20 Feb My Cheerleading Journey
I’ve been jumping, kicking and yelling for as long as I can remember. Whether it was cheering on countless teams or cheering for friends and clients, I was always motivating someone.
As a child, I was always turning cartwheels and flips in my backyard or seeing how high I could get my jumps and how low I could do the splits. I still remember the story my Mom told me; as a child in a crib, I was always crying to get out and start jumping around. My twin sister, Karen’s crib was beside mine in the bedroom. Back then, the cribs were pretty high off of the ground. My Mom said all she heard was me screaming from the bedroom and when she went in to check on me I had somehow jumped or crawled into my sister’s Karen’s, crib and was screaming to get out and back into mine. There was also another time when we had a large curio cabinet in the dining room and I decided that it would be a good idea to climb to the top. I pulled the entire cabinet down on top of me. Miraculously, I wasn’t hurt but the babysitter described in horror that it occurred on her watch.
I began cheering in the sixth grade at Moler Elementary school for Basketball….. I was committed. I remember nothing could stop me from cheering. Even when I had broken my finger playing basketball and had to wear a hard cast up to my elbow. I still didn’t miss a beat cheering. From there, I went to Berry Junior High and cheered for two years before my parents had us bused to a new school across town. I remember being so upset because I had just made the team for my freshman year when my Mom told my sister and me that we were transferring to a mostly white junior/senior high school. My previous junior high school was predominantly black. Therefore, I had to wait until the following Spring to try out at the new school since they had already chosen their squad for the current school year. We had a totally different cheer style at my old school compared to the new school. My previous school’s style was more loose and funky with more stomp and claps similar to the step shows in black colleges. The new school was more “military style” with sharp/stiff arms.
I remember being ridiculed by some of my fellow classmates that stayed at my former school.They teased me saying that I would not be able to adapt to the new cheerleading style. The sure way to get me to achieve something is to challenge me and tell me that I cannot do it. That motivates me more than anything.
I had all year to observe the current cheerleading squad and knew despite the different style there would be no problem learning and perfecting their new style. My one hesitation was that because it was an all white school, there were no other black girls on the current team. We were in a current school system while our brand new school was being built. There were a handful of black students that were bussed along with me from my old school so I did know some of the other Black students but everyone else was white. I was currently a ninth grader going into the tenth grade if I would make the team. They would have a Junior Varsity(JV) and Varsity team that would cheer for both football and basketball. Tryouts came and I was placed on the JV which I was thrilled to be on at the time. I had missed cheerleading and knew I could eventually work my way up to Varsity. Of course, I was the only black girl out of both teams (six girls on JV and six girls on Varsity). We finally went into the new school and I cheered for the JV through football season.
At the end of football season going into Basketball, a girl on Varsity squad decided she no longer wanted to be a cheerleader and wanted to leave the team. To my surprise, I had the next highest score and they moved me up to the Varsity for the Basketball season. I was thrilled. I got along with all of my cheermates despite being the only black and really don’t remember anything that was racist or being treated differently. I could have been oblivious but started off grade school in a predominantly white school, so I was used to being a minority. I remember enjoying my time cheering in High School and during our senior year we decided to participate in the State Cheerleading Championships in Cheer and Pom Pom. As one of the Captains, my creative juices kicked in and I created choreography for the cheers as well as the dances. I’ve always had a great talent for musical interpretation and the ability to transfer that to choreography. During my senior year, some of the popular music was the theme from the movie, Rocky, and also from the soundtrack of the movie, Grease. I was obsessed with both the movie and soundtrack from Grease. I played that album over and over. When we started to create a pom pom routine for the State Championships, I remember sharing the song “Rock & Roll is Here to Stay” by the band Sha Na Na. It was fast, upbeat and was a traditional 50’s theme song. Think poodle skirts and saddle shoes!!
I went to work creating a routine to this song along with the other girls. I felt that we needed to stay with the 50’s theme like the movie. We wore blue and white saddle shoes as part of our cheerleading uniforms since our high school colors were red, white and blue and our mascot, the 76’ers. I suggested that we wear poodle skirts in different colors, white short sleeved blouses with color coordinated scarves to match our skirts. I used to sew most of my clothes in high school so I offered to make the skirts out of felt material with different color poodles and sequin leashes; we rented the crinoline which were worn underneath. We looked authentic. We used poster board signs with R-O-C-K on them.
We ended up taking first place in the State and doing well with our individual team as well. The current members of The Ohio State University Cheerleaders were the judges. I idolized them! They would choose the top three cheerleaders at that competition in a category called, “Cheerleader of Cheerleaders”. I was chosen first-runner up, “Cheerleader of Cheerleaders”! I was blown away that out of every girl in the State I was chosen. After the competition, The Ohio State Cheerleaders came up to me and congratulated me. I was totally starstruck. When I attended Ohio State Football games I would watch the cheerleaders more than the game and dreamed about being down on the field myself. I told them I was going to school there and they encouraged me to come tryout.
When I started Fall semester at The Ohio State University I began on day one on my quest to become a Buckeye Cheerleader. With tryouts in the Spring it wasn’t too early to start preparing… We had an all girl squad in high school so in the majority of the pyramids I was basing (on the bottom) holding the other girls. But in college it was a mixed team which meant the men were at the bottom and the girls were at the top. Some of the formations included standing on the shoulders of the guys and doing various stunts where the guys held us in the air. This was all new to me and very scary since I had never stunted before. We had certain stunt requirements back then to make the team. A “calf pop” is where you stood behind the guy and he put his calf back and I would put one foot on it . I grabbed his hands and I was then hoisted up onto his shoulders. We also had to do a “chair sit” (sitting on the guys with palms up in the air and one knee bent and he was supporting your straight leg). We were also going to perform a “Bird”, which is similar to the move in Dirty Dancing ,where your partner positions you above his head and you are flying with outstretched arms. All of these stunts were new to me. It was hard not to freak out when trying them. As I said previously, I love a challenge!! I didn’t have the tiniest of body frames and was muscular so I had to really learn how to be very tight so I could hold the stunt. We also had gymnastic requirements that we had to perform. These included a front walk-over, back walk-over and an additional one of your choice. Of course, due to the difficulty, if you can do a standing back handspring or tumbling pass that would increase your score. I could do an aerial which was basically a cartwheel with no hands. I was on a gymnastics team in middle school and was working on my back handsprings but once I was no longer on the team, I stopped doing them. In high school we didn’t really need them even though one of the girls could perform them. So I was back to attempting a back handspring and running round-off, back handspring again; this time it was more difficult. One of my teammates from High school who could tumble, was also trying out for the first time.
Spring finally came and it was time for the Cheer Clinics where they would teach you a cheer, a chant, a pom pom dance, traditional fight song and other requirements that we had to perform for tryouts. There were only fourteen positions on the team ( seven girls and seven guys) and the graduating Cheerleaders would teach the materials. They were all superstars to me since I was always watching them at the football games. The racial makeup of the team included: one black girl and one black guy and the rest were all white. I remember one of my black friends telling me that I didn’t have a chance because there was one black girl already on the team and she would be returning. Of course, that didn’t deter me and made me try that much harder. That year only three girls were graduating so that meant four girls were returning. It was pretty much a given that if you were on the previous team you would make it again because of your year of experience. Mike, a tall, muscular guy who was a previous cheerleader but was graduating. He had agreed to be my partner for tryouts. There were about 200 girls trying out for basically three open spots. The tryouts were held for two days in the field house and the finals in St John Arena in the basketball coliseum. I knew I could hold my own in all of the areas except for gymnastics, that was my weakness. The first day the tryouts lasted from early morning until the evening. It was very emotional, grueling and exhausting. My Mom watched me try out for the first time since the tryouts in high school were always closed to the public. She was a nervous wreck even though she tried not to show it. I made it all the way to the Finals the evening of the second day and they had narrowed the field down from two hundred girls to fifteen. I was ecstatic! I had made it all the way to Finals on my first try. I felt really good. The time came when they finally announced the team. We were all in the tunnel and had to run out into the middle of the gym floor when they called your name. They announced the four girls that were returning which wasn’t a surprise. The other two girls that were on the team were left standing in the tunnel with me as they chose identical twins that year and a new girl. Everyone was in shock including the girls that didn’t get chosen. I really didn’t expect to make it that first year. It was the first time that I had not made a team since I began trying out. Of course, a lot of the girls were crying but I was actually excited. If I could make it this far with a field this tough, imagine what I could do if I worked a little harder. One of the cheerleaders that was judging told me as much. He said I was an excellent cheerleader in all of the areas but gymnastics. He told me to come back next year with more skill in that area and I would have a better chance to make the squad.
I spent the next year living in the gymnastic gym between classes and improving not only my gymnastic skills but my stunting as well. Next Spring at tryouts I was the one running out of the tunnel when my name was called as a new member of the The Ohio State University cheerleading squad along with another black girl who was now the Captain and two other black guys. Who said things couldn’t change! All these years of dreaming to be down on that field had come true. I would go on a cheer another year and become a member of the 1983 National Cheerleading Championship team during my last year. I am so grateful for this journey as it prepared me to be an incredible coach.