With one of their biggest performances of the year drawing closer, IMPACT went down to meet the Varsity team that everybody loves, even when sometimes they might not want to admit it. Enter the Nottingham Knights…
When the half time whistle blows at Varsity all eyes are one team – the cheerleaders. Whether it’s genuine enthusiasm for the stunts and routines or a passing interest in the short skirts, for 5 ½ minutes the attention of the crowd turns to the Nottingham Knights.
Off-pitch, no group of individuals can rival the cheerleaders in terms of reputation, but whether our Hollywood perceptions hold true is another matter entirely. Thanks to films such as Bring It On and television series including Glee, the stigma attached to the practice is well and truly ingrained in our popular culture. The cheerleaders we are exposed to on-screen generally adhere to an incredibly negative stereotype, so I was intrigued to see exactly just what did go on behind the doors of the Jubilee Sports Centre – and whether the stereotype would be proven wrong. When I dropped in on their Tuesday evening training session, I was given the chance to see what goes on behind the smiles and pom poms.
Aside from the huge speaker at the side of the hall, first impressions were of any other sports team training for an event. In gym gear and trainers, the squad practised stunts and rehearsed routines pretty relentlessly. With the coach and captain keeping them in check – much like your average drill sergeant when it came to keeping everyone quiet – the 45-strong team were focused on getting their routine up to scratch. What struck me as I watched them run and re-run stunts was how well the squad worked together – stopping to help and explain things to each other so that nobody was left behind. In the run up to Varsity appearances, the squad’s training sessions have increased from twice a week to include full-day weekend rehearsals, in the hope that all this teamwork will produce a seamless routine. Knights president Tonya agrees that as with any dance or sport, the key to getting the best out of everyone lies in ‘getting in as much practice as possible.’
Competitively, our cheerleaders are certainly reaping the rewards of their hard work. Stood conspicuously at the front of the hall was a rather impressive trophy – a 1st place reward from the Future Cheer Senior Open. Although there’s still a long way to go until the Nottingham Knights, or British cheerleading teams in general, catch up with their ‘incredible’ American counterparts, the popularity of cheerleading in the UK is growing. Tonya noted that “a lot more universities” are getting involved on the competition circuit, and cheerleading is slowly getting more recognition as a ‘sport’. The sport debate is a complex one, with many associations and sporting bodies arguing for and against cheerleading as a contact or non-contact sport, and whether it counts as a competitive pursuit. The Knights president pointed out that ‘people don’t realise how physically demanding it is’, and from what I saw at the training session, she’s right. An hour into the evening and someone was already sat on the side-lines nursing a sprained wrist, hardly surprising when girls are being thrown about like rag dolls. Injuries are a pretty unavoidable part of any gymnastic-like sport, and even the president has suffered from concussion along the way. She pointed out that the stunts in cheerleading routines are ‘dangerous’ and that’s why they ‘spend so much teaching people the basics, learning how to fall, keeping things as safe as possible. Even the best teams fall – there are always going to be injuries.’
Injuries aside, she argues that cheerleading is essentially ‘good fun’, and open to anyone. Although gymnasts make obvious candidates for good cheerleaders, people are trained from scratch every year, regardless of any previous experience. Contrary to the Bring It On aesthetic, I saw 45 pretty normal girls (and guys) taking part. Of course they need to be fit (I certainly couldn’t do a backflip or climb to the top of a pyramid), but they didn’t look like starving clones or intimidating high school bullies. Tonya brushed off the cheerleading stigma saying that everyone was friendly and out to prove the critics wrong, even if some people did still believe that the girls ‘must be horrible’ and the guys ‘must be gay.’ There were five male cheerleaders at the practice, who as far as I could tell, seemed to be onto a pretty good deal surrounded by 40 girls every week. The guys are good cheerleaders ‘because they’re so much stronger’ and enable the squad to perform more daring aerial stunts.
Just what these stunts will be at Varsity Football is a closely guarded secret, and it’s no wonder considering how much goes into producing the routines. Beth, the Nottingham Knights captain “spends hours watching cheerleading videos” looking for inspiration for the stunts and routines, whilst the coaches and vice president work on the music score. With 3 Varsity routines to perfect, the squad start rehearsing as early as January, a necessity for what they ‘train for all year’. Although Tonya described the rivalry with the NTU Tigers as ‘friendly’, it means a lot to the squad to have the University crowd behind them on the day. Given that our crowd is apparently nowhere near as vocal as our rivals, Varsity Football might be a good time to show our cheerleaders our support and beat Trent in the process.