The Yay Area
I walk timidly toward the gymnasium. I can feel my palms begin to sweat and my face flush as I approach a group of uniform-clad cheerleaders.
My mom was a cheerleader back in her glory days in Connecticut and, trust me, I never shied away from teasing her as she regaled our family with stories of singing The Mamas & the Papas songs on bus rides to the big game. To me, cheerleading always had the connotations of cookie-cutter girls who pinned back their perfectly silky hair and waved their pom-poms to the tune of “Hey Mickey.” I played the flute at a high school music academy, so this world was a bit out of my vocabulary. Walking into the gym, I feel like the nerdy, brace-faced band geek on her way to cheerleading tryouts. Big joke, right?
But the moment I enter the room I’m greeted by smiling faces. Not to mention a surprising mishmash of tattoos, pot bellies, bulging biceps, Mohawks, and gray hair. This isn’t what you’d expect from your stereotypical cheerleading squad.
Then again, it was a particularly raucous and unexpected night at a gay club that led me to hearing about Cheer SF, the first community-based adult cheerleading team in the world. The volunteer group was established in 1980 and is made up of a refreshing amalgam of men and women – gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. They are nurses, hairstylists, government workers, and entrepreneurs coming together to form human pyramids.
They raise money for countless charities and are highly active in the LGBT community, traveling as far as Australia and Singapore to spread their enthusiasm, support, and philanthropic work.
All of a sudden my previous notion of cheerleaders begins to fade away. Somewhere in the midst of high kicks, hurkeys, and Pride talk, I remember the Natasha Lyonne flick, But I’m a Cheerleader and it all begins to make sense. What better way to make a political statement than take a quintessential, all-American activity and subvert it?
Cheer SF has performed at all eight Gay Games, where it received gold and silver medals last year. It has been showcased at Pride Week in cities throughout California, can often be spotted at professional sports games, made it to the top 50 contestants on America’s Got Talent , and has even performed at two presidential inaugurations (Clinton and Obama –just sayin’). This year’s San Francisco Pride was one of the group’s most anticipated events.
But Cheer SF isn’t just about gay rights, performances, and making a splash. They are an active nonprofit raising money for a different organization every year. Each member votes to decide which charity will receive the bulk of their support that year and the leadership positions are switched annually so everyone gets the opportunity to be in charge. Members range from 18 to 50 years old, and they travel from Sacramento, Santa Rosa, and San Francisco to the Emeryville practices.
I speak with member Chris Saul, who tells me that Cheer SF has given him and other gays the opportunity to participate in a group activity that they’ve been excluded from their entire life.
"Many gay people either were excluded from activities by those in charge or excluded themselves because of how they felt about themselves," he recalls. "As a result, you find many gay sports teams and leagues where gay people finally can take part in these activities in a supportive environment." Cheer SF welcomes all – no experience is necessary to join the team, just the willingness to learn. In fact, the group will often select novices with heart over experienced competitive cheerleaders. One of the members, Sal, tells me with sparkling eyes how proud he is to be considered a “local celebrity.” At 37 years old and the owner of a party supply store, he is just now learning how to do backflips.
I am introduced to the group by the very sociable media and communications director, Nguyen “Win,” with an overwhelmingly generous welcome (apparently I’m a very prestigious blogger and former gymnast – thanks Nguyen!). The group greets me in unison: “Hey Eloise, you’re awesome!” And you know what? With all their enthusiasm, I actually believe them. I guess that is precisely what cheerleaders are meant for.
Unfortunately, they can’t dote on me too long before it’s time to get down to business. It’s only two weeks until SF Pride. Morgan, the team’s creative director, has decided last minute to update the music in order to keep the squad contemporary. Everyone remains calm and jovial. They catch up on the happenings of the past week. One member finishes his rushed dinner of McDonald’s drive-thru as another struts in toting a miniature-sized dog. Slowly, shoes are laced up and cherry red CHEER SF shirts are pulled on as it approaches 7 p.m. and the beginning of two-and-a-half intense hours of practice.
I watch as the smallest members are hoisted into the air, contorting their bodies into positions I couldn’t even get into when I was an infant. Backflips, splits, cartwheels, somersaults – they do it all. It doesn’t come without a price, though. Broken noses, torn biceps, sprained wrists, and twisted ankles are part of the territory.
I notice many of the cheerleaders taping up their wrists and ankles like ballerinas in preparation for what I can only imagine is a grueling rehearsal. The squad drills and redrills their routine. Coach Sanford Smith calls out the counts to what looks like a group of synchronized swimmers sans water. Then the music starts up (a remix of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Florence and the Machine, to name a few) and the jumps and flips glide seamlessly together. Two “lifters” wobble beneath the weight of a cheerleader and they giggle; another twists his ankle and he merely skips it off; someone misses a beat and gets right back to the routine. It’s obviously a friendly atmosphere, and there’s no lack of talent or motivation.
Finally, the rehearsal comes to an end. A large circle forms in the middle of the room as they sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the members. A few cheerleaders showcase jumps and flips in the center of the circle before they join hands and shout together, “Cheer SF Rocks!” And I must admit – they do.
So the next question is: When are tryouts? It looks to me like they are missing the token curly-headed Jewish girl.
Check out cheerforlife.org for upcoming performances and opportunities to audition for the squad. Donate to the team, book them for your next event, or just scope out the local happenings!
Learn some cheer lingo with my brief Cheer Glossary. And, if you’re brave enough (and properly spotted), try some of the moves out for yourself!.
Arabesque: One leg is straight down and the other is behind the cheerer almost at a 90-degree angle to her back.
Basket Toss: An advanced stunt in which the bases propel the flyer upward from the loading position. The flyer can then perform a trick in midair (back tuck, toe touch, ball-out, twist, pike, etc.) and land back in a cradle position.
Cradle Catch: An end movement where a base catches a flyer after tossing her in the air. The base holds the flyer under her thighs and around her back.
Heel Stretch: One or more bases holds up the flyer by the standing foot while the flyer holds onto her heel and straightens her leg out with her hand (holding her foot) by her ear.
Liberty: One or more bases hold up the flyer by the standing foot and the flyer balances weight on the standing leg. The flyer's other leg is bent at a 90-degree angle, and the toe is pointed and touching the right knee.
Pike Jump: An advanced move in which the cheerleader jumps into the air, extending both legs straight in front of herself while touching her toes in the air.
Standing Back Handspring: An essential move for any gymnast or cheerleader, the standing back handspring is a stunt in which you start from a standing position, swing your arms forward and above your head as you propel yourself backward, flipping over onto your hands and back to a standing position in one fluid motion.
Scorpion: While in a Liberty, a cheerleader grabs the toe of her bent leg and brings it up to almost behind her head.