“1… 3… 5… 7! 1… 3… 5… 7!”
Thirty-plus pairs of feet hit the floor. Girls go tumbling, girls go jumping, girls go flipping and flying in all directions, all in perfect rhythm with first-year coach Jennifer Randell’s numeric chanting. Well, almost perfect. It’s just a practice, after all.
It’s eight o’clock on a Wednesday night, and some members of the Dalhousie cheer team are still trickling into the Dalplex. Practice officially starts at 7:30, but a few of the girls had to write exams. It’s one of the many obstacles to coaching a university team, explains Coach Randell as she apologizes for the sloppy stunts, but to anyone unfamiliar with the sport, even poorly executed cheerleading is an incredible sight to behold.
A cheer routine is comprised of six main disciplines: stunts, pyramid, jumps, tumbles (both standing and running), basket tosses and dance. They are judged by the difficulty and execution of the individual components, as well as overall performance and composition.
Executing any part of the routine takes plenty of talent and practice, but the basket tosses are the most visually striking. Two cheerleaders, called the bases, make a platform with their hands. A third cheerleader, known as the backspot, helps another cheerleader, called the flyer, onto this platform. The backspot then places her hands underneath the bases’ hands as the three of them launch the flyer into the air. It’s a painful procedure for the bases as the flyer steps on the bony tops of their hands, but it’s also a necessary one to boost the flyer as possible.
Once in the air, the flyer twists and turns and lands back in the arms of the other girls with an impact. The cheerleaders are meant to absorb the stress from the landing as much as possible, but that can be tough on the hard floors of the Dalplex, which are covered only by thin mats.
That’s another obstacle to coaching a university team—inadequate facilities. The Dalplex floors aren’t sprung like those meant for cheering, so they aggravate or exacerbate various pains when the girls practice on them. Their flips, cartwheels and other gymnastic feats, which compose the tumbling part of the routine, would be better on a proper floor. At least, that’s what Coach Randell says. The uninformed observer has to take her word for it, because even on this subpar surface the team’s tumbling is jaw dropping.
Not everyone participates equally in each portion of the routine. For example, backspots are usually taller to support the flyers as the bases hold them up, and flyers are generally shorter and lighter so they are easier to toss and support in the air. When it comes to the sections like dancing, jumping or tumbling, the most talented are placed at the head of the group, where they are most visible.
Sophie Beazley-Wright tumbles at the very front. She is an assistant captain in her third year on the team, and her position is base. She was a gymnast before she started cheering, hence her tumbling skill. When she retired from gymnastics, she needed a new sport, but it took a lot of convincing for her to try cheerleading. Now, she can hardly imagine her life without it.
“One thing I really like about it more than gymnastics is the team aspect of it, because gymnastics is such an individual sport,” she says. “I did not realize how much it meant to have people supporting your back and working to lift you higher.”
Beazley-Wright’s teammates support her literally and figuratively. She and her co-captains make an effort to ensure the girls feel as much like a team off the mat as they do on it. They host team-bonding sessions, work and party together, and even volunteer together. Last year the team was named Dalhousie’s most impactful competitive sports society, and the captains work to maintain that generous spirit.
Jenna Brownlow is the team captain, and also a base. She started her athletic career as a basketball player, but switched sports when she attended a March Madness basketball game in Ohio and became enamoured with the cheerleaders. It’s her fourth and final year as a part of the team, so she’s taking her role as captain seriously.
“I like to make it as comfortable as I can for the first years, too, coming to university,” she says. “A lot of people are from Ontario or out of province, so it’s creating that family aspect, like a home away from home, so they are more comfortable and enjoying first year on a different level.”
“We work really hard to have lots of team bonding events and make sure that everyone on the team is getting along,” says Beazley-Wright. “It can make or break a team. If you don’t get along with your teammates, it’s really hard to work with them.”
In a sport that requires harmonization down to the millisecond, chemistry is incredibly important both within the individual units of a routine and for the team as a whole. For example, a pair of bases that always work together will learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses so that one would know to compensate for, say, her partner’s weak front arm. And during sections that rely on each member performing her job exactly, such as the pyramid, being able to trust your teammates is integral to success; one mistake can ripple across and ruin the whole routine.
This ultra-reliance on every athlete creates an overwhelming pressure to compete, even through serious injury. Brownlow, for example, got hurt last season when she caught a teammate awkwardly during a flyover stunt and her knee buckled underneath her. She kept cheering, but she has to wear a knee brace to do it. She has an MRI scheduled for her knee as soon as she gets home after the school year.
“I find that cheerleading people just push through injuries more than any other sport I’ve been a part of,” she says. “You’re required more. If there’s one person missing, the entire pyramid can’t go.”
“It’s kind of bound to happen with all those bodies flying around and girls up in the air and stuff,” adds Beazley-Wright.
Just like in other sports, the cheer team is being forced to take injuries more seriously than in the past. Anyone who was concussed needs a doctor’s note to return to action after the team struggled with several concussions last year.
The team suffered some untimely injuries this season as well. Partially due to those injuries they lost Cheer Blast, their first competition of the year—and the team’s first loss in four seasons.
“We just had a couple of setbacks, people not staying at the school (another obstacle to coaching a university team!), a couple injuries,” says Coach Randell.
Those injuries forced the team to change up their routine two days before the competition, so they had the option to drop out altogether. But the team works too hard all season to give up in any competition.
“They didn’t want to, they weren’t going to back down,” says Randell. “They’ll take a loss to make the win mean even more.”
And win they did. The team came back to claim the banner at Maritime Meltdown, it’s second tournament of the year, in convincing fashion.
“This is by far one of the most talented group of athletes I’ve ever coached, and I’ve been coaching for nine years. It’s a privilege to coach them,” says Randell. “In the last month or so, especially, they’ve really pulled together with a common goal to redeem that title they’ve had for a couple of years now.”
The next competition for the team is their biggest: CheerExpo Championships at the Halifax Forum. There are 120 total teams in the tournament, although only a fraction of those are in Dalhousie’s division. After their loss to start the season they have been working hard to defend their CheerExpo title. They practice twice a week from 11:00 to 1:00 on Sundays and 7:30 to 10:30 on Wednesday nights, and are expected to do their own conditioning sessions at least twice a week on top of that. After all their hard work, the Tigers are feeling confident.
“We’ll win our next one,” says Brownlow.
“We’re hoping to have zero deductions,” says Beazley-Wright. That would be an astonishing achievement, but not an impossible one for this team; they were only deducted one and a half points for their routine on the final day of their previous tournament.
Even though the team suffered some setbacks in her first year as coach, Randell couldn’t be more proud of her girls and the perseverance they’ve shown.
“They make you realize why you still do this, why you still coach.”