Valerie Pavilonis

The Yale cheerleading team is cheerful, and they don’t care who knows it.

This past Tuesday, I took the elevator up to the sixth floor of Payne Whitney with contempt prior to investigation. I walked into the practice with nearly two-decades worth of bad cheer movies and polyester clad mean girls in my head. But by the end the practice, my perception changed.

When I was first assigned to cover the Yale cheerleading team, I recalled my unique qualification for the assignment. At age 10 I had a brief yet illustrious cheerleading career. For one day, I was a cheerleader. I remember staying up the night before the three-hour cheer camp I had enrolled in with my best friend. I listened to her pontificate about what the day would entail. She spoke with the kind of politically incorrect naivete it is hard to think about in retrospect. “I hope I look good in the skirt. I love how the cheerleaders are always the pretty girls. I hope they like me.” Before resigning to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, Jessie, the middle child in a family of sisters, made one last remark. “You will probably be at the bottom of the pyramid because you are too tall.” Unknowingly, my friend had actively engaged in the unwise subscription to the kind of cheerleading tropes one encounters at first glance in popular media. I don’t remember the details of that day other than it concluding with choreographed dance to the song “Ice Cream and Cake.” From the photos, it was clear that I didn’t have a career in the sport. I hung up my pom poms then and there.

When I think back to that day, I am shocked that I was even allowed to participate in the first place. A cheerleading camp seemed to be a garish blemish on the otherwise porcelain visage of my progressive upbringing in the suburbs of Seattle. In third grade, we were reading feminist poetry and discussing the male gaze. At home my mother regularly spoke about equal pay and the patriarchal plight too many working women have to bear. How did I find myself at a cheer camp? I recently asked my mother why she had signed me up for the camp. Her response was simple. “You wanted to do it.”

I cringed at her response. I somehow assuaged the embarrassing memory of the day with the belief that attending the camp was a mere way of edifying the friendship, not something I really wanted. Afterall, how could I, a feminist, and a West Coast one at that, ever support something riddled in as much conformity as cheerleading? I didn’t have an answer to my question until I spoke with the Yale cheerleading team this past week.

I’ve always known that cheerleading is challenging, but the physical feat of the sport had yet to make up for my repeated exposure to the caricatures of cheer I had always held in disdain. It couldn’t be a coincidence that mean girls of media always donned cheer outfits or that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders just happened to be some of the most sexualized women I had ever seen on TV. Until late, I felt conditioned to believe that cheerleading was a vestige of the past that fourth-wave feminists are trying to correct. Cheerleading seemed antiquated to me, unmodern and certainly un-Yale. When I watched the women of Yale Cheer storm of the field at the Yale v. Fordham football game earlier this year I remember thinking I didn’t know Yale even had cheerleaders. When I asked other students about their knowledge of the team, they admitted the same thought. Safe to say, I went to the cheer practice with a narrow-minded set of beliefs uncharacteristic of the way one ought to approach new situations.

But my brief observation of the team toppled my ignorant notions the way a slight leg tremor collapses an otherwise perfect Rosalind Pyramid. The physicality of the team was impressive; I watched cheer transform into a meditative performance art, a syncopated symphony of deep breathing and well-paced counting.

The 15-member team practices for two hours hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Tuesdays, they end practice with HIIT-style conditioning and team runs; on Sunday, they do partnered conditioning. Practice consists of tumbling practice, cheers and dances and stunting. The team does tumbling passes across a row of mats, perfecting individual skills like front walkovers and back tucks. Stunting is the most difficult part — the team constructs pyramids, lifting each other up to support the flyers, the smallest members of the team, on the third and top row. They must spot each other in case of a fall. The “bases,” who lift the others, must maintain perfect technique to avoid injury. The current coach, Courtney Pandolfi, joined the team in the fall of 2017. A former Kent State cheerleader, she runs a tight ship at practice, prioritizing safety and precision.

In the winter season, they cheer for volleyball and basketball — both the mens’ and womens’ teams — on Fridays, with a short practice beforehand to perfect their stunts. On football game days, they put on red lipstick and matching white bows and practice for an additional hour before the game. Once they’re warmed up, the team hosts meet-and-greets with fans, alums and children, taking pictures with their poms and Handsome Dan.

When I was observing practice, it wasn’t just the remarkable transformation of the 15 team members into a 15-foot edifice that I found impressive. Rather, I was startled to see the girls maintain their cheerful decorum even during practice. Not only did they smile through all of their routines, but they diligently mimed shaking their absent pom poms and waving at the nonexistent crowd 64,000 fans — the number of people they will cheer for this weekend at the Yale-Harvard game.

As I observed their steadfast enthusiasm, I began to entertain new judgements of the sport. Perhaps my reservations could now be attributed to the feigned performance of the act, the obligation to project cheer even when its inauthentic. In a community and era in which authenticity is a rare and therefore valuable commodity, I found myself considering the ways the performative aspect of cheerleading may perpetuate the inclination to shove down the gritty doom and gloom in favor of artificial rays of sun. Are there ever times when the squad members don’t want to smile? Are they allowed to break character and show the crowd how they really feel?

My distrust of the smiles and pomp feels congruous with what I have observed as a Yale student. Liberal arts education demands that we question appearances. Why are we here if not to doubt the legitimacy of the claims we encounter in everything from politics to probability theory? Cynicism runs thick in college — cue the cliché of the angsty academic’s disbelief of everything. To be a college student is to participate in the experience of disenchantment that we have taken to mean intellectual legitimacy. But do we have to hate everything to prove that we know anything?

The Yale cheerleaders do not treat misanthropy as a prerequisite for excellence. “If something goes wrong, you keep smiling. Cheerleading is just about positivity and support,” explains Natalie Lord, a sophomore in Trumbull who has been on the team since last year. This response is simple yet endearing. The girls nod in agreement at Natalie’s wise words. The team protects one of the most endangered species on campus: the optimist. Suddenly, the rehearsed smiles and waves don’t feel like pageant work but an artful presentation of goodness.

Though the Yale Cheerleading Team won’t always be there to cheer us on, the team can serve in our memory as an example of the constant opportunity we have to be positive and brave and to smile through discomfort. Maybe this performative happiness can, after all, contribute to something real. Psychologist Judith Grob of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands conducted a study to determine the effect facial expressions can have on our emotions. Though scientists have yet to conclude why, the study found that the simple act of smiling can make people feel happier. Instead of judging the way cheerleaders are obliged to project positivity, I think it can be more productive to appreciate how cheerleaders are constantly honing the art of training their minds through physical expression. I wonder what comes first, the person or the pep. Are cheerleaders first naturally upbeat people or does the sport elicit this ethos from the participants? Does it really matter? According to the General Social Survey, there has been an over 50 percent increase in unhappiness in America since 1990. Smiling, especially given its ability to evoke real happiness, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

The team comes together over the production of something challenging, believing deep in their hearts that the execution of another pyramid or the perfection of a roundoff back handspring will mean something. The sad truth is that the stunt will only last for a handful of seconds. As quickly as the formation was constructed, it ends. There is a beauty to the ephemeral nature of cheer, the idea that the formation exists only for the moment and with one purpose: to make everyone smile at something amazing. How much better life would be if we were able to come together, sweat on our brows, to stand shoulder to shoulder in the pursuit of something for the sole experience of magnanimous happiness. The Yale cheerleaders give far more than they receive. They brave sparsely attended, five-hour-long football games, asking for nothing more than for students and alumni to cheer along and contribute to the transient yet wholly satisfying exercise in pride and faith.

Beyond the way the squad supports the team they cheer for, and the Yale community at large, the most crucial support is that which they provide for each other. I watch as the teammates hoist each other to new heights with impressive stability but am even more interested in what happens when one of the formations is not executed to perfection, and one of the athletes takes an unplanned dismount from her teammates shoulders. It is in this moment that you can feel both the familial love of the team and stakes of their work. The team often reminds each other, “If you drop a ball you lose a point. If you drop someone, you lose a person.” The girls take their support of one another seriously. You will not find a cutthroat environment of animosity or competition on this team. Rather, a clear sisterhood emerges.

I use sisterhood inclusively considering that the team does not currently have male members — though former President George W. Bush ’68 once cheered the “Yale Fight Song” in his blue and white sweater. In fact, the team was once all male. Julie Tran, a junior in Davenport, explains that the team “want[s] men to tryout for the team” but hasn’t seen interest from male members of the community as of late. I ask them about gender non-conforming Yalies, and the team nods with enthusiasm. Julie says, “All we look for is interest.”

I attempt to attribute the low tryout turnout to minimal visibility on campus, perhaps due to cheer’s ambiguous status. Yale Cheer is not considered a varsity sport, prohibiting their ability to compete in competitions. But Julie contends, “it doesn’t matter how we are defined.” The team clearly doesn’t feel limited by their lack of varsity status. Yet the classification ambiguity must certainly contribute to the quiet reputation of cheer on campus.

Perception, however, is changing. The girls credit Pandolfi, their new coach, as one of the recent positive improvements to the team. Coach Pandolfi runs practice confidently and smoothly. She is strict, chastising the girls when chatter erupts during a routine. Her feedback, though, is constructive. Coach Pandolfi clearly values safety and precision. She is quick to praise the girls and suggest minor tweaks that make the formation secure and powerful.

Coach Pandolfi calls out encouragements from the mats as the girls move in intimate synchronization to form their structures. “Your job is to make things easy for her,” Coach Pandolfi calls out in regards to the squad’s support of the team’s flyer, Gabby. As I watch Gabby descend from the top of the pyramid and fall into her teammates’ arms, I catch an air of female solidarity, the feeling that here, in this all-female gym, women support women. Perhaps the depiction of cheerleading in popular media, then, includes the feminism that I witnessed on Tuesday.

Film critic A.O. Scott debunks one of the most incriminating depictions of cheer in his review of the 2000’s film “Bring It On”. Scott launches a sharp critique at the underdeveloped racial plot of the film but praises other elements of Peyton Reed’s iconic sports dramedy. Having already acknowledged the “flimsy scaffolding for the shameless exploitation of young women in short skirts,” Scott changes his tone. “But in the post-Brandi Chastain era, female athleticism and female sexuality seem closer together than ever, and underneath this movie’s tight acrylic sweater beats an unapologetically feminist heart.” There is something to be said for women lifting other women up, cheering on and supporting each other to construct something that defies the laws of physics and the problematic yet widely held notion that women are more likely to tear each other down than hold each other up. Cheerleading is inherently collaborative and necessarily selfless. I wonder how movements for equity would change if women and their feminist allies were willing to each bear the burden of a collective effort, standing taller because some had offered their backs. Yes, this year the Yale cheerleading team is entirely female, but I think the notions of equity can extend to years past and future when non-female members will hopefully join the team. The cheerleaders conclude practice with a count off and declaration of “family!” There really is something familial, whether it be a sisterhood or not, about the dynamic, something wonderfully giving and supportive.

I spent limited time with the Yale cheerleading team, but I left that practice with a better sense of why I had wanted to participate in that cheerleading camp in the first place. Cheerleading is fun, and it allows you to be a part of something. In a single-gendered sense, cheer can help women find a sisterhood, but in a more inclusive way, it can help anyone find their place in a network of support. The only aspect of football I have ever found intriguing is the way the players defend one another, throwing their bodies in front of the enemy to protect a brother in arms. Many sports were designed for military preparation. Cheer, on the other hand, represents the war we fight at home to be supportive, optimistic and content with the marvelous things that cannot last forever.

As the team and I exit Payne Whitney and enter the cold November night, I can feel the warmth of the sisterhood. They catch up with me as I cross the street to ask me questions. “What’s your name again?” “College?” “What year are you?” I respond dutifully but bashfully, answering that I’m a first year in Davenport. In near unison they cheer, “Welcome to Yale!!!” Hannah Armistead, a sophomore in Berkeley, described the team as a “godsend” when she first came to Yale knowing no one. As the group disperses into the dark, I can begin to see why…

Ella Attell | ella.attell@yale.edu