A Brief History Of Cheerleading

This week brings the premiere of The CW’s new show “Hellcats,” which is based on the book Cheer!: Inside The Secret World of College Cheerleaders written by The Frisky’s own Kate Torgovnick. To get you pumped up and ready to shake your pom-poms, we’re bringing you cheer-related content all week. Enjoy, and make sure to watch Wednesday at 9pm (EST).

Cheerleading is an iconic American phenomenon, on par with apple pie and the bald eagle. But, uh, where did it come from? Good question. Most people don’t know this, but cheerleaders were originally men. Cheerleading goes back to the very first college football game, between Princeton and Rutgers University. Princeton students started chanting, “Rah rah rah! Tiger tiger tiger! Sis sis sis! Boom boom boom! Ahhhhh!” It became a student tradition, and soon the school appointed “yell leaders” who sat in the audience and lead said chants. The idea spread across the country, and in 1898 a University of Minnesota yell leader ran in front of the crowd to lead his chants. Cheerleading was born.For the next 40 years, male cheerleaders (usually elected by their student body) stood faithfully on the sidelines. It wasn’t until the World War II era, when women started filling the male void in factories and colleges, that female cheerleaders became the norm.

Then came the great grandfather of modern cheerleading, Lawrence Herkimer. See him flying through the air there? Not only did he found the first national organization for cheerleaders—he is also the mastermind behind the pleated skirt, pom-poms, spirit stick, and Herkie jump. Wearing Herkie’s uniform, through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, cheerleaders became an American icon.

In the early 1980s, the first cheerleading competition was held at Sea World, with teams from all over the country traveling to compete. It was an instant success. At the same time, high school and college gymnastics programs were under fire due to questionable coaching and high insurance costs. Many homeless gymnasts started finding their way into cheerleading, upping the gymnastic elements.

Ever since that point, a new type of cheerleader has been emerging—the competitive cheerleader. Modern cheerleading is almost an extreme sport, along the lines of skateboarding or surfing. Today, cheerleaders build human pyramids where a single slip can send 12 people crashing to the mat. They perform partner stunts where women do Cirque du Soleil caliber acrobatics while balancing in the few square inches of their partner’s palm. They do basket tosses where a group throws a “flyer” 25 feet in the air. They say the adrenaline rush of performing these risky moves is what they love. And they keep on going even if they have a broken finger or a fractured rib. In other words, cheerleaders are probably not who you think.