By the time you graduate from Harvard, theoretically you should have learned a number of things.
You should know how to Socially Analyze and Quantitatively Reason. You should know not to touch John Harvard’s foot. School spirit being what it is, you need not learn how to wield a set of pom-poms. Not that such knowledge is entirely elusive. Given the occasion of Harvard’s first cheerleading clinic last month, FM decided not to cut gym this time and sent Kristi L. Jobson and Véronique E. Hyland to scream their hearts out.
Véronique: On this spring evening, I could be working on one of my zillion papers or enjoying a leisurely dinner with friends. Instead, I am wildly searching my room for something spandex. My cheerleading dilemma is strangely appropriate: I have nothing to wear! My closet is strangely bare of any athletic clothing. I finally decide on old gym shorts from high school (a vivid purple) and a white tank top. I feel almost peppy, confident that I look the part. I can do this! I’ve got spunk! Who cares that I’m not the least bit athletic—I’ll be joining scores of pom-pom wavers before me, folks like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, all under the careful guidance of the Crimson cheer squad!
Kristi: The thought of cheerleading doesn’t bother me. I love to dance and jump around. I have really cute little green shorts. I’m secure in my cheer-ulinity.
Véronique: We arrive at the gym. A small group has gathered: tryout hopefuls in athletic wear or team members in Harvard Cheerleading uniforms, including a few of the male persuasion. However, no one sneers at the male cheerleaders for long: they are amazing tumblers and proceed to back-handspring the length of the room. Amy Welch, a slim brunette in perfectly matching top and shorts, introduces herself as “Coach”.
Kristi: Véronique and I, the newbies, are put in two different lift groups. Divide up the awkward, I guess.
Véronique: In a sweet, southern-tinged voice, Amy explains that we’re going to do stunts, in which extremely tiny girls (“fliers”) are flung into the air, do a somersault, and are then caught by strong, capable people. I am clearly not one of these people, but am assigned to catch anyway. In a position usually intended for large, supple men, I am a disaster. I lack the strength to propel my flier into the air. After a few tries, and boosted by the saccharine encouragements of the team (“It’s all right, pick it up!” and “Get psyched!”), we get her airborne, but fail to catch her.
Kristi: A solid build and medium height make me a perfect base, according to the coach. That means I have one of the flyer’s feet in my hands, legs outspread for balance and support. We count off, with specific motions happening on specific beats. And all of a sudden I have a girl’s life literally in my hands. She’s smiling—I really don’t know why. I’m scared just looking at her. I hope she doesn’t have vertigo.
Véronique: Mine plummets. In classic fashion, I freak out, helping her up and shouting, “Oh my God, did you fall on your head? Did you hurt your head?” She says she’s fine, but it is clear she will never trust me again.
Kristi: On the appropriate count, the flyer does a full twist through the air and lands in my outstretched arms, one supporting underneath her legs and the other under her back. She’s small and thin, but I literally say “oof” when she hits. I guess that’s what happens when 120 pounds hit you from 30 feet above.
Véronique: I’m relieved when the coach announces that we are moving on to drills, which seem to involve a lot of arm-waving and exclamations. As Coach Amy chants “Low V, T, High V...” we try our best to emulate letters of the alphabet. Amy also admonishes us to, “Show your doughnut holes, girls!” (Cheerleading terminology defines “doughnut holes” as “those little circles your fingers make when you form a fist”. You have to turn them towards the front for optimum form.) We also learn “sidelines”, in which we gyrate and jump cutely while bellowing “Go Crimson, Go Crimson, Go!” I suppose it’s better than stunting, but I can’t do jumps and my arms hurt.
Kristi: I’m getting it! I am a cheerleader! I’ve got spirit, yes I—oh wait, Coach Amy is stopping me again. The knees—why can’t I bend them right?
Véronique: Coach Amy asks about our “tumbling experience.” Every girl in the room has seemingly been involved in gymnastics since infancy. With an evocative hand gesture, I describe my experience as “Nada”. A cheerleading team member and Coach Amy blithely set out mats and take girls through the motions of a back handspring.
Kristi: Awesome—I’ve always wanted to do a back handspring.
Véronique: Visions of elementary school gym somersaulting through my head, I start looking for an out.
Kristi: The instructions are disarmingly simple—squat and then jump and throw your arms back. Uh, OK.
Véronique: Another girl flips impressively over Coach Amy’s outstretched arms, emerging to cheers from the group. “It’s all mental,” she says.
Kristi: The two “spotters” for the girls doing back handsprings look awfully small. I think my dinner tonight weighed more than the two of them put together. I squat down. They tell me to jump and throw my hands back. So I do.
Véronique: I opt for my patented ”slink-to- the-back-of-the-crowd” move.
Kristi: I can’t believe I did a back handspring. Eat your heart out, Kirsten Dunst.
Véronique: We head out for the night. Our alternate lives as cheerleaders have ended, but we’ve left with a profound appreciation for...the fact that we never have to do this again.