Choosing to cheer

Sara Peck

Cheerleading is not so simple: It’s part dance, part gymnastics and often involves throwing a back-flipping, 110-pound teammate above your head and then, if all goes right, catching her in your arms. And all before an audience of several thousand fans.

According to the cheerleading community, collegiate cheerleading has greatly changed in the past decade, and it now melds traditional cheering with stunting and tumbling. With the sport’s increased focus on athleticism, male cheerleading has experienced an increase in participation at some Big Ten schools and nationwide.

But with only four men on its team, Northwestern seems to have missed this explosion.

Head NU cheerleading coach Anthony Ryan cited NU’s comparatively small student population as one of the reasons behind this inequality, as well as the small number of men with high school cheerleading experience.

“Every school has trouble recruiting guys,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of hard to get someone to join a varsity sport with no experience.”

Having men on NU’s team adds to the creativity and number of stunts the team can perform, he said.

Cheerleading has attracted more male interest nationwide because of the evolution of the sport. All Star Cheerleading, a national competitive league, “has more kids in our program than ever before,” said Amy Clark, the program’s Midwest coordinator.

Schools within the Big Ten have also seen growth in their programs. Purdue University has a squad of 14 men and 22 women . University of Minnesota is home to both a women’s and a co-ed team. Eleven of the 18 members of the Minnesota’s co-ed squad are men.

“Male cheerleading is definitely gaining in popularity due to the explosion of the All Star division,” said Arthur Smith, head coach at Purdue. “(The All Star division) is also an avenue for gentlemen to feel more accepted in their sport.”

Aside from the sport’s athletic benefits, NU male cheerleaders such as Weinberg sophomore David Leander said they value the team’s camaraderie.

“I didn’t know anyone, but during preseason we really bonded,” said Leander, who joined last spring. “(Cheerleading) allows you to meet a lot of different people and get out into the NU community.”

Cheerleading captain James Griffith, a Weinberg sophomore, said he enjoys the adrenaline rush he feels whenever the squad learns a new stunt or cheers on the field.

“It’s an awesome feeling to be on the field at a football or basketball game and be a part of the NU athletic community,” said Griffith, who did not cheer in high school. “The athletic and strength aspects encouraged me to join.”

But Griffith and Leander said the team doesn’t receive the same benefits as other varsity sports, such as a locker room, dedicated scholarships or pre-registration for classes.

“I feel like we don’t get as much recognition from the athletic department,” Griffith said. “That’s a sticky issue with the administration.”

He added that more scholarships and services for cheerleaders would encourage more students to join.

Though both Griffith and Ryan said NU is an accepting community, some NU students were ambivalent about accepting male cheerleading.

“If (men) want to cheerlead, go for it,” said McCormick freshman Trevor Barton. “It seems like a decent way to meet girls.”

McCormick junior Tom Wallace said cheerleading should not be considered a varsity sport.

“I would say I somewhat look down on male cheerleaders,” he said.

Stereotypes and funding gaps aside, Griffith and Ryan said they hope NU’s program will grow and send athletes to National Cheerleaders Association Nationals in the near future. Ryan likened cheerleading nationals to the NU football team playing a bowl game.

“We need to learn more complex skills,” Ryan said. “If we have a team that has that ability, we’ll go to nationals.”

Ryan encouraged any student with “strength, speed, agility and a positive attitude” to try out for the team.

“I hope students see how much athleticism it takes to be a collegiate cheerleader,” he said.

Reach Sara Peck at [email protected]