May. 10, 2019

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Kennedy's Last Dance

All-star cheer is to different eyes defiantly feminist and overtly sexist. To some, it's not even a sport. Kennedy Thames just wants to win.

Starting in January, new videos begin to pop-up on all-star cheerleader Kennedy Thames’s dormant YouTube channel. The focus is always eighteen year old Thames; all bubbly and upbeat, cheerful smile and manicured brows. In them Thames takes us through her day, shuttling from eyelash appointments, to lunch with her mom, and finally to the cheer gym where she practices tumbling routines.
Eighteen months prior Thames was on top of the cheer world. A micro-celebrity with 170,000 Instagram followers and the flyer for the vaunted Rockstar Beatles. The flyer is the most dangerous role in cheer, suited only for the most reckless, and exceptionally trusting, daredevil.

Then in practice she landed wrong on a a complex tumbling pass called a double, in which the athlete builds momentum through a cartwheel-like roundoff before launching herself into a backflip and finishing with a 360 degree twist, tearing her ACL. She should have had her knee surgically repaired, which might have forced her into early retirement. She didn’t. The surgery comes with a year of recovery, and she didn’t have that long. Peak all-star cheer careers are cruelly short, usually ending when the athlete begins college, and hers was still missing its crowning achievement: a gold medal at the World Championships. By her math if she didn’t win at the 2018 Worlds, she never would.

She put off the procedure to compete and gave up her starring position as a flyer. She hoped that, by receding to the background, she’d keep her dream of a Worlds gold medal alive. But in April 2018 her squad, the Rockstar Beatles, placed fifth.
On May 10 she went under the knife and spent the next seven months quietly regaining her strength. Then the first of those periodic vlogs appeared online. In one she’s sitting in her car, speaking candidly. “Y’all, I am really freaking out,” she confesses. “I’m really going to tumble today? Wow. I just need to get the first one over with.”
In another, Thames gets reflective. “I felt like the sport that I loved so much was slipping away from me,” she says. “But the comeback is greater than the setback.”
She seems to know, even then, that she won’t return fully to her former glory. With limited strength and mobility, any future in cheer will be in a supportive role. On camera, she doesn't seem to care. With her injury behind her, and the knowledge that she’d soon be aging out of the program, Thames was set for one last push.
When competition season opens her team is unstoppable, sweeping the all-star cheer circuit. The Beatles win gold at the NCA Championships in early March, finish first in their division at Cheersport Nationals, and earn another gold at the UCA International All Star Championship—the triple crown of cheer. But the biggest prize, the one that matters, was still to come, at Cheerleading Worlds in Orlando, Florida.

All-star cheer is the only sport to combine the glamour of a beauty pageant with elite athletic prowess. The minimalist, color-blocked geometry of high school and college cheerleading uniforms are too subdued for all-star cheerleaders, who prefer flashier, more playful and glamorous attire. On competition day, a tight spandex top embellished with rhinestones and glitter is paired with a short skirt or shorts and epic hair. The base of the ponytail is teased-up and sprayed solid, while the remaining hair is curled into bouncy ringlets or flat-ironed stick-straight.  Smokey eyeliner, glittered eyelids, and red lipstick complete the look, while the cheer bow sits atop like a crown.
In competition, all-star cheer squads boil a year’s worth of practice down to one hundred eighty seconds: two and a half minutes of stunts, pyramids, tumbling, and dance. Every move must hit—no one misses a cue, gets dropped, or accidentally kicks a teammate in the face. Every movement must be perfectly timed to the music—not least of all because multiple tumbling passes often intersect, leaving catastrophic collision always a split second away. All the while, the girls maintain their own internal metronome, lip-syncing to keep time.
Despite that pressure, the routine is imbued with an aura of cockiness, a kind of pumped up enthusiasm bordering on mania. Sassy smirks and hair flips add to the cheerleading girl power persona. The task is simple, really: Perform the most difficult, strenuous, even dangerous activities, and do it all with a smile on your face.
While there are no pom-poms or crowd-pleasing chants at an all-star cheer competition, the physical elements are otherwise familiar. From the jumps (pike, toe-touch, herkie), to the pyramids, and the stunts (basket toss, tick-tock, bow and  arrow). The tumbling—twists, backflips, and double-fulls the likes of which you’d expect to see at a gymnastics competition—is spectacular. The International Olympic Committee acknowledges this; in 2017, cheerleading earned “provisional Olympic status,” meaning it can petition to be included in the 2020 Tokyo games.
But that doesn’t mean its athletes are always, or even mostly, taken seriously. Whereas fans follow Thames and see athletic heroism, detractors see an unserious performer.

Cheerleading is built around the specific skills of women. The star, the daring flyer, requires a lean and wiry build, quick-twitch agility, and a small frame. Womanhood is not just prioritized, it’s necessitated. It’s unsurprising, then, that the discourse so often focuses solely on the athlete’s appearance. The talking points are consistent and predictable: cheerleaders are eye-candy, sideline entertainment. Their primary skillset, some contend, is their looks.
Women across a broad spectrum of professional life are subject to incessant analysis of their physical appearance. Often these unwanted criticisms are met with some version of “My appearance doesn’t affect my job performance.” But in the case of all-star cheer, there’s no separating the athlete’s appearance from the sport itself; the two are bound tightly by design.
The cheer uniform exists almost in defiance of athletic norms. Fans appreciate what athletes do not despite the sparkles and bows but because of them. In cheer young women have found a haven where it’s not only acceptable to appear feminine, it's actively encouraged. With or without intending to, all-star cheer is engaged in subversive action: the traditional trappings of womanhood, the uniform screams, do not get in the way of exceptional athleticism.
And it is exceptional—a point even cheer’s detractors will concede. Cheerleaders are athletes, the thinking goes, they just don’t participate in a sport. “Sports teams exist to compete, not to perform and entertain or support another group that competes,” writes former college cheerleader Alyssa Roegnik in a 2014 ESPN article titled Sorry, Cheerleading is Not A Sport. “In the cheer-as-sport conversation, this is the most important element to understand. One can be an athlete and not participate in a sport.” Roegnik concedes that all-star cheer is sport, because the athletes “participate solely to compete,” with one addendum: “It is not cheerleading.” 
This dismissive approach to cheer is common, longstanding, and worth unpacking: the focus on outward appearance, this thinking goes, itself invalidates cheerleading as sport. To critics like Roegnik, the cheerleader’s insistence on her own agency is an attack on professional sports, and an uncomfortable reckoning with the role women play in them. So they tell athletes like Thames that they can’t be both participating in sport and cheerleading simultaneously. They suggest that all-star cheerleaders are teetering on the edge of frivolity, saved only by the convenient appearance of a judge.
But what’s really the distance between cheerleaders and, say, basketball players, by these criteria? LeBron James competes in a flashy purple and yellow tank-top and bright shoes. Most of his money comes from his entertainment value, not a per-basket stipend. In fact across all major men’s sports, prominent athletes are pushing fashion boundaries on and off the field of play. Largely, this is celebrated as a source of fascination. Cheer and basketball are not the same, but no two sports are. Their perception, though, is much further than it needs to be. Criticism of cheer usually reveals itself as at least hypocritical, if not outright sexist. If cheerleaders presented differently, might its critics be more lenient about their definition of sport?
The consequences of the debate over cheer's merits are not just aesthetic or emotional—they’re structural. At the American collegiate level, cheer doesn’t qualify as a sport under Title IX, which prevents gender discrimination by institutions that receive federal funding. On college campuses cheerleaders might be considered athletes, but they do not participate in a school-sanctioned sport. Universities, in other words, gladly use cheer to sell tickets at other athletic competitions but do not offer cheerleaders the same financial or institutional support.

This is all not to say, though, that cheer’s uniform is without flaw. While the look is itself a part of the sport’s appeal, it’s also a relic of a time when big hair and heavy makeup were synonymous with womanhood. It can seem retrograde and exclusionary of those with alternative understandings of femininity. In this way, cheer holds a contrarian place in women’s sport, to different eyes defiantly feminist and overtly sexist.
The femininity on display in cheerleading does present a narrow, even old-fashioned definition of womanhood. Its continued existence can empower women to embrace an effeminate style that they’re conditioned to see as unserious. But as more young people embrace gender fluidity and queer identities, our definition of what is feminine must necessarily broaden in stride.
If all-star cheer doesn’t adapt to this political sea change it could become regressive, a sport where womanhood is too tightly defined. At the moment, the space that women occupy in sports is polarizing: They must either look hyper-feminized as they do in cheer or ice skating, or cut a more neutral figure as they do in softball and basketball.
The Rockstar Beatles, to their credit, prove that there is already some flexibility in cheer’s standards: The girls wear shorts and knee-high socks, and they don’t wear bows in their mostly flat-ironed ponytails. There’s still plenty of purple eyeshadow, though. Judging by her enthusiastic posting throughout the season, Thames wouldn’t have it any other way.

As April winds down, Thames and the rest of the Rockstar Beatles arrive in Orlando along with 11,000 athletes from forty countries. The twenty-two months since her accident, filled with grueling physical recovery, crippling self-doubt, and a massive competitive failure, was all in the service of this moment.
Thames shows us the weekend unfolding on her social media channels. As the Beatles' time comes, she uses a pair of pliers to remove her earrings, avoiding a two-point deduction. Then, they perform their routine—limbs flailing, hair whipping. The team is frenzied, almost frantic, but the flyer’s stunts are crisp and steady. The girls pop into the air like fireworks and each basket toss leads to a fluid airborne twist.
Thames, still restrained by her knee brace, again slips to the background. She executes a few tumbling passes, which may have been a make-work gift from her teammates. For the majority of the routine she's near the back of the mat, standing behind the bases as they support the flyer’s daring stunts. She’s shouting support and encouragement to her teammates.
Teams perform twice at Worlds, once on Saturday and once on Sunday. As Sunday’s routine comes to a close, a camera finds Thames as she realizes what that the judges will later confirm—her Beatles are about to win their division at Worlds. The first squad in Rockstar Cheer history to do so. 
She rests on one knee, her face buried in her hands. Disbelief and joy. In another snippet of video, from after the awards ceremony, Thames films herself sobbing, make-up smudged, her gold medal hanging around her neck.

Elisabeth Sherman is a food and culture writer based in Jersey City

Sophie Berg is a Toronto-based illustrator

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