We’re gymnasts too: just no bars, no beam, no vault.” Few lines in the history of pop culture sum up the general public’s opinion on cheerleading better than this quote from the pinnacle of all cheerleading movies. But just how close does that series come to the realities of competitive cheerleading?
When most people think of cheerleading, it’s easy to picture a lot of jumping up and down on the sideline of someone else’s game, waving pom-poms around. The reality of competitive cheerleading is that it requires intensive training and outstanding ability to perform at exceptionally high levels, and the team spends far more time competing in their own right than encouraging spectators for other games. That’s not to say the Oxford Sirens, the University’s own cheerleading squad, don’t enjoy supporting their fellow athletes or that they don’t give outstanding performances when they cheer at the rally for the Summer VIIIs race.
But it’s imperative to recognize the sheer amount of effort and talent that goes into cheerleading as a sport. The Oxford Sirens start most days with an early morning practice session, proving that you can work out during the dawning hours of the day without whining to everyone else about it (rowers, we’re looking at you.)
Training usually breaks down into conditioning, stretching, and of course, learning the routine. Conditioning is essential, as a majority of nationally competitive routines involve moderate to intense tumbling and stunting. All members of the squad need to be able to perform tumbling at a standard appropriate to the level they have been placed in. For example, Level Three, which is considered an “intermediate” level, requires knowledge of a round-off, a front and back handspring, and a back tuck, according to the British Cheerleading Association.
Furthermore, squad members also spend time performing stunts, either as part of a general routine or as part of a shortened routine consisting solely of back-to-back stunt segments (general routines also include tumbling and dance segments). Stunts vary in difficulty, with teams competing in Levels Five and Six allowed basket tosses with twisting rotations, flips, and inversions. Stunts can also be static lifts; that is, a flyer held in one position to showcase flexibility and balance (hence the stretching sessions), or pyramids with multiple flyers to form intricate structures.
Cheerleading squads are very close knit, with most members of teams citing trust – not talent, flexibility or experience – as the most essential quality for a cheerleading team to cultivate. This holds especially true for flyers, one of whom pointed out that the biggest differences between gymnastics and cheerleading, despite their numerous similarities, is the reliance on and trust that you have to place in your teammates. As a flyer, you have to trust that your bases will throw and catch you correctly, allowing you to perform the stunt safely, making it a skill ultimately far more valuable than the ability to do a layout.
So, how does all of this training pay off? During 2015, the Oxford Sirens attended three major university competitions in addition to cuppers and the Summer VIIIs performance. The cuppers competition is a good way for people unfamiliar with the sport to give it a try, while the Summer VIIIs give the Sirens a chance to showcase their skills and keep everyone excited throughout the course of the races. The highlights of the season are, of course, the competitions, with Oxford cheering at competitions hosted by Birmingham and Exeter in addition to Varsity.
The Sirens boast a wide range of levels, from beginners all the way up to advanced and experienced cheerleaders competing at Levels Five and Six. Thanks to the standard of training that the Sirens commit themselves to, Oxford generally makes entries in both the co-ed routine division and the stunting division. They have historically performed well in both of those categories,taking first place at the Spring Spirit Sensation last year.
When I asked a friend what the hardest thing about cheerleading was, her reply was almost instantaneous: “the smiling.” Having never cheered myself, I didn’t want to contradict her, but I was nevertheless incredulous, having just watched her perform 14 consecutive backflips. When I asked her to clarify this for me, she said that was exactly the point; it wasn’t the exertion that was the most challenging for her, but the pressure to make it look effortless and glamorous at the same time.
Cheerleaders have to smile while they tumble, dance, and get thrown in the air; maintain a facade of positivity even if their team is losing the match by 40+ points; and keep the spectators involved regardless of the length of the race.
Cheering is a sport that is as aesthetically demanding as it is physically, and maintaining the illusion of ease is imperative to a cheerleader’s success. The Oxford Sirens are a lot more than a way to foster enthusiasm for other sports. They’re outstandingly talented, committed, and driven athletes that have distinguished themselves on numerous occasions, and deserve plenty of support in their own right. Let’s get pumped for the 2016 season, and cheer on our cheerleaders.