Author Spends a Year with the Cheerleaders

Offering an undercover look at one of America's most aggressively upbeat subcultures is Kate Torgovnick, author of Cheer, a book about the rough-and-tumble world of competitive college cheerleading.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

OK. The movie "Bring It On" was a comedy about the rough-and-tumble world of competitive cheerleading.

(Soundbite of movie "Bring It On")

Mr. IAN ROBERTS (Actor): (as Sparky Polastri) You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded.

STEWART: Oh, my!

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

What?

STEWART: There were rivalries.

(Soundbite of movie "Bring It On")

Ms. GABRIELLE UNION (Actor): (as Isis) When you go to Nationals, bring it. That way, when we beat you, we'll know it's because we're better.

Ms. KIRSTEN DUNST (Actor): (as Torrance Shipman) I'll bring it. Don't worry.

STEWART: It exposed coaches who obsess over looks, styles and scales.

(Soundbite of movie "Bring It On")

Mr. ROBERTS: (as Sparky Polastri) In cheerleading, we throw people in the air. And fat people don't go as high.

STEWART: And of course, thrilling, tumbling, turning, throwing, and cheering.

(Soundbite of movie "Bring It On")

Ms. DUNST: (as Torrance Shipman) Ready, girls? All set!

RANCHO CARNE HIGH SCHOOL TOROS CHEERLEADING SQUAD: (Chanting Together)

Brr. It's cold in here. I said there must be some Toros In the atmosphere.

STEWART: The weird thing? It wasn't that far off from reality, as a journalist found out after spending a year and a half following competitive college cheerleaders. Kate Torgovik - Turgovanick?

Ms. KATE TORGOVNICK (Author, "Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize"): Yeah, that's perfect.

STEWART: Thank you, Torgovnick. Has a new book out called "Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize." Kate, welcome to the Bryant Park Project.

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Thanks so much for having me.

STEWART: You write a little bit about the mythology of the cheerleader in American culture. It's interesting that it started out as an all-male pursuit, right?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Yes, it started out as all guys in 1898 at the first Princeton versus Rutgers game. And it wasn't actually until World War Two, when women started going into factories and all these previously male spaces, that female cheerleaders became the norm.

STEWART: Now when did it morph, really, into girls in pretty outfits and short skirts? When did that change?

MARTIN: Become all sexual.

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Yeah, that was around 1950s and a lot of those things go back to one guy, named Lawrence Herkimer, who's sort of the "grandfather of cheerleading." He invented the pleated skirt. He invented the pom-pom, the spirit stick, a lot of the things we think of as very cheerleader.

STEWART: And the rest is history. You have a great line sort of about America's romanticism with cheerleaders. Can you read that little quick passage from you book?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Sure.

Ms. TORGOVNICK: (Reading) Our common-knowledge understanding of cheerleaders is dramatically at odds with the reality. In American culture, we give athletes the utmost respect, but most of us, even the ones familiar with competitive cheerleading, don't acknowledge that cheerleaders are athletes. It's a rift intricately tied to cheerleading's evolution.

STEWART: Now, part of the evolution of cheerleading is the result of things like gymnastics programs getting cut. Tell us a little bit about when cheerleading went from "Go! Rah! Team!" to "I'm a big man and I'm about to throw this little tiny woman 20 feet in the air and then catch her by her ankles."

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Sure. It was actually in the very early 1980s. In 1981, there was the first cheerleading competition for high school teams. They brought in all these teams to SeaWorld, actually. That's where it was held. And at the same time gymnastics programs at schools were getting shut down left and right. People were worried about insurance costs, poor coaching, and so you had a lot of gymnasts going into cheerleading. And those two things together, the competitive and the gymnast being involved, it just snowballed into what we see today.

MARTIN: But it's interesting, though. On the college level, cheerleading is classified as an activity, not a sport. So it's not really governed by the NCAA, the College Athletic Association. So the fact that it's classified as an activity versus a sport, how does that affect the rules that govern cheerleading?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Well, there aren't a ton of rules that govern cheerleading. There's many different organizations making the rules, and you don't have sort of blanket things, like four-year eligibility rule. So it's not uncommon to talk to a cheerleader at the top level who's been cheering in college for five, six, seven years. In "Cheer!", there's actually one guy who's starting his eighth year as a college cheerleader.

MARTIN: It's amazing. Some of the behind-the-scenes information you give, really a little bit stunning, because it has become so athletic, whether or not it's recognized as being athletic, some of the statistics on injuries, about cheerleaders. Can you just give us a gee-whiz-bang statistic that blew your mind?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Sure. Well, every year, about 25,000 cheerleaders will end up in an emergency room. From everything to an injured hand to maybe a head, neck or back injury. However, we are talking about four million people. So that comes down to about six out of every thousand cheerleaders who's going to be injured in a given year.

STEWART: And they also - there's self-inflicted injury. I have to imagine that eating disorders are an issue. Because cheerleaders, if they're going to be thrown around, they want to be light. But as one male cheerleader you spoke to said, "I'd rather have a strong cheerleader than a light one." Can you explain what's going on there?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Sure. There's a lot of focus on being very thin and being very small in this world, because you are being thrown in the air, and part of your job description is to wear a pretty skimpy uniform. So, you do see eating disorders. They're not hugely, hugely, hugely common, but it does happen, and there is one girl in "Cheer" who's very upfront about being bulimic. There's another who's very upfront that she had a cocaine addiction that sort of got started to lose weight for cheerleading. But when you talk to people, they sort of tell you that it's about muscle control. It's about being able to control your body, being able to squeeze every single muscle, so you're very easy to move around in the air. That that's what really makes a good cheerleader, versus just being naturally very small.

STEWART: Now in the world of competitive cheerleading, a lot of guys, obviously, because they are - it's not just women throwing each other around, the guys who are often the base when they make those giant formations. Who are these guys? I mean, are they guys who were on the wrestling team and got hurt? Or football players who weren't big enough once they got to college?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Absolutely. And it's really interesting at the college level, 50 percent of cheerleaders are actually guys. Most teams will have more guys than they will women. And, yeah, exactly. They come from football. They come from wrestling. They come from baseball. Maybe they didn't get the scholarship they were hoping for in college.

Or they had an injury that took them out of their first sport. And every guy cheerleader, if you ask him how he got into this, they say for a girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TORGOVNICK: It was someone who they were dating, or they were in the weight room and a group of girls came up and was like, why don't you come to cheerleading practice today? And that's sort of how they got into it, and it's just very addictive from the beginning.

MARTIN: I'm curious - what do the young women that you talk to, and men, think about professional cheerleaders?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: You know, it's really interesting. Professional cheerleaders are very different. They dance. It's much more of a dance.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. TORGOVNICK: There's pom-poms, different types of uniforms. So when you're done with college, you're sort of done.

We are starting to see a few professional sports teams - it started with the Denver Nuggets - having stunting cheerleaders, who go in the air and do these acrobatic moves.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Kate Torgovnick. She has a new book out called "Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize." And you decided to focus on three different teams from three different schools. You had the University of Memphis all-girl Tigers, Southern University Jaguars, and Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, which you describe as the "Yale of cheerleaders." Why did you decide on these three different schools? I mean, they all have very different profiles.

Ms. TORGOVNICK: And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to give a very broad view of what the cheer world is. I settled on Stephen F. Austin because they're the best of the best. They're constantly creating new pyramids, new moves. I wanted to make sure to get a really great all-girl squad because that's somewhere you're seeing a lot of evolution in cheerleading. And then for Southern, I wanted something different. They're historically a black college in Baton Rouge, and they sort of come at it in different ways. And actually, their coach describes them as both teams in "Bring It On" rolled into one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: When you went into this, you originally were a reporter for Jane Magazine, and you did a shorter article about this. And you're pretty upfront about - you kind of had some preconceived notions about cheerleaders and cheerleading going into this. When you went into this, what did you expect to find? And what changed your mind?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Well, first of all, I wasn't a cheerleader, and like most people listening right now, I thought cheerleading was kind of silly. I thought it was waving pom-poms and yelling "rah, rah, rah," and, you know, dating a quarterback, maybe. And when I went in, I just started to see such intensity and such passion that it just sort of really pulls you in. And people were talking about tryouts, where 150 people were going for three spots. They were talking about national championships that they lost by a hundredth of a point. And there's this fierceness and toughness to cheerleaders that I find very inspiring.

STEWART: Why do they do it?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Some people tell you that they love the risk, actually, that the thrill, the adrenaline rush they get from that it's what they love. Some people will tell you it's for the friendships that they have sort of fraternity-type things that develop, and they're friends 30 years out. And a lot of them love sports, and so it's a very natural thing for them to sit there and cheer for sports.

MARTIN: Now these cheerleaders, are they actually cheering at games? Do they go on and cheer other athletes? Or are they on their own track of "we're our own thing, and we're out here to compete for ourselves, I don't have time to be at the football game on Saturday"?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Cheerleaders sort of have a split personality now, where they are very much at the sidelines at games. And then they have this competitive aspect that a lot of people don't know about and don't pay as much attention to. There's actually one school, the University of Maryland, that did decide to split them up. So they made a competitive team that's varsity. It counts toward their Title 9 totals, and then they have a spirit squad that goes to games.

MARTIN: And it's interesting, it's kind of fun. At the end of the book, you have a glossary of terms, where "awesome" is a noun. What's an Awesome?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TORGOVNICK: An Awesome is a stunt where the guy throws a girl up in the air and catches both her feet in one of his hands, and just sort of balances there.

MARTIN: And then the opposite of an Awesome is an Eat-Mat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TORGOVNICK: An Eat-Mat is when someone falls and no one gets there in time to catch them, and their face sort of goes toward the mat. And that's the worst thing that can happen. Most coaches will have everyone on the team do 50 push-ups if that happens.

STEWART: Oh, my goodness. Do you have a favorite term you learned?

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Yes! I really love the term Making the Castle. And what that means is you made it to Nationals, because the stage they performed on is actually physically shaped like a castle, with turrets and stonework. It's all very exciting.

STEWART: It's a really great read, by Kate Torgovnick. I can't get your name. I practiced that even. The book is called "Cheer! Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize." I know you're reading at a Borders in Columbus Circle in New York today. We'll link to your website because I know you do readings across the country. Good luck with the book!

Ms. TORGOVNICK: Thank you!

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