It wasn’t long ago that Yale Cheerleading was in need of its own pep rally. With repeated rejections of varsity status, a slim turnout at tryouts and an uncommitted coaching staff, the team faced an uphill battle to legitimize its efforts.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2010, and Yale Cheerleading says it has a newfound sense of purpose with the support system necessary to follow through.
Over the summer, Pat O’Neill, assistant athletic director for marketing, hired two new coaches, Becky Brainard and Michelle Mattaboni, for the program.
“I was asked to come in and bring the program in an athletic direction,” Brainard said. “We were brought in to do a Yale Cheer makeover.”
RECOGNIZING ITS NICHE
In a 2002 article in the News titled “On the Sidelines,” the team lamented its club status. But now Yale Cheer is content with its standing as a club sport.
“I don’t think it’s varsity or bust,” co-captain Maureen Canavan GRD ’11 said. “Our goal is to be the best representation of Yale we can be in terms of enthusiasm and athleticism.”
This July a Connecticut district court judge ruled that cheerleading is not a sport. In response to the ruling, Brainard said there are two types of cheerleading. One type is a game support system confined to the sidelines, while the other type involves actual competition between cheerleading squads.
“I think that [type] is definitely a sport,” she said. “I think the game cheering is athletic, but not necessarily a sport.”
Brainard said that the ultimate goal for the team is to compete against other schools, but added that getting to that level of competition takes time.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
The goals of the team’s makeover, enthusiasm and athleticism are ultimately a return to the very principles of Yale Cheerleading.
News articles from the first half of the century see a correlation between Yale’s victories on the field and a strong cheer team on the sidelines. At that time the Yale community perceived the men on the squad as legitimate leaders of the community.
An article from the News on Nov. 17, 1914, titled “Impromptu Football Parade” described the Yale cheerleaders, then called the “Y” men, leading a line of 2,500 football supporters around campus. When professor and former President William Howard Taft saw the men, he said, “I am glad to see the organized spirit of Yale, and I hope it will carry you to victory on Saturday.”
In a similar vein, the front page of the Nov. 19, 1938, News reads in block letters, “IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE: Harvard Looks Tough, but Elis’ Spirit May Win Out.”
Thus, the “enthusiasm” which Canavan hopes to achieve is no small task. According to earlier News articles, it is necessary for a Yale victory.
More recently, when Yale, and by extension the cheerleading squad, went coed in 1969, the desire for athleticism among the cheerleaders paralleled that found in the modern day.
In a Sept. 23, 1969, News article entitled “Co-Ed Cheerleading Hits Snag: Girls Must Learn New Tricks,” the captain of the team, Peter Kenyon ’71, said, “We don’t want rah-rah cheerleaders here at Yale. The crowds just aren’t responsive. We think our stunts are a better show.” Kenyon added that some girls left the tryouts at Payne Whitney when they realized the athleticism required of them.
Brainard said Yale took a number of measures to raise the bar for this year’s squad, including having all team members sign a contract indicating their dedication to the sport.
“I think I lot of people who may have thought cheerleading is ‘rah-rah-sis-cum-bah’ and for looking cute saw the contract and had second thoughts [about joining the squad],” she said.
BEYOND JUST CHEERLEADING
Co-captain Brynna Nelson ’11 said the team also sees its involvement with children as an important component in the program. Both Yale football and basketball have a youth day, during which the cheerleading squad talks to kids who are interested in Yale.
“It’s great for them, especially the girls, because they can’t always relate to football players.”
Canavan added, “It’s a great way to bring Yale into the community.”
SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT
While the squad has only been practicing under Brainard and Mattaboni’s leadership for a few weeks, Brainard said the team has already taken steps forward and established a solid foundation on which to build.
“There have absolutely been improvements,” O’Neill said. “I think Becky was a great hire … her guidance can only help the team. The morale is much better on the team. The kids are working hard and doing things they haven’t done before.”
Chris Smith ’13, a member of the Yale football team, said he has noticed a strong improvement in the team’s stunts and overall technique.
Yet O’Neill and the cheerleaders emphasized that it is still early in the season, and that they are still working on fundamentals. O’Neill added the Yale Athletic Department wants the cheerleaders to be the best in the Ivy League, but for safety reasons, they must first set a strong foundation before distinguishing themselves from other teams.
Regardless of the degree of difficulty of their stunts, Canavan said the enthusiasm is there already.
“We’re excited for the teams, but also for the school in general,” she said. “Cheerleading gives us a chance to show our enthusiasm for Yale and the University as a whole, and to do it through an athletic medium.”
The cheerleaders will be in action Saturday at the Yale Bowl when the Bulldogs take on Fordham at noon.