Shrieks of laughter and groans of exertion escape from a small fifth-floor room in Payne Whitney Gymnasium, where the Yale cheerleading team practices. Surrounded by seven girls in mismatched T-shirts and shorts, Megan Quintana ’06 and Patti Balbas ’05 stand face to face, hands clasped, desperately trying to squat, rise and then extend their arms on the same counts.
After each failed attempt, the squad clamors with criticism and Quintana cannot hide her disappointment. In fact, many of the cheerleaders find themselves continually disappointed with the sport to which they have devoted countless hours.
In search of the perfect cheer
In unison and in uniform, the members of the cheerleading team perform enthusiastically on the sidelines of the Yale Bowl and the John J. Lee Amphitheater for meager and mildly-interested audiences. Unfazed by silence and occasional insults, they loyally support the football and men’s basketball teams during every home game — a seven-month season. Despite lack of funding, varsity status and committed team members and coaches, the Yale Cheerleaders — also officially unknown as the Lady Bulldogs — attempt to energize Bulldog fans without the support of many fans of their own.
Frustration mounting, Lauren O’Garro-Moore ’04, the vocal co-captain, tells two struggling members to take a break while she and her partner demonstrate the correct technique.
O’Garro-Moore and Christie Yang ’06, timing perfect, manage to lift teammates Catherine Pitti ’03 and Barbara Yu ’04 into the air. But they too falter with more advanced moves, and Pitti and Yu are back on solid ground.
“Her foot should not be below the breasts!” O’Garro-Moore yells.
Seconds later, Yu falls to the floor.
Yu holds great power. She is the only team member who can fly. During a basic stunt, a “flyer” is lifted into the air by two bases and a backer. The flyer balances on the hands of her teammates to stick a pose, often of a precarious and unnatural nature. On a good day, the supporting members propel the flyer through the air, and on an even better day, they catch her.
Yu single-handedly eliminated a move from an already stark playbook, but for good reason. On the descent which the move required, she broke a teammate’s nose.
At the Nov. 2 football game against Columbia, Patti Balbas ’05 helped lift a fellow cheerleader up onto her shoulders and held her by the ankles during a stunt. The squad performed the stunt, but the dismount didn’t go quite as it had been rehearsed.
“The stunt went well and I looked up at the crowd and I saw her falling on me,” Balbas said. “She fell on my forehead and I heard my neck crack a few times.”
Balbas fell to the field, clutching her neck. Medics rushed onto the field and Balbas spent the rest of the day in the hospital where she was diagnosed with a slipped disk. Balbas wore a neck brace for a week, and said her neck is recovering quickly. She said she probably will not be able to cheer again until the game against Harvard but is trying to get clearance to cheer at the Princeton game this weekend, despite some lingering pain.
“In cheerleading there are so many injuries,” Balbas said. “Frequently girls fall and get hurt but they still cheer and stunt because our squad is so small. We really need everyone so people just tough it out and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The irony is that last week’s misperformed stunt may have garnered more attention for the squad than all the perfectly executed ones they do in an entire season.
“I was on ESPN,” Balbas said. “They were announcing the scores and they said, ‘And the Yale cheerleader is okay.’ I was like, ‘Great, I’m a national moron now.'”
The numbers game
Yale is hardly a cheerleading Mecca. Compared to a cheerleading powerhouse like the University of Kentucky, which boasts a 44-member squad and cheerleading scholarships, the Yale team scrapes by with 10 members.
Their official status as a club sport affords them the use of the Yale name, facilities (when available) and a small budget. The team cannot afford to buy new uniforms or travel to all away games and competitions, much less recruit talented freshmen and field a competitive team. At this fall’s recruitment meeting, only two freshmen joined a squad of eight returning members.
O’Garro-Moore said the small number of recruits the team gets is not just disappointing — it actually hurts the quality of the performances. Today, with only one flyer and one tumbler, limited numbers result in limited repertoire.
“There are a lot of talented girls on the squad, but unfortunately, due to our low numbers right now, we’re not able to do some of the stunts we’d like to do,” O’Garro-Moore said.
But this was not always the case. As recently as 1993, the team’s stunt difficulty was high and showmanship at its peak. That year, three men joined the team, giving it a much needed boost.
“They were able to do amazing stunting and gain a lot of recognition,” Megan Lennon ’03 said. “Everyone noticed and started talking about the cheerleading after games. That’s when the school started giving us more money.”
Before men joined, the team only received $500 from the Yale Athletic Department. After the increased recognition the men brought, the team began to receive its current funding of $2,400 a year. But spread over seven months and 10 members, $2,400 is not enough to be competitive. The team cannot afford to travel to competitions, but even if they could, their ability to compete with such a small squad is debatable.
“We simply don’t have a large enough team to be competitive,” Yu said. “Our more common goals have been to create impressive shows for the football and basketball crowds and also to show support for the teams.”
Meanwhile, the team struggles with a catch-22: they will not get enough members and money to compete until they get varsity status, and they will not be given varsity status until they have enough money and members to compete.
Because cheerleading is not a varsity sport, the team is not allowed to send letters to prospective freshmen telling them about the team, and cheerleading does not appear as one of the options on the cards sent to all incoming freshmen which asks them to indicate interest in athletic teams. Lennon said every year the team gets a few cards where freshmen have indicated an interest in cheerleading under the “other” category, but most girls do not think to do this, and it undermines the team’s recruiting efforts.
“If they don’t put cheerleading on their cards or know to say anything, then we don’t know who they are,” Lennon said. “There are a lot of girls who cheered in high school, but we’ll get girls who in mid-March will be like, ‘Oh I didn’t know there was a cheerleading team.'”
Thus the cheerleading team becomes just one of countless activities at the Freshman Bazaar and Payne Whitney Open House vying for every freshman’s attention.
“Singing is so big here and other organizations are so popular that by the time some girls realize there’s a cheerleading team, they’ll be too bogged down in work and other activities to join,” Lennon said.
Members think varsity status could be the answer to the team’s woes, and for the last six years the cheerleaders have been actively lobbying for it. Team members said they thought the team met the basic requirements of enough members, enough money for competition, corporate sponsorship and community involvement.
Each time the team sent the petition to the athletics office, it came back with a rejected stamp on it. Lennon said the Athletics Department rejected the petition because they said the team did not have enough community ties.
“Cheer squad is considered a club sport, along with 35 or so other other activities,” said Larry Matthews, the associate director for sport and recreation athletics. “But they are one of the many of the 35 teams that would like to be in the varsity family, given their druthers.”
Team members have been disappointed with the decision, Lennon said, because they believe it more than meet the qualifications for varsity status. They practice three times a week for two hours or more and condition daily in smaller groups. They adhere to the intense schedule of cheering at all home football and basketball games, as well as hosting clinics for local elementary school students who may then join them on the sidelines of a varsity game.
“It just seemed to be a lot of bureaucracy,” Lennon said. “It’s a fallacy that varsity sports earn that status. They’re just given it.”
And then there were none
Although the fans might not know it, the cheerleading team struggles with more than girls dropping each other; of the few girls successfully recruited, many members drop the team.
Last year’s squad, which started with 18 girls, ended the year with just eight. The team always expects to lose a few people between the end of football season and the beginning of basketball season. Rachel Elizondo ’03 said the team is a bigger time commitment than people realize, and the break between seasons provides a convenient opportunity for girls to quit.
“It was way too time-consuming for what it was,” said one team member, who quit after the football season ended last year.
And what “it was,” she said, was not serious or focused enough.
“We could have worked harder on more of the stunts and some of the routines,” she said. “Some of the routines weren’t ready to be performed and we didn’t use practice time efficiently. People would show up late or not at all and sometimes the coach wouldn’t even show up.”
Lennon said last year the coach got frustrated and stopped coming to practice on time and would even not show up for games. Lennon attributed a number of the team’s defections last year to these coaching problems.
“We had six freshmen last year who were really excited for Parents’ Weekend,” Lennon said. “And we’re not allowed to stunt unless the coach is there. She showed up an hour and a half late and that upset a lot of people. When the same thing happened at Harvard-Yale, a lot of girls felt it wasn’t worth it and quit.”
But Lennon concedes that there are valid reasons why the team has had three different head coaches in the past four years.
“They don’t get any real salary, just a small amount for each semester,” Lennon said. “They have to sign a new contract every year. They get frustrated by the fact that we don’t get taken seriously and don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of Yale. I’m surprised we even get coaches.”
Despite all this, the team has a new coach this year.
A storied athletic tradition
Money, members, and coaches are not the only shortages the team faces. At a school where several sports fight for modest enthusiasm from a few fans, cheerleaders can go practically unnoticed, and have a small-to-nonexistent fan base.
“We’re not seen as a sport,” Elizondo said. “People don’t see us or know we’re around. I think it’s because Yale isn’t a school with a huge sports culture.”
The cheerleaders themselves acknowledge these critical views, however false they may be.
“Some really admire what we do and like the fact that we’re at the games,” Yu said. “And there are others who are stuck on a high school stereotype that we’re ditzy and not to be taken seriously.”
Often fans are too focused on the game, or on lamenting yet another Yale loss, to even notice the cheerleaders. While fans curse the athletes for a fumbled pass or bungled play, the athletes turn to the sidelines to make their complaints, critiquing the cheerleaders’ performance.
“A lot of things our cheerleaders do leave a lot to be desired,” said one football player. “They aren’t very precise in their movements.”
Although other Ivy League cheerleading teams have been plagued with similar problems, Brown University cheerleader Sarah Romero said they have recently gained more respect.
“We’ve been working a lot harder on recruiting and awareness and getting our name out there,” Romero said. “In the past a lot of people didn’t know we had a cheerleading squad. A lot of the football team didn’t even know.”
Romero attributes their more recent success to their new coach, who has made practice, now four times a week, more serious.
“We’ve made it more structured and that’s attracted a lot more people,” Romero said. “A lot of girls who come from really serious high school squads get turned off when they go visit Ivy squads and see they’re not as structured as they’re used to.”
Despite the relatively small amount of respect cheerleaders seem to receive, it is hard for some athletes to imagine football and basketball without them.
“I appreciate the fact we have cheerleaders,” football player Jakob Kohl ’04 said. “It’s important for college football. Having cheerleaders adds to the atmosphere — but it’s the atmosphere more than the cheerleaders that’s important.”
Kohl said he does not get to watch the cheerleaders much because he has to focus on the game, but he does watch them at basketball games. From what he has seen, the cheerleaders can definitely be real crowd-pleasers and motivators, he said.
“My favorite cheerleading memory is at one of the basketball games when one of the cheerleaders came in and flipped across the floor and her wig flew off,” Kohl said. “That provided some entertainment and motivation, I imagine.”
Some students who have spent a lot of time watching the cheerleaders say they have gained a lot of respect for them.
“It’s much easier to be in the band than on the cheerleading squad,” said Gary Fernando ’03, a member of the Yale Precision Marching Band. “If the basketball team is getting trounced by 30 points or more, we can just sit there and be like, ‘This sucks.’ The cheerleaders still have to jump around and scream and pretend to be happy about it.”
Fernando said the cheerleaders and the marching band members face similar challenges on the playing field, but said that both groups have strong reasons to persevere.
“Yale has a very storied athletic tradition. [Cheerleading is] just another way to be part of that tradition,” Fernando said.
Elizondo acknowledged that while it can be tough, regardless of what the die-hard football fans might think, cheerleading is not all about standing on the sidelines and encouraging the team to fight, fight, fight for Eli Yale.
“On [Oct. 26] we were standing in the cold rain,” she said. “But even though the team might be losing, we want to use the time to show off what we’ve been practicing all week. If we’re down 30 points it’s really not that big a deal.”
— Tiffany Hunt contributed to this article.