Pity the cheerleader. Depending on your former place in the hierarchy of high school cliques, it might not be the easiest thing to do. Even though they rule the school, cheerleaders don’t fare as well in pop culture: They’re the unattainable ice queens, manipulative sex kittens, the mean girls, the — spell it out now! — D-U-M-B [clap] B-L-O-N-D-E-S.
But there’s one allegation that’s no longer hurled at these pom-pom-waving archetypes: They aren’t competing in a genuine sport. Rarely now will you find a depiction of a cheerleader as a subservient pom-pom-waving girlfriend to the quarterback rather than a tough and intensely focused athlete — and that’s due, in part, to the 2000 Kirsten Dunst film “Bring It On,” now adapted into a Broadway musical.
Though it’s just loosely faithful to the film — a battle of integrity and class tension between an inner city squad and a wealthy suburban one competing for a national trophy — “Bring It On: The Musical” is extremely faithful to the sport. The experience of being a cheerleader, from the breakneck stunts to the bloodthirsty battle for the cheer camp “spirit stick” to the exhilarating feeling of being at the top of the pyramid, is faithfully recreated — and I know, because it was a world I inhabited 10 years ago, as a high school competitive cheerleader.
Call it a bias, or call it a special insight into the show, but my stint as a cheerleader makes me the target audience for “Bring It On.” At a recent Sunday performance at the St. James Theatre in New York, entire squads of girls filled rows in the theater, wearing their school colors and giant hair bows, accompanied by Cheer Moms (who, in terms of living vicariously through their daughters, put “Dance Moms” to shame. Don’t worry, though: They’re getting a reality show, too!).
When it eventually tours the country, every teenage girl who is or was or ever wanted to be a cheerleader will line up for tickets to this show, and will see themselves in Campbell’s shoes. She’s the perky blond cheerleader portrayed by newcomer Taylor Louderman, who is elected to lead her suburban high school’s cheerleaders to the championship — until she’s suddenly redistricted to an inner-city school, where she can’t manage to fit in.
But cheerleading is Campbell’s entire life, so she manipulates a hip-hop dance crew run by popular girl Danielle (Adrienne Warren) into becoming a scrappy co-ed cheer squad. She whips them into shape to beat her old team, against whom she harbors a festering grudge, since her replacement captain stole her boyfriend in addition to her position. Her leadership skills are shakier than a novice cheerleader at the top of the pyramid, though, and it all threatens to come tumbling down before a big showdown at nationals.
Despite the talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) and Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), the book, lyrics and forgettable pop and hip-hop-infused music of “Bring It On” may not win it a broad audience beyond the learner’s permit set. It is a high school musical, after all, so it inhabits the realm of the trivial and cloyingly sweet — but its stunts are top-notch and more like Cirque Du Soleil than anything else you’ll see in the theater. The show hired a dozen former college cheerleading champions for the ensemble and cheer coaches to choreograph the stunts and gymnastics, which are among the hardest and most daring performed in the sport. Even the lead actresses go flying through the air, propelled to the top of triple-layered pyramids — which must mean this show has an insurance policy that rivals the beleaguered “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
When the film debuted as the sport was still emerging, squads with something to prove wore shirts that said “We are athletes.” For the girls of the musical, it’s already assumed: “We’ve got more balls than the team we cheer for,” they declare, and compare cheer to becoming a Marine: “You sign your life away.” But even though the show gives due credit to the sport, it sells cheerleaders short elsewhere. Campbell’s former squadmates are a mean pretty girl, a dumb pretty girl and a mean, dumb pretty girl, who is nearly dropped from the squad for having less than a 1.2 GPA, and who declares, “Sometimes being pretty is enough.”
These days, it’s not — instead, cheerleaders have to be strong, as “Bring It On” ably demonstrates. In pop culture, the only thing they have yet to be is smart.
“Bring It On: The Musical” hired real cheerleaders to do the stunt work in their ensemble cast. But if the musical were a real team, how would they fare at nationals?
Cheerleading judges award points for stunts, gymnastics skills, and dance motions throughout a 2 1 / 2-minute routine choreographed by each team. There, they demonstrate a variety of skills that are scored according to their difficulty, with deductions for errors, such as falls.
Some of the stunts that the coed squads in “Bring It On” perform include partner stunts, where one cheerleader balances on the hands of a base, or supporting cheerleader. The girls can stand on two feet, or on one foot with their other foot extended into an arabesque or heel stretch, with the foot held above the head. The squad also performs pyramids, or connected partner stunts that can be built up several levels, with complicated twists and handstands. Basket tosses are the showiest of the stunts: They involve launching a girl into the air to do toe-touches, twists and backflips.
Since the performers of “Bring It On” come from the top college cheerleading squads in the country, they’re performing moves that are a little showier than those of most high school squads. Because the stunts are at a high level of difficulty and are rock solid — no falls or wobbles — the teams would indeed score well at nationals, if the judges chose to ignore the fact that they spend a great deal of their routine in song.
But even though the show has dedicated itself to representing cheerleading honestly and accurately — even hiring an on-set cheer consultant — there are a few places where the teams would be docked points. Under National Cheerleading Association high school rules, those midriff-baring, mismatched uniforms worn by the Jackson High School Clovers, the scrappy inner-city school that pulls a squad together out of nothing, would receive multiple deductions for inappropriate attire (Though cheerleading is a sport, it’s one that can’t escape its stereotypical roots: Looks still matter). And on the other team, the upper-middle-class Truman High, captain Eva (Elle McLemore) would have gotten a deduction for her sparkly bellybutton ring — a big safety hazard for cheerleaders, who can accidentally rip them out during competition as they move in and out of pyramids.