMC cheer team, it is hard not to consider this a sport. The participants must build strength both in the upper and lower body regions in order to perform such tasks as lifting a team member with one arm, twirling in the air and catching someone in free fall.

"There is not a physical brink where they might reach, but there is an emotional one," said Moorehead when contemplating the sheer focus and energy it takes to craft a functioning, tight team beginning as early as May.

"They're job is to control other bodies to do maneuvers. It is common that you'll find people from other sports who come in here thinking that it's easy, not realizing that it's not as easy as it seems doing what we do," said Moorehead.

When asked what men find more difficult to do as cheerleaders than women, Moorehead said "listen" before cracking a smiling and acknowledging that she was joking.

Man or woman, cheerleading is a delicate art of coordination. Moorehead stated that some people are either coordinated or not, which is not to say an individual cannot improve, but it takes a lot of practice.

And while the crowds and fans will gather over the weekend to cheer on the Corsair football team as it attempts to pillage another opponent on the field, the eyes in the stands should pay close consideration to the fellow athletes performing on the sidelines, donned in color and ribbons, but no less skilled and tough as the specimens rushing across the yard line.