NCC Nationals: Continuing a rich tradition
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2015 - 12:00am

This weekend, the 10th season of the National Cheerleading Championship reaches its climax at the SM Mall of Asia Arena. The best cheerleading teams from all over the country will be showcasing new routines and more impressive stunts in an effort to upset favorites like National University, University of the Philippines and Central Colleges of the Philippines. It will be loud, it will be exciting, and it will be fun. But most importantly, the televised competition will be run well, as it is based on the standards set by the International Cheer Union (ICU), the recognized world governing body for the sport which wa established in 2004 and counts over 105 national federations among its members.

Cheerleading began about 130 years ago, roughly a decade after college football was organized in the United States. A Princeton graduate named Thomas Peebles, took the Princeton cheers to the University of Minnesota, where football and fight songs had become fashionable, but not directly to fire up their team. In 1898, U of M was in the middle of a slump and looked headed to another loss as it played Princeton, a college football pioneer. Suddenly, a medical student named Johnny Campbell built on Peebles’ idea and gathered a group of male students to pump up the team and the crowd using a megaphone and some borrowed and made-up cheers. Campbell and his boys became the first “yell squad”, and set a trend for other colleges to follow. Yellers typically wore matching collared shirts, slacks and belts, and sometimes sweaters.

But not everybody took a liking to cheering. In 1911, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell called it “the worst means of expressing emotion ever invented.” Needless to say, his comments were largely ignored. 

The 1920’s started many historic trends in cheerleading. In 1923, women were first allowed to join, though in relatively smaller numbers. This stimulated the inclusion of tumbling and other changes. One unforeseen development connected to this was the evolution of the uniform. Naturally, women wore skirts, which evolved in length and style through the decades. But it was only in the 1970’s when female cheerleaders were allowed to wear athletic shoes instead of the incongruent saddle shoes of previous generations. Today, overall, the vast majority of cheerleaders (close to 90 percent) are women.

In 1924, the year after women were voted into their school cheering squads, Stanford introduced cheerleading to its curriculum, albeit by a more clumsy name. According to the New York Times, the announcement read, “There will be classes in Bleacher Psychology, Correct Use of the Voice, and Development of Stage Presence. Credit will be given to sophomores trying out for the position of yell-leader.” By the late 1930’s female cheerleaders flooded campuses as millions of American men were being sent away to fight in World War II. By 1940, over 30,000 high schools and colleges in the US already had cheerleading teams.

In 1948, seeing a need to streamline and unify what was still called a “side activity” to football and baseball, Southern Methodist University cheerleader Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer organized the first summer cheerleading clinic at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College in Huntsville, Texas. That first clinic attracted 52 girls and one boy. According to several sources including TIME.com and Varsity.com, Herkimer is credited with originating many of cheerleading’s fundamental moves – including the “Herkie”, which was named after him. He also formally included the pompom (from the French pompe or “tuft of ribbons”) which had been around since the late 1930’s as an optional accessory, In 1961, he incorporated the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA). By this time, the crepe paper pompoms had been replaced with strips of vinyl that didn’t bleed onto clothing when rained or sweated on, and lasted much longer.

All this growth stimulated the more formal organization of the sport. In 1974, former NCA general manager Jeff Webb founded Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA), which taught higher level skills. Around the same time, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders brought attention to the sport with their skimpy uniforms and rising popularity of the team, which played in Super Bowl X. The 1980’s ushered in the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators) (AACCA, the first association devoted to teaching safety to coaches and advisors in 1987. UCA has grown into Varsity Spirit Corp., today, encompassing 17 cheerleading event, apparel and service companies.

Eventually, cheerleaders became an integral part of professional sports, as well. They are considered ambassadors of their teams, and Teams in the NBA and NFL maintain large numbers of cheerleaders to represent them in civic and charity work, television appearances, and to generate merchandise like calendars and women’s apparel. In the Philippines, the National Cheerleading Championship, has grown dramatically in the last five years. A member of the ICU, the NCC has endured attempts at governance by national sports associations of other sports and politics and intrigue by sticking to its rules and independently growing its sport to the current phenomenon that it is today. In 2010, the ICU applied for membership with the International Olympic Committee. Its world championship held in Florida every year attracts hundreds of teams from all over the world, and is a major television event. 

Despite all of this growth and development, there are those who do not respect cheer as a legitimate sport. The US NCAA, for example, still treats it as a side event because not every member school takes it seriously, For those who don’t consider cheer a sport, consider a few facts. The pound-for-pound strength required to be in the sport and perform the routines is level to that of a jockey, and they are considered the strongest athletes in the world for their size. The best cheer squads practice five hours a day, and use no equipment. Following the line of reasoning would these critics consider golfers and race car drivers athletes? Even basketball, the country’s favorite sport, was once merely intermission entertainment for ballroom dancing in the 1930’s. Organizationally, NCC could also teach some national sports associations a thing or two about professionalism.

One thing cannot be denied now that the National Cheerleading Championship is in its 10th season. The Philippines is a power to be reckoned with internationally. Team Philippines placed third in its category (second highest) in the World Cheer Championships last year. The highest category is participated in mainly by American sqauds whi have decades, even a century of a headstart. The past two years have seen the country send school cheer squads to the Southeast Asian Cheerleading Championships and win handily. Three years ago, this writer was at that same event, and witnessed all the other teams give the Philippine juniors team a standing ovation during their first practice session. Throughout Asia, the Philippines and Japan are the recognized juggernauts in the sport.

The main challenge now is for the NCC to find a way to compete against the US teams that have a substantial size advantage. Itos Valdes, who runs the NCC, explains.

“In terms of athletic ability, our cheerleaders are at par with anyone in the world. The female athletes are the same. But the men in the US teams are bigger, so the stunts are more daring, they throw the girls higher, the pyramids are higher. That’s really the only thing keeping them ahead.”

For the uninitiated, that is what you will witness on Saturday and Sunday, young people who have molded themselves into world-class, creative, daring, fearless athletes. And that goes way beyond mere school spirit.

A PRINCETON AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF CHEERLEADING COACHES AND ADMINISTRATORS CHEERLEADERS CHEERLEADING NATIONAL NATIONAL CHEERLEADING CHAMPIONSHIP SPORT TEAMS WORLD
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