This is not your mother’s cheerleading. There are no pompom waterfalls or rah-rah chants. There are no football or basketball games.
These cheerleaders don’t cheer for other people. Other people cheer for them.
Welcome to the world of competitive cheer, or “All Star Cheer” as it is more commonly known.
“The myths are the pictures you see: the pompoms, the pretty girls and popular kids, that kind of stuff,” said Nicki Baker, founder and co-owner of Nebraska Cheer Center in Lincoln. “Not that my kids aren’t pretty and popular, but in competitive cheer, the kids are also very athletic and physically fit. Kids who do competitive cheer have a strong work ethic. They do a lot of hard work and they have dedication.”
Started in the 1980s, All Star Cheer has become more and more popular since the early 1990s.
Governed by the U.S. All Star Federation, which creates rules and standards for cheer competitions, these cheer teams often prepare year-round for sanctioned competitions. In Nebraska, there are 12 gyms registered with the USASF, eight of which are in the Omaha area. Iowa has 26 teams.
Competitions normally take place in school gymnasiums or local venues, such as the CenturyLink Center or the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. Local teams often attend competitions in Kansas City, Missouri, as well.
The pinnacle event takes place annually in April at USASF Cheerleading Worlds in Orlando, Florida.
Gil Santiago, owner of Global Spirit Cheerleading and Dance, 6209 S. 90th St., said competitive cheer uses elements of gymnastics, dance and strength training. He added that most kids are attracted to competitive cheer because it allows those who are younger to get involved and compete. Many gyms like Global Spirit have students as young as 3 years old enrolled.
“When All Star started, it was for people who weren’t good enough to make high school cheer teams, or they were not old enough to be on the school cheer teams,” Santiago said. “All Star cheerleading became popular really fast for the kids who were really escalating in skills. Those girls that did All Star in sixth and seventh grade would go into high school where they were superstars in cheer because they acquired all these skills from doing All Star.”
Ten-year-old Brittany Huseth started competitive cheer at age 4. A fourth-grader at Sandoz Elementary, Brittany practices up to 15 hours a week at Global Spirit.
“I really like hanging out with my friends and my coaches because they are so nice,” she said. “I work really hard and when I get something I’ve been working for, I feel really great about myself.”
Brittany began in dance but showed more interest in tumbling, so her mother, Amy Huseth, enrolled her in competitive cheer.
“I’d seen movies like ‘Bring It On,’ so I thought it was going to be like that, but I had no idea,” Amy said. “There’s so much more to it. I didn’t think she would get to the level she is today.”
During competition, a team has 2 minutes and 30 seconds to perform a choreographed routine to music that is customized for them.
“Within those 2 minutes and 30 seconds, the kids have to do a stunt sequence, a pyramid sequence, a tumbling sequence — standing and running — and dancing and baskets,” Baker said. “Not only do you have to be focused on your mental game, but you have to be focused on your physical game to make it through all that.”
Started 25 years ago, Elite Cheer, 2410 S. 140th Circle, is the oldest All Star gym in Nebraska. Kevin Hooker, one of the gym’s founders and co-owners, said the learning process is different for each student. Some show proficiency in aspects like dance and tumbling, while others are better at doing stunts.
“Some learn quick, some learn not as fast,” he said. “Some automatically pick it up like little robots and show no emotion about their training and some are a little more delicate. They deal with anxiety and take a little bit longer to develop the fundamentals of tumbling and flying and baskets.”
Baker, Santiago and Hooker all said another difference between traditional cheerleading and All Star cheer is that All Star has more sports elements.
“If you’re in All Star Cheer, all you do is compete. You’re not cheering for anyone,” Hooker said. “Most of our routines don’t even have words in them anymore. They are just performed like a figure skating routine or a gymnastics floor routine, except that there are 20 to 30 people on the floor at the time doing the acrobatics, doing the baskets, doing the tosses as well as the tumbling.”
Another thing all three coaches agreed on is that in Nebraska, compared with other states, there is a noticeable lack of male participation in All Star cheerleading. While all three have boys on their teams, they wish more would take interest in the sport.
“We are very stagnant as a state for boys,” Baker said. “Across the United States, there are a lot more boys involved in this sport. There are a lot of boys going to college on scholarships because of this sport. … The strength and size of young men are a whole different thing. The power and strength some of them have, it takes me three girls to match.”
Hooker said one of the big drawbacks for boys is they — or their parents — don’t think it’s a masculine thing to do.
The cost of enrolling in an All Star gym is also a factor that can drive away potential students, male or female, Santiago said. Uniforms typically cost about $300 and the cost of traveling to competitions can be $700 a year.
That’s in addition to whatever fees each gym charges, which can vary depending on what specialties and levels the student participates at.
“The price is a shock to some people and they get turned off by it,” he said. “And that’s when they keep their kids in ‘Pee Wee’ and (junior varsity) cheer because it doesn’t cost as much. But when you do All Star, you get what you are paying for: you have excellent coaches, you have the look, the choreography … there is more of an edge.”
For kids like Brittany, the hardest part about cheer is the fatigue that comes with such a sport. But her enthusiasm for it and the team make up for that, her mother said.
“These girls give up doing a lot of things other kids get to do, like going to birthday parties and other stuff,” she said. “But it’s really taught Brittany the importance of being part of a team. She’s learned a lot about dedication and hard work. … It’s boosted her confidence. She’s very socially well-rounded. I think for me, that is the biggest thing she gets out of it.”