I first became aware of cheerleaders when I was in junior high school. The only requirements for achieving this envied status seemed to be that you look adorable in the short skirt, baggy sweater and saddle-shoes, and that you could jump up and down, yell a lot, and generally attract attention. I didn’t know, at the time, that cheerleaders were required to audition for the role. These were called “try-outs” and girls practiced, along with their friends, for weeks ahead of time. They hoped to land the right to hover on the sidelines at football and basketball games in their distinctive outfits in school colors, occasionally leaping up to whip the crowd into a frenzy of cheering for the home team. I only saw cheerleaders at school during all-school pep rallies, since nobody had told me about the football and basketball games, and I certainly wouldn’t have tried out for the job– being chubby, shy and uncoordinated.
By the time I got to high school, it appeared to me that, in order to be a cheerleader, you had to be popular with the other students who would be electing the members of this elite squad. It also seemed to be convenient if you had a boyfriend on one of the teams, though not a requirement. The cheerleading squad had to practice a lot of kneeling, jabbing fists into the air, leaping high with arms spread wide– all the while smiling enthusiastically and yelling out encouraging chants. They practiced these movements as rigorously as the marching band drilled their routines, hoping to come out at the end more or less in sync. And they had to shout out one of the chants that strongly resembled the jump-rope rhymes we chanted in grade school. “Two – four – six – eight. Who do we appreciate? Knoxville Panthers! Rah! Rah! Rah!” In the class record, cheerleading was listed as an activity, sharing status with yearbook staff and camera club.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered that cheerleaders could be anyone other than cute, peppy girls with boyfriends on the team. For starters, some of them were not girls, but athletic-looking young men who I would have guessed were football or basketball players, or wrestlers. They built human pyramids, did back-flips, and tossed their fellow cheerleaders high into the air. In fact, they were athletes themselves, gymnasts with remarkable control and agility.
During my college years, in the 1950s, the Scottish Highlanders were in their hey-day. Originally a male marching band of kilted bagpipers and drummers, the group was saved from extinction during World War II by female students who took over for the men who had joined the military. The girls learned to play the pipes and drums, donned kilts and bonnets, did the energetic Scottish dances. Known as the University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders, they performed during halftime at Iowa home games and even went on tour, being enthusiastically welcomed in Scotland itself. This unconventional all-girl band became so loved that they never relinquished their place to the men, even long after the war.
At the same time, the Hawkeye Marching Band had an outstanding majorette known as The Golden Girl. A tall, athletic blonde, Lavonne Nolte filled that role for a few years and, as far as I know was never replaced. Maybe I’m wrong about that; it could be that I remember Lavonne because she was from my hometown and a year or two younger than I was. I don’t know if there have been other Golden Girls, nor do I remember just when the Highlanders stopped performing at halftime. I attended very few games after I graduated, and while I watched them when televised, sponsors usually took up those halftime minutes with commercials, so the TV audience seldom got more than a glimpse of the halftime entertainment.
I suppose the first time I realized that being a cheerleader could be a career and not just an “activity” was when the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders took the country more or less by storm. Their professional, provocative routines changed the whole concept of cheer-leading and raised it far above the notion of cute, peppy girls whipping the crowd into a frenzy of cheering for the home team. It became an attraction it its own right. I recently became aware that there is some disagreement over the status of cheerleading. The powers that be still consider it to be an activity and not deserving of the honor and support of scholarship awards. If a swimmer or a gymnast is an athlete and can be given a scholarship, why can’t a cheerleader qualify? Surely they benefit the school as much as the wrestlers and ballplayers do.