Cheerleading is one of those things that has become culturally ingrained within many of the world’s most popular sports. In fact, it seems like something that has always existed, especially within big money leagues like the NFL and NBA.

But there used to be a time a without cheerleading. Cheerleading in its current glitzy, female dominated form is relatively modern, only appearing in the second half of the 20th Century. And you may be surprised to find out that cheerleading was, at first, entirely male dominated. Female cheerleaders didn’t exist and girls who wanted to get involved couldn’t. It wasn’t until some striking discourse changes surrounding gender equality that women were allowed into the cheerleading sphere – and even then, the transition wasn’t always smooth.

Cheerleading is still hitting headlines in modern times, with lots of media interest surrounding how much big NFL teams are paying their cheerleaders (hint: it’s probably less than you think!), and as a sport, it still faces some objection and opposition from its critics.

For example, many people have been weighing in to debate the sporting merits of cheerleading. On the one hand, outlets like ESPN have proclaimed that cheerleading isn’t a sport, arguing that as cheerleading doesn’t exist for teams to compete against each other directly, it can’t be classed outright as a sport.

Still, this is boiling cheerleading, and sport, down to a core semantic level. The definition of “sport” is:
an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

Therefore, the competitive element is critical – it’s argued that without this, it’s just skill. It’s also been highlighted that, while there are cheerleading competitions, these are infrequent. This means that the majority of professional cheerleaders’ time is dedicated to supporting and cheering for their team, rather than competing against each other.

However, this point of view has been rebuffed. Cheerleading is in fact set to receive funding from the International Olympic Committee, which could see it being integrated into future Olympic games as a competitive event. On top of this, England’s national competitive cheerleading coach has, in an interview with the BBC, pointed out that competitive cheerleading is very different to the type of cheerleading most of the world is familiar with. It’s stressed that it’s very demanding athletically and is more akin to gymnastics than the professional cheerleading seen within the NFL.

This highlights the complex and diverse opinions surrounding cheerleading, with the role of the cheerleader and the purpose of cheerleading being called into question. This is nothing new and has been something that cheerleading has faced multiple times in its history.

The history of cheerleading: football

College football has always been at the cultural epicenter of America’s interest in sport. The origins of cheerleading can be traced back to competitive intercollegiate meetings between teams. The first intercollegiate football game was played between Princeton and Rutger universities in 1869. Since then, a tradition of collegiate teams playing each other was slowly established.

Princeton University is often credited as coming up with the first collegiate cheers, coming up with several throughout the latter half of the 19th Century, including “The Skyrocket” cheer:

Hooray, hooray, hooray! Tiger siss-boom-ah, Princeton!

This was adapted from an older military chant used by the Seventh Regiment of New York City, which was known as “The Skyrocket”, due to the onomatopoeic elements of the cheer representing a firework exploding and the resulting awe it caused (the “ah” section of the cheer).

By the end of the 19th Century, “The Skyrocket” cheer had morphed into another cheer known as “The Locomotive”:

Ray, Ray, Ray!
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger!
Sis, Sis, Sis!
Boom, Boom, Boom, Ah!
Princeton, Princeton, Princeton!

It was thought this would spread school cheer and help motivate Princeton’s football team. The idea caught on and became a regular feature at Princeton’s games. In fact, the cheer is still in use today.

The idea of directing a crowd to cheer began to gain traction and then eventually spread to other universities, thanks to Princeton graduate Thomas Peebles. He relocated to Minnesota, taking the core idea of cheerleading with him. He was the one who first suggested the idea of organized crowd cheers to motivate Minnesota’s football team.

The idea was further built upon, transitioning into what we now recognize as cheerleading by a University of Minnesota student, Johnny Campbell. In 1898, Johnny lead the crowd through a cheer that he had created, making him the first known cheerleader.

Yell squads: the first group form of cheerleading

Slowly but surely, cheerleading started to gather momentum. It was in 1903 that the activity started to resemble what we know today. Building on the developments made by Johnny Campbell, the University of Minnesota formed a “Yell Squad”, a group of six men who lead crowd cheers at the college’s sporting encounters.

This basic element is something that is still very much a part of cheerleading today. The group goal of firing up the crowd is critical and has made the transition throughout the decades. However, at this point, cheerleading was purely about cheering and getting the crowd to make noise. There were no acrobatics, dancing, or physical displays at this stage.

The notoriety of Minnesota’s Yell Squad soon spread, with Texas A&M setting up their own version known as “The Cheerleading State” in 1905. The Cheerleading State rallied crowds at Texas’ basketball and football games. The popularity of cheerleading steadily snowballed until the 1920s.

World War II: breaking down gender divides

The Second World War is often credited as a key catalyst for reshaping gender roles and imbalances within the United States. At a basic level, this is because the majority of men were absent from home life throughout the war, leaving behind a dearth of labor, which women stepped in to fill.

It’s this moment in time that cheerleading started to shift from an all-male activity to a primarily female activity. It’s also the point where the focus of cheerleading also started to change, with more of a visual, athletic element being worked in alongside the firmly established chanting and cheering. This is the real creation of modern cheerleading.

The introduction of women into cheering circles caused the main perceptions of cheering to shift, which also brought criticism. Women were seen as too “weak” and “cute” to perform what was deemed as the masculine role of cheering.

By the 1950s, the main characteristics of a cheerleader had changed from a strong, athletic leader, to someone who was cheerful, polite and more passive. This transition continued through to the 1960s, which saw uniforms gradually get more revealing, no doubt in line with the changing attitudes to women and sexuality throughout the same period. Athletic displays in cheerleading also declined, in favor of more simple, pom pom and dance fuelled affairs.

The 1970s : professional cheerleading

The very first NFL team to have a cheerleading team were the Baltimore Colts. They first had a cheer squad in 1954 – although these were amateur, unpaid positions, which grew naturally out of a love for the game.

The first real cheer squad, comparable to those seen nowadays, came in 1972 in the form of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, probably the most famous cheerleading team in history. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders are responsible for modernizing cheerleading outfits, making them even more revealing in order to appeal to the predominantly male fanbase. They are also the first cheerleading group to achieve a high level of fame, appearing at Super Bowl X in 1976, gaining the attention of the national media.

Following this, throughout the remainder of the decade, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader’s stock continued to rise, consistently appearing on TV and in magazines. Spurred on by the success of the Cowboy’s cheer team, many other NFL teams jumped on board with the idea, until it had become commonplace by the 1980s. From here, the professionalization of cheer teams spread into other sports, including basketball and hockey.

Cheerleading: from the US to the rest of the world

Cheerleading soon spread throughout the world, becoming a staple in a wide range of sporting events, in countries as far reaching as India and Australia. Australian Rules football is the natural sport of Australia. Its Melbourne-based team Collingwood recently toyed with the idea of reintroducing cheerleaders at its games after over a 20-year absence, despite being commonplace in Australia’s other major sporting league, the NRL.

Collingwood is the most supported Australian Rules club. Last year, they were third for net free kicks across the season, a statistic which certainly influences the AFL tips for Collingwood’s future performance. Despite game stats though, spectator sports are also entertainment: it makes sense that Collingwood would want to pull out all of the stops when it comes to their matchday offerings, hoping their wide fanbase and popular support tips the balance in their favor within games, allowing to grab the all important win.

Cheerleaders are also present in some unexpected sports, such as cricket. Cheerleading is commonplace within the Indian IPL, the nation’s most popular cricket league, with cheerleaders heavily replicating their US counterparts in terms of attire, athletic performance, and cheer – despite overall societal attitudes, especially to fashion, being very different to what they are in the US.

This shows just how important America has been on global culture. At its heart, cheerleading is a very American activity, born directly out of American sports. Yet, it’s been exported and applied to sports that, in reality, America is completely inactive in. This shows how effective cheerleading is at getting crowds going and rallying support for a team. After all, the practice of cheerleading, in one form or another, has now been going for nearly 150 years.

Tell me more, tell me more: cheerleading’s impact on fashion culture

Cheerleading has produced an entire culture surrounding its fashion, its activities, and the women who have been taking part for over half a century. Whilst it was a tough scene for women to enter initially, it is now very much a female-centric domain. But it has also been met with criticism.

Pay for female performers is fiercely contested and has been a longstanding issue. The formative period of female involvement with cheerleading, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, saw most female cheerleaders working unpaid, with no support when it came to traveling to and from games being offered either. Nowadays, travel and most necessities are provided, but pay is still much lower than most would expect, especially for a position that delivers such widespread exposure and requires such a high level of skill – not to mention the risk of injury.

However, leaving the salary issues to one side, there are some very clear and distinct cultural elements that have stemmed from cheerleading. First of all, comes the imagery of a typical cheerleader, especially in the vintage era from the 1950s through to the modernization of the activity from the 1970s onwards.

The 1950s saw the rise of what we would classically associate with a vintage cheerleading uniform: long sleeve tops with school colors and insignia, colorful pom poms, a mid-length skirt, and usually crisp white socks. This was the typical look of the time and would go on to be immortalized by the Sandy character in the movie Grease, which is set in a 1950s high school. American collegiate style fashion has spread throughout the world, with fashion designers no doubt drawing inspiration from collegiate and cheerleading uniforms and attire from this period.

More modern uniforms started to take shape throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Skirts shortened and tops gradually become tighter and lighter in material, which is something seen in most sporting and athletic apparel, not necessarily being limited to cheerleading. But it does showcase the overall softening and liberalization of attitudes to the female body over time.

Cheerleading’s journey

It’s not necessarily been an easy journey for cheerleading, especially for women trying to break into the activity, as well as vying for acceptance at universities and sports teams. When females first took up cheerleading, it was a very different world to what we live in now. Cheerleading helped women be included in activities they were otherwise excluded from on campuses across America.

The road to professionalization has been a long one for cheerleaders. There are still some lingering issues, but the impact cheerleading has had on sports, fashion, and gender culture is clear for all to see. Cheerleading’s transformation from an all-male activity to a female display of enthusiasm, cheer, unity, and most importantly, athletic prowess is fascinating. Ultimately, it hammers home the fact that not all feats of athleticism belong to men or competitive sports stars.


lead image: Retrospace
image 1:Pexels
image 2: “Cheerleaders” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Listen Missy!