Book review: Cheer! Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders

BY KATIE HANSON | MARCH 24, 2009 7:30 AM

A new book about the ‘hidden’ world of cheerleading is the ultimate guilty pleasure, even though it shouldn’t be.

People who think cheerleading isn’t a sport should Google “Stephen F. Austin NCA 2007” and watch the accompanying video. Then they should shut up.

On a late-night show appearance years ago, Jerry Seinfeld once joked about why he respected baseball players and not NASCAR drivers, saying, “I can’t do that.”

After watching this national championship video and reading Cheer! Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders, I can definitely say, “I can’t do that.” Competitive cheerleading is super-human.

It’s easy enough to initially scoff at Kate Torgovnick’s 346-page book. The cover sports four pair of cheerleaders. The men are shirtless and rippling, the women flashing megawatt smiles as they twist in the air. Oh please, I thought. They can’t really do that.

In fact, they can.

Over the course of a year, Torgovnick, a writer for the New York Times and former Jane magazine editor, shadowed three college cheerleading teams: the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, the Southern University Jaguars, and the University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers.

As they progress from tryouts to football season to national championships, Torgovnick captures victories and downfalls. Somewhere in the chapters “I’m Shit-My-Pants Nervous” and “I Was Addicted to the Attention, Not the Cocaine,” readers get sucked in and flipped about right along with the tiny women who are sent in the air. This is not a book you can put down easily.

Torgovnick thankfully provides a glossary of cheerleading moves — you have to flip back repeatedly to double-check the meanings of “Awesome” and “Scorpion” — as well as a photo section featuring not only the main cheerleaders but some of the teams’ flashiest pyramids.

The author alternates her narrative among the three squads yet manages to cover everything. The reporting is extensive: It frankly seems as though she witnessed each team’s entire year.
The Lumberjacks face enormous pressure to continue their streak of four national titles, led by super-cheerleader Sierra Jenkins, with a platinum-blond head so big it belongs on Mount Rushmore.

The team’s challenges are completely different from the Jaguars’, who placed second at nationals in 2002 but haven’t returned since because they can’t raise the money. And these co-ed teams can’t relate to the Tigers, who consistently place among the best in the country but can’t seem to earn the respect — or the monetary support — of their school’s co-ed counterparts.

While some cheerleading stereotypes are confirmed — the women who do stunts in the air, known as “fliers,” usually weigh between 80 and 100 pounds and often turn to either drugs or eating disorders to stay skinny — other misconceptions are blown away. The black squad might have been the badasses in Bring it On, but predominantly white universities are typically top-of-the-heap. Plus, cheerleaders work out a lot.

“You guys are college cheerleaders, which means you have to be a picture of certain things,” Tiger coach James Smith lectures his team at the beginning of the season. “So get off the sweets. No more Coke — drink water. You gotta start running, and when you’re done running, run again.”

Just as the elaborate, unreliable pyramids can make or break these teams, Cheer!’s quality relies on Torgovnick’s uneven prose. She goes the distance to paint her sources as authentic and human, but sometimes it’s too much, as evidenced in these sentences about Tiger co-captain Jasmine Smutherman: “She is so pretty that it would be easy to hate her for her stunning genetics. But she happens to be down-to-earth and genuine, one of those women who is impossible not to like.”
Clunky narrative aside, Cheer is an energetic, engrossing read, and one that made me a tad envious. Not everyone can shake a pair of pompoms and look this spectacular.

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