On this, the third day of tryouts for the Brown cheerleading squad, the group limbering up on the gym floor bears little resemblance to the stereotype of cheerleaders with perfect makeup and the agility of trained gymnasts. These young men and women look like many other backpack-toting students milling around campus. The coach, Kent Stetson '01, is thrilled to see so many faces on such a gloomy day. He's so happy, in fact, that he's decided to accept everyone to the squad on the spot. It happens every year: show some enthusiasm and enough devotion to turn up a few days in a row and you're in.
"Before we continue," Stetson tells the fourteen women and two men standing before him, "I just want to remind you all that you are on the team!"
"Yay!" shouts the assistant coach, Christy Bonuso '02. A smattering of sleepy voices follows suit.
"Thanks for showing up today, guys," Stetson continues. "Good work!"
With that cue, cheer captain Elyse Estrada '03, wearing a Burger King T-shirt and red shorts that read "I Love CA" on the butt, leads a round of "Here we go, Bru-no, Here we go!" It's one of fifteen cheers the team will need to master before the Homecoming game against Harvard, just three weeks away. There are also stunts to learn, jumps to practice, and dances to polish. Students of various skill levels and experience need to nail down a respectable routine - and fast.
While engaged in the business of entertaining the crowd and supporting the team - cheerleaders perform at home football and basketball games and at whatever away games they can afford to get to - a cheerleader withstands bruises, sore wrists, and aching muscles. Cheerleaders get kicked in the head and fall to the ground. They toss one another like balls into the air. And they must remember to smile the whole time. (No one wants to watch a cheerleader frowning like a middle linebacker.)
At Brown, where football is far from king, cheerleaders don't get a whole lot of respect. "When you tell people you're a cheerleader, they're like, ÔBrown has cheerleaders?'" says Brandi Davis '03. Although many universities have varsity squads, some underwritten by hefty athletic scholarships, cheerleading is not even a club sport at Brown. It is part of the athletic department's marketing arm, which governs everything related to game-day ambience, from the mascot and band to halftime contests for fans. That is just fine with the team, which, although it includes some high school varsity athletes, is not all that interested in competing with other squads. "We push ourselves for ourselves," Davis says.
WITHIN A FEW DAYS, one squad member has dropped out and other students have joined. The cheerleaders now number sixteen women and one man. They include a prelaw student, a sorority sister, and a viola player. One student was captain of her high school squad, but others don't know a toe touch from a shoulder stand. Some have signed on in search of camaraderie, others out of fear of gaining the proverbial freshman fifteen. Some simply want the best view at the football game.
"You think of the stereotype of cheerleaders as cookie-cutter molds," says Stetson, who was team captain as a student. "That couldn't be farther from the truth. There is not pressure to have hard-bodied women who wear their hair up really high, who have large fake grins on all the time. I have TAs, econ majors. There is not a Ôtype' on the team."
Some members, like Isabel Martinez '05, have long dreamed of cheering. Raised in Texas, that hotbed of high school football, Martinez grew up admiring cheerleaders but never made the cut. When she came to Brown she immediately joined the squad. "I use cheerleading as my escape," she says. "This is the one thing I do outside of my academics and my work-study [job]. I've always wanted to do this, and I'm finally doing it."
Elizabeth Hershey '06, on the other hand, never bothered to try out in high school. She figured that because she wasn't a ditsy blonde with heavy makeup and a chirpy voice she simply wasn't the type. "I am peppy and enthusiastic but I can be very " She searches for the right word, and settles on crass. "Everyone on my floor is coming to the game because they don't believe I'm a cheerleader," she says. "It turns out [the squad] will take anyone who's enthusiastic, and that's what I have going for me."
Then there is Jackie Buchwald '05, who was captain of her high school squad and is now one of the few Brown cheerleaders who never, ever forget to smile during practice. "I always have a lot of energy," she says. "A lot of people take pride in Brown; I'm just extra excited and want people to know it."
Dan Caroselli '06 is the squad's lone male. For nearly a century Brown cheerleading was all-male, but today few men try out. Caroselli says he came because he had nothing better to do, and to his surprise he turned out to be pretty good. "There's obviously the stereotype that I'm overly effeminate or that I'm just in the group to pick up chicks," he says. "The only reason I'm here is I like to challenge myself with new things. It's the whole liberal education - trying to branch out and do things I didn't picture myself doing."
Besides, it's tradition. "I get a real kick out of the idea that you get to stand in front of people for three hours and they yell when you yell," says Tenneil Cobb '06. "It's not very often, especially on a diverse campus, that you find thousands of people who are willing to scream for the same cause."
BY THE END of the first week of practice the squad has learned to do an introductory-level stunt called a shoulder stand, in which one cheerleader stands with her feet on the shoulders of another. The following week the team is ready for a tougher stunt, the extension, and then an even more advanced stunt - the tabletop. In an extension, four teammates lift another into the air and hold her by the feet and ankles. In a tabletop, a group holds two cheerleaders in the air by the ankles and wrists. The two on top support a third teammate who stands on their backs. Top varsity cheerleaders do the same stunts, building on them with such moves as a double-backflip dismount. "When you do it right, you feel great," says Vanessa Reese '06. "It's when you're a little wobbly that you're scared. I look down sometimes. That makes it ten times worse."
The cheerleaders may not be ready for Monday Night Football, but the effort they're putting out is plain to see - and feel. "I'm so bruised and battered," Cobb says, "it looks like someone is beating me." Yet despite the effort, even Stetson does not classify cheering as a sport. "There's certainly an advantage for someone who has exceptional physical strength, but timing is what brings everybody together," he says. "I would put it somewhere between performance and sport."
Stetson is a kind man who loses his temper only when safety is on the line. On the last practice before Homecoming, Brandi Davis falls hard on the mat when her teammates lift her in the air. Stetson is livid: "You just stood there while she fell down!" he shouts. "That was really bad. There was no excuse for that drop." On the second try Davis doesn't even make it into the air. "Shake it off," Stetson says. "I think I might have scared you guys." He's not worried about the game. "It's like a dress rehearsal for a show," he confides. "If you mess up, it's probably good, because everyone goes home and obsesses over it."
Everything goes smoothly at the Homecoming game. The cheerleaders scream "Brown! Bears! Beat Harvard!" with plenty of pep. When the fight song plays, they do all the right moves. They even hold signs and shout, "Go, Bears, go!" during a stunt. And Stetson has never seen the stands so full. The only hitch comes when Elizabeth Hershey gets bumped in the head. All in all, Stetson is thrilled. "They remembered the basics very well," he says. "I was really proud of them."
A week later the squad rides a yellow school bus to the URI game. Stetson, dressed in a seal-brown jacket and shiny red Nikes, announces that the game show The Weakest Link has asked for a Brown cheerleader to audition for its college-cheering edition. Maybe the team will finally get some glory.
Game day is always a rush. "You walk in and you're in your element," says Andrea Martinez '04, who accompanies the squad even though she has bronchitis and has to sit out the game. "It's intense. I remember our first game last year. I was so into cheering that I didn't know the score at the half."
URI is a challenge. The stadium is set up in such a way that the squad must cheer to the side of the stands. They can barely see the crowd. Near the end of the second quarter, Vanessa Reese takes a fall. Even when the stunts are flawless and the dances sharp, the fans hardly seem to notice.
At home the crowd doesn't always cooperate either. "Sometimes our stands aren't that full," says Jackie Buchwald. "I think a lot of people have school spirit. I don't think many people show it. As cheerleaders, that's what we're there for. We've got to bring the spirit right out of them."
On the bus ride back from URI the team is worn out. Isabel Martinez takes a nap. Buchwald nurses a sunburn. A few catch up on homework. This is no troupe of Barbie dolls, but the smiles haven't quite disappeared. They chat with Bruno, the bear-headed mascot who's bumming a ride, and make plans for the evening. They are sore, but not beaten. Soon they'll be ready for more.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the BAM's senior writer.