Commentary

They grow up so fast

As cheerleading transforms itself into sport, its youngest upstarts are pulling off moves as startling as their looks

Updated: May 12, 2011, 11:16 AM ET
By Samantha Shapiro | ESPN The Magazine

Tierney Gearon for ESPN The MagazineIsabella (left) and Amelia are pushing cheerleading from the sidelines to the main stage.

This story appears in the Feb. 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

ON A THURSDAY evening in November, 7-year-old Haylie Blakely rides in the backseat of her mother's black SUV on her way to practice at the Cheer Extreme Allstars gym in Raleigh, N.C. Haylie competes on the Glitter Stars, one of the youngest of CEA's 41 teams, in all-star cheerleading, a hyperenergetic mash-up of dance choreography, gymnastics and big air stunts. CEA has six gyms across the state, and a reputation in the sport that extends internationally. The gym's senior elite squad won the 2010 worlds, the Super Bowl of competitive cheerleading.

Haylie is dressed in the Glitter Stars' practice uniform: a teal, sequined bow in her light brown hair, a teal, glitter half-top that buckles over her flat chest, and black cheerleading shorts. The music that accompanies her team's routines -- a two-and-a-half-minute compilation heavy on techno and '80s hits -- plays on automatic loop in the car's CD player. "It's all she listens to, over and over again," says Haylie's mother, Michelle, eyes rolling.

Haylie mouths the words of the songs -- "You see it! You love it! You want some more of it!" -- and tosses her naked doll in the air at the points in the routine where she herself would be thrown. Because the doll's face doesn't move, Haylie makes expressions for it, rounding her lips into a surprised "O!" or shaking her head sassily with a big smile, the same "facials" that cheerleaders are encouraged to sport during competition.

Michelle pulls into the gym's parking lot, and the two walk inside. Haylie and her teammates burst into the trophy-lined practice space, bouncing on its spring floor. Caroline Garrett, an 8-year-old, announces to no one in particular, "Bam!" Makayla Canovali, who's 6, picks up her 5-year-old sister, Jenna, and whirls her around in circles, giggling. JoHannah Atkins, who's 8, catches a glimpse of herself in the wall of mirrors and sucks in her belly.

"Miss Lymarie," 8-year-old Amelia Shea calls out to the head coach. "My mama said I can't tumble because I hurt my shoulder."

"Are you sure it's really hurt, or is it just a little sore?" asks Lymarie Jackson, in a sweet Southern accent.

"The doctor said not to tumble," Shea replies.

Jackson, a 38-year-old former University of North Carolina cheerleader, has an air of determined seriousness. This is the Glitter Stars' last practice before a regional competition on Sunday in Richmond, Va. There, they will be going head-to-head against the SuperModels from Virginia's Fame All Stars gym, in the Mini 2 division, the second of six competitive levels. Jackson isn't concerned so much with winning as she is with getting her team to trust its training. At an exhibition the previous week, the Glitter Stars -- 19 girls and one boy, ages 5 to 8 -- had failed to take their places correctly on stage, throwing the routine out of whack, and several of the stunts collapsed.

"All right, Glitter Stars, I need everyone's attention!" Jackson calls out. "Makayla, please put your sister down. Girls, and boy, everyone look at my eyelashes." Jackson points at her mascara-painted lids and rotates her head slowly around the room, until the squad settles down.


IN THE 113 years since Johnny Campbell first picked up a megaphone at a University of Minnesota football game and screamed, "Rah! Rah! Rah!" for his team, cheerleading has undergone several evolutions. Over the first half of the 20th century, it shifted from all-male yell leader teams to all-female spirit squads. From there, it began to morph into a competitive realm of its own, eventually splitting into two worlds: traditional, or sideline, cheerleading, with its chants and pom-poms, and all-star cheerleading, which emerged in the early 1980s.

Tierney Gearon for ESPN The MagazineFrom Myanna's touch-up at the hands of mom Kelisha (left), to Jenna's pick-me-up in the arms of big sister Brittany (right), the Glitter Stars are a family-friendly show.

Although exact figures are hard to come by, experts say there are around 700,000 traditional cheerleaders and 200,000 competitive ones. This doesn't include all-star's international numbers, which are growing fast. Varsity, the largest of the three main competition companies (Cheersport and Jam Brands are the others), helps fund a nonprofit that is seeding Europe and the Far East with cheerleading organizations. This is widely understood as a bid to get the sport into the Olympics. Meanwhile, another entity funded by Varsity, USA Cheer, is campaigning to rebrand high school and college-level competitive cheerleading as an NCAA emerging sport called stunt, which would be eligible for the resources and scholarships that Title IX affords.

This push for legitimacy is possible because of the strong grass roots that have formed at gyms like CEA. There, girls as young as 3 become accustomed to serious competition, with a rigorous practice and travel schedule. But while all-star emphasizes athleticism, it also ramps up the sexualization intrinsic to an activity whose most recognizable professional form remains the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. All-star teams have names like Divas and Bombshells Baby. Girls compete in full makeup, with bright red lipstick and mascara, and sometimes even Vegas-style eye rhinestones, false eyelashes and wigs. While the average 8-year-old Pop Warner sideline cheerleader might wear a pleated skirt that lays midthigh, with bike shorts underneath, CEA cheerleaders compete in tight Lycra skirts that barely cover the bottoms of their glittery underpants, paired with an off-the-shoulder half-shirt.

To the uninitiated, all-star's blend of the superfeminine and the superathletic can seem jarring. But in following the Glitter Stars from practice to competition, it became clear that this is part of the sport's appeal to them. Courtney Smith-Pope, who co-owns CEA with her mother and sister, says, "There's a girly, fun, sleepover, get-dressed-up-ness to it, and at the same time they're really challenged physically and they get to be pushed. For parents who wouldn't want their daughter to do a very unisex sport and miss out on the girliness of other activities, like pageants, this is a good balance."


AT THE GLITTER Stars' practice on Thursday evening, Jackson begins by having the team run through the stunt that collapsed at last week's exhibition. Like most stunts, it begins with the teammates in groups of four, composed of three bases and one flyer who gets lifted up in the air. In this particular sequence, the flyers stand on their hands and the back spots hoist them from their upside-down position onto the front spots' bent backs, then lift them to shoulder height. Each flyer, on one leg, pulls her other leg up to her head (a heel stretch), before bending it in front of her, then kicking it out behind her (an arabesque).

Tierney Gearon for ESPN The MagazineBefore syncing with her teammates in competition, Myanna performs her own balancing act, as baby sis Harmony looks on.

Jackson cues the music and calls out, "Big smiles! Smile the whole time! Have fun the whole time!" The opening track comes on: a DJ announcing, "Wow! Those kids from teal and black are back!" over a clip of the song "Stand Out" from A Goofy Movie. The flyers kick up to handstand in sync. One of the flyers, 7-year-old Isabella Torres, has her arm in a sling from an injury she sustained during last week's exhibition. As she's lifted, she sways wildly with a big cheerful grin and crashes down. The second group gets Haylie up easily, and she shimmies and makes her facials as she executes the heel stretch and arabesque. Makayla Canovali is also lifted, albeit with a look of teeth-gritting terror. The back spot, 8-year-old Ninah Obewu, grimaces as Makayla slips and breaks her fall on Ninah's wrist during the arabesque.

Jackson pauses the music. One of the assistant coaches, 43-year-old Lynne Culbreth, grabs Isabella from behind and presses her legs together. "You've got to keep your bottom under you and really squeeze your hips," Culbreth says. "Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. They can't get a hold of you if you are flopping around." The coaches work through the stunt a few more times, but they never get all the flyers up simultaneously. The team moves on to the routine's next section: split leg jumps followed by synchronized back handsprings. Haylie, positioned at the front, hits her jumps enthusiastically, but freezes during the back handsprings, causing a small traffic pileup as the rest of the team moves backward. It's clear to the other assistant coach, 20-year-old Lindsay Herrel, that Haylie has been stricken by a "tumbling block." This malady can happen for any reason -- too much parental pressure, a growth spurt that changes a kid's center of gravity -- and it's anyone's guess what will cure it.

"Haylie, your back handspring is amazing," Herrel tells her quietly. "You're just thinking too much about it." She pulls Haylie to the side and offers to spot her. She counts, "5-6-7-8," with her hand at the girl's lower back, and Haylie jerks her hands forward to gain momentum, but stands in place. "Don't think about the back handspring, think about cookies," Herrel whispers. "5-6-7-8-cookies!"

Haylie can't find her groove, and Jackson moves her to the back of the group for the tumbling portion, so she's less visible if she freezes. Haylie's face crumples as she walks to her new spot.

After running through the next stunt, Jackson tells the Glitter Stars that she wants to work on their entrance. "Remember, the first time the judges will see you -- girls, look at my eyelashes! look here! -- is when you come out," Jackson says. The team files out and stands at the door. Jackson prompts them: "Okay, you're at the competition, with smoke all around the door. Aaaaannouncing the Cheer Extreme Glitter Stars!!!"

They run into the gym, waving and smiling, and the coaches whoop. Jackson isn't satisfied. She brings the kids close. "Imagine you got tickets to see Taylor Swift," she says. "How excited would you be? So excited! Would your face look like this?" She offers a frozen wooden smile. "No, you'd have energy. That's how you want to come in. No fake smiles!"


WHEN ALL-STAR cheerleaders first began competing, about 30 years ago, they used to stop the music during their routines and chant just like sideline cheerleaders. Although that practice has largely fallen out of favor, the emotional tenor of cheering is still highly prized and scored at competitions. At practice, girls sometimes grunt or exhale loudly, but they know that in competition they are supposed to cultivate a sassy quality. They should be sexy, but not too sexy; girlish but not too girlish.

Tierney Gearon for ESPN The MagazineWhile they're still perfecting their competitive "facials," at play the smiles come easy.

Only a few Glitter Stars have the balance just right -- smiling brightly, cocking their hips when they finish their tumbling routines, flirtatiously tossing their heads. Cailyn Jackson, the coach's 8-year-old daughter, competes on the Glitter Stars and other, more advanced teams, and she has the sass down cold. But Caroline Garrett can achieve only the wacky exuberance of most 8-year-olds. She expresses enthusiasm with spontaneous dances of her own invention, and her facials have a kind of Carol Burnett quality. Her mom, Anne, says with a laugh, "Some of the little ones haven't picked up on the nuances of it yet, and it's kind of hilarious to watch."

The all-star cheerleaders who master the formula become what Raleigh-based cheer videographer Jay Noah calls cheerlebrities. CEA's most famous one is Erica Englebert, a petite blonde flyer who has been competing since she was 4. When Erica was 8, her mother commissioned Noah to make a highlight video of the girl, then posted it on YouTube. It generated pages of comments from around the world, with fans wanting to know how much Erica weighed, wishing ardently that they could be her.

It wasn't long before fans -- mostly other cheerleaders, but also the occasional middle-aged man -- started creating their own Erica videos, with pictures stolen from Facebook or Noah's videos. The tributes, which are typically set to love songs, show Erica, now 14, executing ever more complicated cheerleading stunts as she grows. They also show her posing in tank tops or a bikini, walking in slow motion on the beach and looking at the camera out of the corner of her eye. The Erica videos inspire crazed behavior; there are dozens of fake Erica profiles on Facebook, Myspace and Formspring, as well as a phony profile of her boyfriend and her mother.

Sandy Englebert, Erica's mom, says she loves the first video she commissioned from Noah, but that she isn't quite sure what to make of all the ensuing attention. She also says she is no longer comfortable letting Erica walk around cheer competitions without an adult, because she gets mobbed. And Sandy finds it strange when girls Skype Erica and cry when she answers.


THE SUNDAY MORNING of the regional competition, Isabella Torres and her mom, Jennifer, rise at 6 a.m. in their room at the Richmond Virginia Crowne Plaza. It's Jennifer's second competition as the official team mom, and she dresses in a teal shirt with an oversize pin made from her daughter's cheerleading photo. She wrangles Isabella into her uniform top and lays her daughter down on top of a towel. Isabella cuddles her blanket and stuffed lamb while Jennifer brushes teal eye shadow in a large upward sweep across her eyes. Isabella whimpers, "You're touching inside of my eye and it hurt!" Jennifer sighs and explains that "the makeup is hard because we have itty-bitty little eyes." Jennifer applies a layer of white cream glue -- "It's cold," Isabella says, squirming -- and sweeps more teal glitter over it.

Tierney Gearon for ESPN The MagazineWhen they find their focus, the Glitter Stars make even the most tricky stunts seem routine.

Once the mascara and lipstick are applied, the next challenge is forming Isabella's hair into the Glitter Stars' new competition hairdo: a straight ponytail with a pouf in front. Getting Isabella's bangs to stand up poses quite a structural challenge, so much so that at the last competition, Jennifer had simply asked Kevin, a CEA coach whose boyfriend is a hairdresser, to do the girl's hair. But this time Jennifer is determined to get it right. After much manipulating with a roller brush, bobby pins and clouds of Aqua Net, Isabella is ready.

The two take the hotel shuttle to the convention center where the Cheersport regionals are held. Even at 8:30 a.m., the place is a madhouse. Girls lie on the carpeted floor as their mothers apply false eyelashes or sew fake curls into their hair. An older cheerleader shakes glitter onto her male teammate's shag haircut. Next to her, a teenage girl lies serenely on her stomach as a friend methodically spreads deodorant over her entire back. One of the cavernous halls has been split with a divider; the practice space is on one side, the performance space on the other. Each squad has only a few minutes to run through half a dozen stations -- a long track to practice tumbling, a spring floor for stunts, and regular mats for dancing -- before they hit the stage.

Jennifer finds the Glitter Stars parked in front of the entrance to the practice space, waiting to be called in. Ninah Obewu's mom is moisturizing her daughter's legs. Makayla and Jenna Canovali's mom is hurriedly applying their makeup while balancing their 1-year-old sister in the crook of her arm. Kaylyn Brittain, who's 6, is crying inconsolably, saying only that she's hungry. Isabella sits down with her doll and begins tossing her in the air.

Suddenly, J5, one of Fame All Stars' more advanced 14-and-under teams, is called into the rehearsal space. Unlike the other squads that had walked unceremoniously around the Glitter Stars' encampment to get to the practice room, the Fame team marches to the door militaristically, in single file, clapping rhythmically and chanting, "J5!"

The Glitter Stars rustle to attention. Kaylyn stops crying and stares. Caroline Garrett immediately grasps the gravity of the situation. CEA can't be upstaged by this other team! Although she's half the size of most of the J5 cheerleaders, Caroline stands and calls out the letters of CEA's team colors: "T-E-A-L!" Other Glitter Stars join the chant. "LET'S GO TEAL! T-E-A-L!" They continue until the door has shut behind the last J5 marcher.

Soon it's the Glitter Stars' turn to go in. They appear flustered by the hubbub, and as they rush from station to station, they have the same trouble they did during practice, trying to get their flyers to stand. When their time is up, Lymarie Jackson and Jennifer Torres bring them to the on-deck area that leads to the stage, leaving their own daughters, Cailyn and Isabella, to finish practicing with their other teams. Jackson's eyes are shining. "I want you to think about the fact that all eyes will be on us," she tells the Glitter Stars. "And get up there -- squeezing and smiling -- and know that I am so proud of each and every one of you!" She tries to look at each member of the squad. "God made you special, and I want you to know you are special and gifted and good, and let that shine through. I want you to show the judges how special you are!"

Then Jackson and Torres leave the team at the door and position themselves at the front of the stage for the big entrance. The Glitter Stars become uncharacteristically silent and look a little scared. A moment later, Isabella is led to the line by another coach. She is crying; she had just been dropped. The Glitter Stars close in around her. A teammate silently takes Isabella's hand.

In the performance hall, a few hundred spectators stir in their seats. Parents wave wands with their children's cheer pictures on them. Men wearing shirts that read "I am your Cheer Daddy" hold their video cameras. At the back of the room, on an elevated platform strewn with Diet Cokes and coffees, seven judges hunch over scorecards. They review the routines on small laptop screens, counting the stunts and making sure that the squads perform skills matching their level. They also grade them in a subjective category called overall impression.

Lance Logan, a judge and a former cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens, is evaluating an older elite team. "Look at their faces now," he says. "They're not smiling. They don't exude any energy. They're falling flat."

The judges call out, "Next up, the Cheer Extreme Glitter Stars out of Raleigh, North Carolina!" Shrouded in fake smoke, the Glitter Stars run out, waving, excited. There is no trace of backstage fear. At the front of the stage, Jackson shrieks as the team lines up correctly -- already a victory! The opening track comes on, and the flyers kick into handstands for their first stunt. All four flyers get up on one leg and they hit their poses roughly in sync. The crowd goes wild. Jackson bangs the stage triumphantly and screams at the top of her lungs. The Glitter Stars prepare for the jumps and back handsprings. Haylie Blakely, in her new position at the back of the group, scrunches up her face, perhaps summoning an image of cookies. She hesitates at the cue, but throws a back handspring with the rest of the team. The bases toss the flyers into a twist perfectly and move to the next big stunt. All the flyers get up, but Isabella's legs quickly splay out and she falls. Still, it looks passable.

The Glitter Stars' energy mounts, and as they reach the last dance sequence, their hip-shaking turns defiant. The team chants, "Oooh, baby, baby" along with the music, and 6-year-old Myanna Greene gives an overhead finger snap and a full 180-degree head spin. The music stops, and Jackson shrieks again. In one effortless motion, she leaps on the chest-high stage for a group hug. The Glitter Stars exit elatedly. "You never know what they're going to do when they get up there," Jackson says afterward.

Later in the afternoon, all the teams take the stage for the awards ceremony. As the judges approach the Glitter Stars' division, Isabella presses her doll to her chest, while Haylie crosses both sets of fingers behind her back. Some girls close their eyes in prayer.

The judges announce the runner-up: Fame All Stars. The Glitter Stars brim with excitement. The judges call out, "CEA Glitter Stars in first place!" Then they rush at the team with a banner and a huge trophy. The Glitter Stars go crazy, jumping up and down. Even the normally reserved back spots, Halle Smith and Ninah Obewu, glow proudly.

Jennifer Torres is bubbling over with joy. "This," she says, "is what we do it for."