It’ s raining, cold and still dark: 7am in October feels like the middle of the night. I try to convince myself that I am an intrepid journalist prepared to brave these adverse conditions to get the story, but I can’ t help thinking I’ d rather stay in bed and that attempting to cheerlead of all things seems particularly unappealing right now.
When I arrive at the sports centre on Iffley Road, enough energetic, tracksuit clad people to constitute a crowd are already waiting outside for it to open. I’ m convinced my bleary eyes and scuffed trainers lack of obligatory massive kit bag will instantly identify me to all these super-people as a fake. I follow some confident looking girls in ‘Sirens’ stash to the hall and I find it is being used for both cheerleading and archery practice. Luckily the potential for disaster/hilarity this presents will not be realised as a heavy green curtain is pulled across to separate us.
Training starts with a brisk run around, which is no effort for the Sirens with their long legs and short shorts; I feel like I’m in a top set PE class, although there are definitely some other beginners here, and one powerful looking guy. I’m told that almost none of the Sirens had ever done cheerleading before coming to Oxford: this is a sport you can learn and improve at very quickly – by Easter the beginners will be ready to compete against other universities. The running is followed by some stretching before we line up in height order to be split into stunt groups. Stunt groups!
This is not the pompoms and ‘ Give me an O, give me an X!’ I was expecting, and sounds like it’ s going to require a lot more adrenaline!
Having always considered myself relatively petite, I am not sure whether to be put out or relieved when I am judged to be the right size for a ‘ base’ – I will not be ‘flying’ but launching smaller girls towards the strip lit ceiling. First we learn to ‘sponge’. For a sponge, the bases lift the flyer by her feet, which are cupped in our hands, resting on our chests just under our chins, which is surprisingly comfortable (as long as the flyer has clean socks on). At the right moment we have to push her upwards and quickly back down again; this whole move happens in about 8 seconds. This sounds very tricky, and again, quite dangerous, but the Sirens make it feel easy, breaking down the steps and practicing with us until they are happy with the timing, the balance, and the style of the triumphant V shape the flyer makes with her arms, hands in tight fists, crowning our pyramid.
Under the guidance and sustained eye contact of the experienced base opposite me, I start to feel more confident and we are soon ready to try something more impressive – the ‘ cradle.’ This time when we lift the flyer, she bounces up and we catch her with our arms around her back and legs.
Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen… It is much harder to get right, and a few times our pyramid collapses totally, but it feels great when we eventually manage it. I’ m amazed at how much I can actually do having been cheerleading for less than an hour!
It seems this really is a sport that anyone can learn; Gregg, the only guy at the practice this morning, works for the army, and when I ask him what it’ s like doing such a female-dominated sport he replies, ‘ I figured after two tours of Afghanistan I didn’t need to prove my ‘manliness!’’ He reckons more guys would like to get involved but are put off by jokes from their friends- ‘ they soon stop laughing when you are getting invited to their socials!’
The excitement of my stunted success is only slightly marred by my incompetence at learning the athletic, sassy dance routine we are taught at the end of the session, but I leave on a high as the girls tell me I’ m a good base and should come back…I wonder if I’ d look good in those little red shorts.