I first noticed Olympic cheerleaders at the 2008 Beijing games. At the time, they seemed oddly out of place for a few reasons. For starters, I thought the basic reason for cheerleaders was to work up the crowd, but are Olympic spectators so bored that they need entertaining to keep their spirits up? Secondly, I thought the purpose for cheerleaders was to support a specific team, but these seemed to just be out there to dance around (the shift between cheering and dancing will be discussed later). Finally, I guess if the purpose was just to be an attractive diversion, it seemed odd that the cheerleaders came out during the beach volleyball event where the contestants already were wearing skimpy outfits.
All of these questions led me to explore, just where did cheerleading come from in the first place? It may surprise many to learn that the first cheerleaders were not women, but men, and it didn't originate in a warm weather location, but in frigid Minnesota.
Although Princeton University is recognized as having the earliest crowd cheers, it wasn't until November 12, 1898, that a University of Minnesota student, Johnny Campbell, became the world's first recognized cheerleader when he directed the crowd during a game against Northwestern using the cheer, "Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-u-mah, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!" Other universities quickly caught on and by the next season, cheer squads had been formed at a number of schools.
The 1899 University of Kansas Cheer Squad
The primary purpose of these early cheer squads was to motivate the crowd and encourage the team particularly when enthusiasm began to wain. Many of the earliest cheerleaders were selected primarily for their energy and loud voices. Megaphones were their primary accessory and looks certainly weren't a consideration.
A 1909 Ohio State Cheerleader
Cheerleading remained largely male dominated in the earliest years as men typically had the loudest voices.
The 1913 University of Puget Sound Cheer Squad
As schools began to officially organize cheer squads, preppy outfits in school colors soon followed. By the 1920s, women began joining cheer squads. As their voices weren't generally as strong, but as they were usually lighter and more flexible, they became more often used in the jumps and stunts in increasingly mixed squads.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, women began joining cheer squads in increasing numbers and of course during World War II many of the men were away in the military, so a gender shift naturally occurred in larger numbers.
The person most responsible for cheerleading as we know it today was Lawrence "Herkie" Herkimer, a cheerleader at Southern Methodist University, who formed the first cheerleaders association in 1948 (National Cheerleaders Association) and held the first cheerleading camp. Herkie is also credited with creating a number of traditional cheerleading acrobatics and adding many elements we associate with traditional cheerleading today, including: patenting the pom pon (now often called the pom pom), the first uniform company, the spirit stick and of course the classic cheerleading jump – the Herkie.
Lawrence Herkimer doing his Herkie Jump
As more women became involved in gymnastics in the 1960s and 70s, ever increasing acrobatic maneuvers were introduced into cheerleading, but just as it was gaining recognition as an athletic endeavor, the Dallas Cowboys football team greatly increased the sexualization of cheer in 1972 by introducing its first all female squad with the smallest outfits ever.
The CowBelles & Beaux, Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders from the 1960s
1972 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders
National television played a big role in popularizing the image of the Cowboys Cheerleaders and other teams soon copied their model. As cheerleading became seen as an exclusively female role and as the outfits became increasingly more revealing, men mostly dropped out of cheerleading.
Which brings us to where we are today. I see cheerleading going two directions. There is a 1950s and 60s version of cheerleading which is what most of our high schools perform. This is an increasingly athletic and acrobatic sport. Then there is a more recent dance type of cheerleading where it is usually very little cheering and it's primarily a group of women dressed in revealing outfits dancing for the crowd.
Our local university, Cal Poly, has two cheerleading squads, neither of which they call cheerleaders. One is the Cal Poly Stunt Team (these are the ones in skirts and bows in their hair) and the other is the Cal Poly Dance Team. Both perform at the same events. You can see the difference in this video where they're performing at the same time:
I don't go to many sports events, but when I do if I'm unlucky enough to be seated closer to the play and cheerleaders or dancers suddenly come out and start performing right in front of me, it certainly makes me uncomfortable. I know they've put a lot of hard work into their routines, so I don't want to be rude and ignore them, but I really don't want to watch a bunch of people I don't know in tiny outfits dancing right in front of me either.
Which brings me back to the Olympics. I watch the Olympics for the sport, so it seems strange to see more events gaining cheerleaders. One of my questions is if beach volleyball wants to be taken seriously, do they really think it's so dull that they need to liven things up with a bunch of cheerleader performances. Another thing I wonder about is how do they pick the sports to add cheerleading to? Here in America it started with Football in which the play stops so often that it really could use something to keep the crowd rooting, but why not ping pong (heck, I'll bet you have a hard time even seeing what's going on if you're watching from the actual stadium).
So what's my solution? Make cheerleading a real Olympic sport with real rules. That way, they won't feel like they need to include it at the sidelines of other sports. And while they're at it, why not bring back Tug-of-War? It would be really neat to see what country produces the strongest squad.
Oh, and one last thing about that image problem with cheerleading. Perhaps you may not know this but we've already had one go on and become President of the United States...
George W. Bush was the head cheerleader during his high school days at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.