Cheerleading: Why do boys want to wave pop-poms?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

Image caption,
The Dazl Diamonds practice in a community centre on an estate in Leeds

Europe's only troupe of boy cheerleaders can be found on a tough housing estate in Yorkshire. What's more - they've just picked up a trophy at the National Cheerleading Championships.

Break dancing, street dance and hip hop - it is easy to imagine why some boys turn to the types of dance typically associated with edgy music and an urban vibe.

Less obvious is why cheerleading - which conjures up the image of skirt-wearing, pompom-parading girls doing the cancan at the sidelines of a football pitch - would appeal.

But with the Dazl Diamonds taking home trophies and new figures suggesting 37% of schools now offer cheerleading in PE lessons, is there a new craze for this unique blend of dance, tumbling and gymnastics?

Dazl Diamonds dance instructor Ian Rodley, 27, says TV programmes such as Glee, Britain's Got Talent and So You Think You Can Dance have certainly upped its cool credentials.

"With all the exposure, there is a massive influence in young people, it's up 100%.

"The wholesome American image has become fun and cool, it's like what happened to street dance with films," he says.

Mr Rodley says the cheerleading club - which is partially funded by Leeds' Primary Care Trust anti-obesity programme and comes under a bigger community project called Dance Action Zone Leeds - was set up to help boys in some of the most deprived parts of the city.

Its aim is to use dance as tool to improve young people's physical and mental health.

"Kids don't get many opportunities round here. It's about giving children from communities where there is not much something to do.

"Cheerleading involves lots of jumps, kicks and turns, tricks, stunts, dance lifts, poms, chants, voice projection and visual effects - it is high energy, like an art form.

"The kids learn routines, put on benefits or galas every eight to 10 weeks to raise money within the community - we ask people to pay £3 for a show.

"It gives them a sense of belonging, helps them work as a team, builds self-esteem and gets them fit. In schools, concentration levels have gone up - cheerleading gives kids a discipline they don't often get at home."

About 40 boys turn up every week, he says, and the boys groups are broken down into three to six-year-olds, seven to 11-year-olds and 12 to 15-year-olds.

The squad - 16 boys between the ages of eight and 14 - put in a good 12 hours a week training, even more in the lead up to a competition.

But what kind of response do the boys get from partaking in such a traditionally female-dominated activity?

Nine-year-old Harvey Pratt, from Belle Isle estate, says he loves cheerleading, but while his mother - who was in prison when she was pregnant with him - is proud, not everyone has been so accepting.

"I'm getting the feeling of becoming a Billy Elliot, because I dance, he dances. His dad don't like him to dance, my dad don't like me to dance.

"But then, further on in the story Billy Elliot's dad starts liking him, and he starts taking him to these auditions in London.

"And if my dad understands me, understands that I like doing cheerleading, it'll be like the entire Billy Elliot story," he says.

Joe English, 13, also from Belle Isle, agrees it has not always been easy.

"They used to call me camp, and poof, and gay, and all that. But then when I'm on a rugby pitch they go 'Oh, you're well rough!'" he says.

But Allison High, the mother of another Dazl Diamond, 12-year-old Elliott Morgan, says cheerleading has been "absolutely brilliant" for her son.

"It's given him confidence, personality, and he can take a laugh now instead of taking everything straight to the heart.

"It's been a good, good thing for him. It's totally changed my child. Yeah, somebody's took my kid and given me another one."

Alison Oliver, director of sport at Youth Sport Trust, says the great thing about cheerleading is it attracts children who might be turned off traditional sports such as rugby, cricket or football, perhaps because they lack hand eye co-ordination or do not like physical contact.

"It seem less threatening, and can give children the confidence to progress into other sports," she says.

Image caption,
Elliott Morgan, 12, says cheerleading has given him confidence

"Plus clubs don't need to be too reliant on money, cheerleading doesn't require many facilities or much equipment - if people have access to music, they can do it."

She says the gender bias is not as extreme as some people think.

"Cheerleading is an athletic activity, certainly at a competitive level the complexity of moves and lifts are strenuous.

"It is more similar to gymnastics than it is to dance - and gymnastics has a very positive profile as a sport - it is close to that at the top."

The Dazl Diamonds also have history on their side. Until the 1920s, cheerleading was largely a male and all-American pursuit.

"When the men went away to fight in the first World War, women took over cheerleading and claimed it for themselves," explains Pat Hawkins, president of the UK Cheerleading Association.

More recently, famous faces such as former US presidents George Bush and Dwight Eisenhower and American actors Samuel L Jackson and Steve Martin have championed the sport.

Mr Rodley concedes cheerleading is not for everyone, but says it can be a lot more "open, more accessible" than other sports.

"Football is a skill, people go on and deliver what is learnt - cheerleading is more creative, the kids can come up with their own choreography."

The Dazl Diamonds are aiming high and hope to steal a podium position at the British Cheerleading Association's International Championships in December.

Mr Rodley says it is about inspiring some of the "raw" children and "making their aspirations feel more than just south Leeds and Milton".

Media caption,
Boy dancer, Harvey Pratt, tells BBC Breakfast why he became a cheerleader

"I don't think I could just go with middle class boys. Some might get teased to start with, but for others it's somewhere to get accepted.

"And if it inspires a child to be something else, if it improves their lives, that's what we are here for - it makes it worthwhile."

Boy Cheerleaders will be broadcast at 2100 BST on BBC Two on Wednesday 13 October. Or watch afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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