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A Very Short History of Cheerleading

A chronology.

1882: The first recorded group cheer takes place at Princeton University. The school rapidly develops a reputation for synchronized enthusiasm.

1884: Thomas Peebles brings Princeton’s trademark organized yelling to the University of Minnesota.

1898: Johnny Campbell, a University of Minnesota undergraduate, develops modern-day cheerleading. Standing before the crowd at a football game, Campbell commands attendees to shout in unison: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Sku-u-mar, Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-So-Tah!” The student newspaper reports that six men are thereafter elected to ensure that everybody leaves football games “breathless and voiceless.”

1927: Posterity breathes a sigh of relief when Willis N. Bugbee publishes the first book of cheers, aptly titled Just Yells.

1941: Women begin to join cheerleading ranks as young American men are called to fight in the Second World War.

1948: Former cheerleader Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer founds the first cheerleading association and the first cheer camp.

1956: Herkie makes history again by inventing the paper pompom.

1960: The Baltimore Colts (now the Indianapolis Colts) introduce the first professional cheerleading squad.

1963: George W. Bush—yes, that George W. Bush—becomes the head cheerleader at Phillips Academy, a posh all-boys high school in Massachusetts. His more recent efforts at “lifting the spirit of America” can be traced back to those halcyon days of mocking the competition, screaming slogans and dressing in drag.

1965: Fred Gastoff revolutionizes Herkie’s pompom by inventing the more lush, responsive vinyl sort in use today.

1972: The Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders introduce jazz-dance elements to their performance, permanently raising the bar for an activity that, until then, had literally been kept on the sidelines.

1973: Campy pseudo-porn film The Cheerleaders is released. The movie, in which the eponymous vixens bed the players of a rival football team so that they are too exhausted to win, initiates a trend of titillating cheerleader-themed features that lasts throughout the seventies, including such classics as Revenge of the Cheerleaders, The Swinging Cheerleaders and Cheerleaders’ Wild Weekend.

1979: The Official Cheerleader’s Handbook is published. Successful enough to inspire several editions, the handbook calls for safety standards in a sport that involves human pyramids and hurling young women toward the sky.

1988: The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors, one of the sport’s first sanctioning bodies, is founded with a mandate to ensure “the safe and responsible practice of student cheerleading.”

1996: University of Nebraska cheerleader Tracy Jensen lands on her head while attempting a double backflip. The ensuing lawsuit is settled when the school agrees to pay now-paralyzed Jensen us$2.1 million. The incident sparks a renewed focus on injury (and lawsuit) prevention in American cheerleading.

1997: Two sisters—Aimee and Cara Jennings of Miami—use the costumes, co-ordination and chutzpah of traditional cheer to promote their politics. Now de rigueur at globalization protests and anti-war rallies, “radical cheerleading” has spread to locales as far away as Europe and Japan. Here’s a taste: “We’re teens, we’re cute, we’re radical to boot! We’re angry, we’re tough and we have had enough!”

2000: A second wave of middling cheerleader movies crashes over the world, prompted by the immensely successful Bring It On. The five years that follow see the release of Sugar & Spice, Bring It On Again, Cheerleader Ninjas, Cheerleader Massacre and Man of the House.

2002: Two years before the infamous Janet Jackson incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII, a genuine wardrobe malfunction befalls the NYU cheer squad. Fifteen seconds into the team’s two-minute-and-fifteen-second routine, the breasts of one member are inexplicably freed from their spandex restraints. Despite some hooting and some money tossed on stage, the exposed Carla Sanchez never breaks her synchronization, allowing NYU to win its division.

2005: The Texas state legislature debates a bill intended to ban “overtly sexually suggestive” cheerleading. The bill’s sponsor, Democrat Al Edwards, argues that such “gyrations” result in pregnancy, dropping out of school and the contraction of HIV and herpes. Though it passed, House Bill 1476 is unlikely to become law due to the State Senate’s disinterest in being mocked by Jon Stewart.