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Cheerleaders Twirl Pom-Poms of Protest
Published on Sunday, May 11, 2003 by the Observer/UK
Cheerleaders Twirl Pom-Poms of Protest
Ghetto girls hijack American tradition to chant: 'Who armed bin Laden?'
by Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
 

Cheerleaders are a wholesome symbol of America. They feature at every major sports event, in films from American Beauty to Bring It On and are the source of a multi-million-dollar industry in costumes and training camps. Yet now cheerleading has become political.

In the Los Angeles Superior Court, the mother of a would-be cheerleader has brought a civil action, claiming her daughter was wrongly excluded from the Quartz Hill High School cheerleading squad in suburban Antelope Valley.

Liz Smith claims coach Tammy Stewart rejected Kelly, 18, partly because she had beaten one of Stewart's friends in the Miss Quartz Hill pageant. Stewart denies it, claiming Kelly's routine, to the tune of 'I Want Candy', was not up to scratch.

One of the five judges claims Stewart told him before the trials that she did not want Kelly chosen, and changed the score he had given her to catch her out. Stewart and other judges deny this and say Kelly was out of sync with the music.

The row has split the community. It has drawn attention to the 'cheer moms' with the same sort of vicarious ambition as fathers who bark from the touchlines at their football- playing sons. It has also reinforced a stereotype of suburban pettiness in places where some girls start cheerleader training at two.

The dispute has provoked a backlash against the clean-cut elitism of cheerleading. Anyone attending recent political rallies in LA will have noticed the most visible sign of this, a team called Radical Teen Cheer, who chant: 'We're teens, we're cute, we're radical to boot!'

Instead of backing the Oakland Raiders or the LA Lakers, they chant: 'Who trained, who trained, bin Laden? Who armed, who armed, Saddam Hussein?'

Now other radical teams - among them the Dirty Southern Belles in Memphis and the Rocky Mountain Rebels in Colorado - are springing up in dozens of US and Canadian cities, shaking pom-poms for causes from gay and lesbian rights to foreign policy.

Tricky - nicknames or first names are the style - of the Dirty Southern Belles says on the Radical Cheerleaders' website that it all started when two Florida women, Cara and Aimee, decided 'regular old protests on street corners holding signs and waving at traffic was not radical enough.

'They made pom-poms out of plastic bags and printed their cheers in fanzine form. Soon radical cheerleading spread like blue bonnet margarine on vegan biscuits'.

Formed last year in LA, Radical Teen Cheer are from a working-class area with a large Latino population. There are around 20 of them, aged between 14 and 18, almost all pupils at Franklin High School.

'Cheerleading is just our way of getting our message across,' said Natalia, who is also in her school team. 'We get a lot of attention, people saying "wow, that's cool".'

Her teammate Antonette said people had accused them at anti-war protests of being unpatriotic. A couple of girls had had to give up because of family pressure, 'but we love our country'.

'People always say to us "what do you want to do, change the world?",' said Yesenia. 'Well, kind of, yes.'

They all felt films such as American Beauty create a wrong impression of cheerleaders as a 'bit ditzy'.

Meredith Ryley, a teacher and a team organizer, said demonstrators were stunned by the cheerleaders bursting into action. 'One guy told me it was the coolest thing he'd seen in 20 years.

'The girls are from a low-income, minority, inner-city neighborhood and they have to overcome many obstacles to get the opportunities many teenagers take for granted. And they defy the stereotypical images of the ghetto kid.'

Ryley was thinking of encouraging girls to start a punk cheerleading team when she read about a radical team in Minnesota and decided to form Radical Teen Cheer.

'The stereotype of the cheerleader is snotty and superior but these are kids who want more. We found that people at demonstrations have been bored in the past. Our motto is what Emma Goldman said - "I don't want to be part of your revolution if I can't dance".' And they are open to all - Ryley said that if Quartz Hill doesn't have a place for Kelly Smith she is welcome to don the red and black of Radical Teen Cheer.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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