B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
than pyramid building
By Brian Fitzgerald
Standing on her right foot -- which her uniformed cohorts are holding high in the air -- a woman points her left elbow to the ceiling as her left hand grabs her left foot behind her back. This impressive act of contortion, known as a "scorpion," takes place not at a Cirque du Soleil show, but in the Case Gym during a time-out at the February 12 BU men's basketball game against Towson.
It's clear that the BU cheerleader whose left knee is bent almost beyond belief has had gymnastics training. On the dismount, three cheerleader spotters break her fall (it's called a "basket toss") and guide her gently to the floor. As they next assemble a three-level, nine-person pyramid, it's obvious that they're not the rah-rah cheerleaders of the high school variety. They've certainly proved their athleticism to the clapping and cheering crowd.
"The stunts we perform are a lot more creative -- and a lot more dangerous -- than what high school cheerleaders do," says cocaptain Patricia Harris (SED'01), adding that teammates' injuries have included broken noses. "People at the bottom of the pyramid are at more risk of getting hurt. Underneath, you can get an elbow to the face."
Forget the stereotypes: today's college cheerleaders are neither airheads nor window dressing. The activity has come a long way as more people have begun to realize that strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination are required. The BU cheerleading team, which has been a club sport at Boston University for the past three years, recently qualified for a trip to the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) national championship competition in Orlando, Fla., where it barely missed making the finals on January 12. BU placed sixth out of seven teams, and only the first five advanced.
"It's a dedicated group of athletes," says Tracey Duttz, assistant director of intramural and club sports at BU. Some of the team's travel expenses, including transportation to several men's basketball away games, are funded by the University's Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, along with the Undergraduate Student Fee. But the trip to Florida wasn't covered, and it didn't come cheap. "The cheerleaders are hardworking, and they've raised a lot of money by holding fundraisers and soliciting sponsorships from businesses," says Duttz. "They've impressed me."
Colleen Furtak (SED'04) has been on cheerleading squads since fourth grade. She wasn't planning to join BU's team until she saw the club represented at the University's annual SPLASH! fair in September. "I could see they were committed," she says. "For a lot of cheerleaders in high school, it was just something to do after school, but it's a lot different at the college level. At practices and at games -- and we practiced three times a week before nationals -- everybody really wants to be there." Running and weight lifting are part of the regimen. Attendance at practice is mandatory: after all, if one person isn't there, a pyramid is impossible.
For Jacklyn Garcia (CAS'02), cheerleading is "a great way to relieve stress." The former high school cheerleader acknowledges that the college version of her sport "is much more complex and demanding," but points out that young squads are getting more sophisticated. This could be because they're learning from the best: working for the UCA's northeast office in Boston last summer, Garcia taught at cheerleading camps for girls aged 7 to 18 in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maine. "We have also presented stunt clinics to high school students, including a team of all stars in Everett [Mass.]," she says.
The recent movie Bring It On, about a California high school team in the national championships, has popularized the sport among the younger crowd. In fact, "competitive cheer" is the fastest-growing high school sport for girls, and approximately a third of U.S. high schools have competitive teams.
Cheerleaders still deal with the old characterizations, fostered by a famous Saturday Night Live skit. "Yes, you still hear the stereotypes," says Harris. "Some people still think we're a bunch of stupid girls, that sort of thing." Quite the opposite is true at BU. Garcia has a dual major in international relations and Latin American languages and literatures. Emily Gleich (CAS'04) is a premed major. Harris and Kathy D'Innocenzo (SED'01) are both student teachers in the Newton Public Schools. Each member of the BU team has a GPA above 3.0, and last year's squad had one of the top GPAs among BU clubs.
The BU team performs at men's basketball home games. The next two are on Tuesday, February 20, vs. Holy Cross, and Friday, February 23, vs. New Hampshire. Both contests are at 7 p.m. But the action isn't limited to Case Gym. The cheerleaders will also participate in a regional cheerleading competition at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., on Saturday, February 24.
Coach Leah Fratturelli wants to see the team ranked among the top three squads at the nationals next year. Senior Harris says that is a realistic expectation, considering the fact that only 4 of the 22 members are seniors -- at present there are 13 freshmen on the team. "This year was a building year," she says. "If we improve next year as much as we did this year, a top three ranking isn't out of the question. I only wish I could be around."
Fratturelli says that a top three ranking is a "lofty goal," but like a pyramid, the more sound the footing, the higher the team can ascend. "And I think our foundation is strong enough," she says.