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Dancers versus Cheerleaders: Bring It On

by Rachel Levin
August 22, 2001
Los Angeles, CA

Dancers versus Cheerleaders: Bring It On


8/22/2001

These dancers perform cutting-edge choreography to the latest music. Beautiful, athletic, coordinated, and synchronized, they could very well belong to the upper echelons of the dance world.


Only these dancers make their moves with short skirts, matching hair ribbons, and pom-poms.


Yes, I'm talking about cheerleaders, who are to many dancers the embarrassing stepchildren of the dance world. But, like it or not, the dance-in-formation routines of cheerleaders are perhaps the most mainstream dance images available to wide audiences today. From American Beauty to Bring It On to Sugar and Spice, images of dancing cheerleaders are ubiquitous in contemporary film.


So what is cheerleading's relationship to dance, and why is it so often shunned as trivial by serious dancers?


Perhaps what is at stake in the dance versus cheerleading rivalry is authenticity. Dance is thought of as real and organic bodily expression, while cheerleading is perceived as appropriated and crass. Throughout the film Bring It On, cheerleading is placed in opposition to "real" dance. The head cheerleader, Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), is ridiculed by friends and family members for devoting her life to an activity that is meaningless. As the eccentric choreographer Sparky Polastri reminds her squad condescendingly, "I am a choreographer. You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to transform your pathetic routines into poetry written on the human body." His outrageous training of this cheerleading team, the Toros, invokes the codes of ballet training. He sizes up the body of each cheerleader, pointing out each of their individual imperfections, and demands that everyone goes on a diet. Under his tutelage, the Toros are shown practicing pliés at the bar just as dancers would do in a ballet class.


Though put in opposition to one another for comic effect, I think that ballet and cheerleading actually have more similarities than differences in the economy of movement. In both, precision is valued over improvisation; conformity with other dancers is necessary to achieve tightly synchronized formations. Strict discipline is required to execute both precarious cheerleading stunts and precarious ballet lifts in the air. Cheerleading, like ballet, is a "safe" format in which men and women can articulate suggestive movements without being labeled as "bad" or as overtly sexual. In addition, historically both ballet and cheerleading have been "white" forms of movement.


The major ideological difference between the two movement styles, then, must be intent. Ballet is danced for the sake of artistic expression, while cheerleading dance is intended to rally a crowd. Or is it?


The characters in Annie Weisman's new play, Be Aggressive, would beg to differ. The play, which is enjoying a successful first run at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego through August 26, is a dark comedy about a high school cheerleader, Laura, who loses her mother in a car accident. In order to deal with the pain of the loss, she cheers. Bible-belt intensity cheerleading, that is. "Cheer for cheer's sake" becomes her new motto. Oddly enough, in this plastic-surgery-and-chain-megastore-ridden suburb of Southern California, cheerleading itself becomes a source of redemption. Laura's story reveals the way in which the energetic and perky movements of cheerleading often conceal the complex emotional turmoil of the girls (and of course boys) who participate.


Wait a minute. Perhaps we can no longer say that dance is always serious art and cheerleading is always mindless fluff. Both categories of movement can be alternately serious and carefree for the people who execute them.


In the end, maybe the cheerleading/dance rivalry is really just a California thing. The sun-swept suburbs of Southern California are, after all, the quintessential backdrop for stories about and images of cheerleaders. Yet whether the phenomenon is local or national, one thing is clear. Dancers watch out: those cheerleaders certainly know how to B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E.

For more information about Annie Weisman's play Be Aggressive, contact the La Jolla Playhouse at 858-550-1010, or visit their website at www.lajollaplayhouse.com. The show ends August 26.

Photo of the show "Be Aggressive" used courtesy of the La Jolla Playhouse.

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