The girls stand along Ballou High School's football field in V-formation, hands on hips and stony faced. Then, with a nod of the head, the nine figures swirl into motion: "The Woodson Warriors think they're mighty tall, "But the bigger they are, the harder they fall. "Yea!"
These are the cheerleaders for the Ballou High School Knights and one of the top cheering squads in the city. Like squads at other schools, they lost some of their cheerleaders at graduation last spring and have practiced all summer to prepare for the first preseason game -- in Ballou's case, Sept. 2 meeting with the Cardoza Clerks.
Cheering, especially in the District, is more sophisticated and more popular than ever, says Clarene Martin, president of Howard University's Alumni Cheerleaders' Association. Each year her organization sponsors intercity competition and clinics to teach girls -- from elementary to high school level -- the newest cheering stunts and routines.
"You walk anywhere in the black community and you see little girls teaching each other cheers," says Martin, former captain of Eastern High School's squad who in 1966 was named one of the country's top cheerleaders by the U.S. Cheerleading Association.
"We recognized there was a need to get these girls off the streets and to teach them cheering skills," she said. "Ten years ago there were no stunts in the District other than splits, half-splits and cartwheels. The women are much more daring now."
At Ballou High School, most of the girls in the squad started cheering in junior high, but several began in elementary school. Now they face stiff competition as D.C.'s top cheerleading squad from the McKinley and Wilson squads which also placed high in recent competition sponsored by Howard.
Cheerleading requires some special talents, says Ballou squad captain Anna Benjamin. For example, cheerleaders must satisfactorily perform splits, cartwheels and jumps. And although enthusiasm is the key attribute Benjamin says she looks for in a cheerleader squad members also must have the coordination to clap in time while performing stunts and patterns of steps.
Each girl knows she will have a chance on the basketball court or football field to show off the talents that helped her make the squad, says Benjamin. During games, the cheerleaders break formation one by one to perform aerial somersaults, back-flips and splits.
The older girls are generally graceful. The newer girls sometimes stumble, but they always maintain that familiar cheerleader's grin -- a smile that is as essential to a cheerleader as her pompoms.
"Personality is the most important thing," says Kim Jenkins, 16, a member of the Ballou squad. "You can't let it show on your face when you mess up."
Perseverance also is part of what it takes to be a cheerleader, says Phyllis Carr, 17, another Ballou cheerleader.
"It's hard work," says Carr. "You have to do the same cheers over and over again until you get it right."
The Ballou squad has practiced two hours every weekday this summer -- "to get it right," says Benjamin.
Although they all agree that supporting the team is cheering's primary function, all have different reasons for being a Ballou cheerleader.
"If you're in the running (as one of the top squads), you know people will look up to you," says Jenkins. "If you're a cheerleader, the boys see you all the time, and I think a girl likes to be popular."
"No," says Carr, "I just like to cheer. I feel that if the team does badly, we'll do better the next time. We'll cheer them on, we'll always cheer them on."