Communication Currents

Cheerleading and the Meaning of Spirit

June 1, 2010
Sports Communication, Theater & Performance

“Ready. Okay.” Anyone familiar with American cheerleading is likely familiar with the idea of spirit. Because the cheerleader is a longstanding icon of American femininity, spirit communicates ideas about how young women should behave and express emotion in public life. However, cheerleading has changed, growing more athletic and competitive over time (consider the film Bring It On). As a result, more boys and young men are getting involved. What, then, is the meaning of spirit in this new context? We argue that as cheerleading has changed, the expression of spirit has become more scripted--more routine--than it was in the past. This allows cheerleaders to continue communicating traditional meanings of spirit regardless of who they are or how they really feel.

What is spirit? The meaning of spirit is best captured by the origin story of the spirit stick, a traditional award at cheerleading camps. This story centers on a squad attending a National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) camp in 1954. Although technically unskilled, the squad was truly dedicated--the first to arrive in the morning to class, the last to leave, always cheering other teams on. However, at the time, the NCA had no specific award for spirit. So, Lawrence Herkimer, founder of the NCA, broke a twig from a tree and presented it to the squad, declaring it the official spirit stick. To this day, participants at cheerleading camps are expected to show spirit at all times, whether they are cheering, watching others perform, or receiving evaluations from instructors. Even at competitions, squads must perform spirit convincingly, despite the absence of sports teams to cheer for. Judges look for smiles, eye-contact, expressions of joy and enthusiasm, and constant motion and energy.

Although prized for its genuine exuberance, the physical expression of spirit is often routine. This is true not only of cheers, stunts, and dance segments, which are obviously synchronized and rehearsed, but also of the seemingly spontaneous gestures of spirit. When cheerleaders break formation with an extra jump, rush the crowd with a yell, or launch into a joyful back handspring, they are drawing from a well-known repertoire for performing spirit. Even hand gestures and facial expressions are standardized. While we might think of spirit as a genuine emotion, increasingly the performance of spirit is produced through training and rehearsal, especially in preparation for competition. Spirit has become professionalized, so to speak. This professionalization points to a fundamental ambiguity--is spirit something that cheerleaders perform? Or is spirit something they really feel?

Cheerleaders describe their performance of spirit in different ways. Some cheerleaders feel connected to their emotional performance and describe it as sincere and enjoyable. They see cheerleading less as a performance before an audience and more as an interaction with fans. However, other cheerleaders see the performance of spirit as just part of the job, similar to the smile of a flight attendant or sales clerk. Some cheerleaders dislike this aspect of cheerleading but have resigned themselves to “grin and bear it.” Lydia, a Latina sophomore on a competitive college squad, acknowledged that the facials were “fake” and that putting on a smile for a game was like “putting on makeup.”

As Lydia's comment suggests, the emotional style in cheerleading draws on stereotypical qualities linked to white, middle-class women, including supportiveness, selflessness, and enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, male cheerleaders sometimes balk at, and resist, this style of performing spirit. A white man on a co-ed college squad put it this way: “Nobody's looking for us to be bouncing up and down and smiling and waving our hands and stuff. That's not what anybody expects.” As a result, women often have primary responsibility for communicating spirit, even on coed squads. Male cheerleaders use a less feminine, supposedly gender-appropriate mode of performing spirit characterized by body language that is commanding or cocky rather than peppy or enticing. Such adjustments help to “guy-a-cize” cheerleading for men, to borrow a term used by a veteran camp instructor.

Spirit can also present a dilemma for men and women of color, whose participation in cheerleading challenges the still-dominant stereotype of the blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader. In performing spirit according to tradition, cheerleaders of color risk being accused of acting white. An experienced coach we interviewed acknowledged that being a male, Latino, cheerleader defied cultural expectations: “Friends who are not in the cheerleading realm definitely put pressure on you as a male and even more so if you're ethnic, if you're Mexican or black or Indian, you know . . . it doesn't fit with the culture.” In particular, the peppiness of spirit can contradict the cool pose associated with black masculinity. Ric, a black male cheerleader, reflected on this, saying, “it was really hard to mesh that cool image with your in-the-face rah-rah cheerleading image. Your performance image.” The smile requirement in cheerleading, which can communicate deference, may be especially hard for black men to embrace. This is because the image of the always-smiling, eager-to-please black male entertainer references an explicitly racist history. People of color can respond to this dilemma in different ways--they can either resist cheerleading's performance of spirit, or conform to it. Paradoxically, both strategies preserve the perceived whiteness of cheerleading.

The fact that spirit must be performed in a certain way, that it is coached, and that it is formally judged in competition, shows that cheerleaders are practicing emotions as well as physical skills. This was less noticeable when cheerleaders existed only to support their school teams. Also, when most cheerleaders were female (and many of them white), pleasing others through smiles and positive emotions seemed only natural. Today, young men and women across racial categories are attracted to cheerleading because it is athletic and competitive. However, they are expected to perform spirit in the traditional way, whether they want to or not.

Cheerleaders who are ambivalent about having to perform spirit distance themselves from their public performances, insisting it's “just part of the job.” They distinguish between what the cheerleading performance means to them personally and how others might interpret it. However, to audiences, spirit communicates pretty much what it always has--that cheerleaders are enthusiastic, energetic, and positive, and that these qualities fit most naturally with white, middle-class femininity. The shift towards athleticism and competition in cheerleading has led to widespread changes in the backstage attitudes towards spirit--what cheerleaders say and think behind the scenes. But it has not really altered the public meaning of spirit precisely because the way cheerleaders express spirit is so professionalized, and, therefore, effective.

About the author (s)

Laura Grindstaff

University of California Davis

Associate Professor

Emily West

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Assistant Professor