“No, no, no,” Habermel groans.
During a group jump sequence, just after a Herkie, Victoria lands flat on her ass. Habermel cringes. Ever the cheerleader, he starts jumping up and down and clapping. He chants eight-counts, willing them through the performance.
Here’s a lesson you will learn. Play with fire, you’ll get burned!
The music stops. Trickling applause. The girls briefly wave to the crowd like winners, but they file up the concrete stairs like losers. Habermel turns to me, weary. He asks, “You gonna write about that?”
Gathering upstairs in the hallway, there’s no group hug. Standing off to the side, Victoria’s 5-foot-8 frame looks smaller. Her asymmetrical short haircut hides one of her teary eyes. “That could have gone better,” she says, sniffing. This is her first year as a Panther. She came over from a rival squad, Arlington’s Spirit of Texas. “They were all there,” she says of her former teammates. “They were watching. My old team saw me fall.”
As the team huddles, Bailey speaks up, using the same evangelical voice from her prayer. “You know, yeah, we’re the defending world champions. And we have a lot of new girls on this squad,” she says, glancing at Victoria, who’s still crying. “But just because you have on a Panthers uniform, that doesn’t make you a winner. You have to earn it.”
Habermel looks at O’Toole and Arbogast, his lantern jaw clenched but his posture exuding defeat. Even his faux-hawk is deflated. The coach has a lot riding on this squad. He later tells me that wins help the gym with recruitment and his own bottom line. Being known as the coach of the world’s best squad brings good freelance choreography and consulting work. Habermel says he can earn $30,000 in a single weekend.
When Spirit of Texas is announced as one of the two winners of a paid bid to the World Championships, Shelby looks from her circle on the floor with her teammates to the stands, where she spots her mom. Scherry mouths “smile.” Shelby sits up straighter, and her red lips stretch into a toothy grin. (The Panthers won only an at-large bid.)
Walking to my car at midnight, I follow a group of girls from Spirit of Texas and their moms. “The Panthers choked,” one girl says. “That’s what they do. I never got what was so great about them anyway.”
Carly hears Habermel’s voice, and her size-5 foot slips into Shelby’s strong hands. Up she goes, catapulting toward 64 NCA National Champion banners hanging from the ceiling of Cheer Athletics’ 40,000-square-foot warehouse-like facility in Garland. On count five, she leans far over on her right leg, into the perilous arabesque, her left leg extended behind her, arms splayed like an airplane’s wings. Victoria and Shelby dip slightly so that Carly can twist clockwise and back up into the final pose, her leg straight up by her ear. She doesn’t get there. By count seven, they are all on the springy blue carpet, a tangle of matching paw-print t-shirts and white hair bows.
It’s the first practice after the loss at Spirit Celebration at UNT. There are about 30 parents leaning forward on the observation area bleachers, a few feet from the practice area.
Habermel tells everyone to freeze. “People saw you on YouTube,” he says. “They would have loved your stunts if you had them.”
Three other squads practice around them, all playing different music. A squad of 7-year-old girls swooshes through the gym, trailing their coach like shimmering pilot fish following a shark.
This is a normal weeknight at Cheer Athletics. Saturday through Thursday, cheerleaders ages 4 to 20 practice with one of the facility’s 23 squads, most of which are all-girl. Parents come to watch their children—and their money—fly. A month at Cheer Athletics, with dues and private lessons, costs about $500, and that doesn’t include $400 uniforms, special $100 shoes, travel to competitions, and coordinated practice wear. In the bleachers the cheer moms chat loudly. The gossip tonight: the audition process (everyone gets to cheer for someone, but not every kid has the skills to make a top-tier squad like the Panthers), the retention process (should a cheerleader lose a required skill, such as a standing back flip with a twist, she is relegated to a lower squad), and Victoria’s hair. “She can’t even wear a bow,” one mom says.
Down on the floor, Victoria shakes her head to Ke$ha. The Panthers are all kinetic energy around her. In rapid succession:
Stop, you guys! I don’t like him!
Raise your hand if you’re not wearing underwear!
Did you see what that girl tweeted about Victoria falling?
I need a laxative.
Habermel screams, “No more talking!”
Victoria whispers to Shelby, “Check it. Shit’s about to get real.”
Walking up to the edge of the practice floor, Habermel continues: “The roller coaster of this—sometimes good and sometimes a disaster—that has to end today. We cannot have any more crazy random stunts. High to high, tip-top body position. So do your job, hit your stunt, or we’ll bring in somebody else to do your job. No one’s spot is safe on this team. Is everybody on the same page? All flyers should be stretching for straight-leg scorpions right now.” Habermel turns back to his assistant coaches, his lips drawn into a straight line. He rips open a Nutri-Grain bar. “Now,” he tells them, spitting out crumbs. “We’ve got to talk about the next competition. And when are we going to have that conversation that some of them need to hit the treadmill?”
Two months later, the Panthers travel to Indianapolis to compete at the Majors, a competition between the top five teams in the country. On the night they arrive, there is a fire truck at the hotel. They take it as an omen. And the girls are issued new red hair bows. “It just gave them an edge, some new power,” Shelby’s mom would later say.
The Panthers win the competition and fly out of Indianapolis at 6 am so they can make it to a competition that same day at the Fort Worth Convention Center. They win that, too. At stake: a paid bid to the biggest cheerleading competition in the world. First come the Nationals in Dallas, but in April, they will definitely go to Worlds, held at Orlando’s Disney World.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in February, a little more than two hours before Shelby will compete at the NCA All-Star National Championships for the last time. She sits in front of a mirror in her family’s 45-foot luxury coach bus in the parking lot of the Dallas Convention Center, finishing her eye makeup. Katy Perry wails on iPod speakers. The music almost drowns out the clapping and chanting from 500 yards away as squads practice outside the Convention Center. Inside, 850 teams from the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Japan compete for a gold megaphone trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to Worlds.
Her mom sits at the cramped kitchenette table, sipping a Bud Ice. Scherry is an older version of her daughter. The head cheer mom for the Panthers herself cheered for one year at Sunset High, in Oak Cliff. Today she is wearing a red V-neck that she blinged last night, rhinestones igniting the XXX screen print (for the squad’s 30 members) and a Panther paw. “Right now, we’re in first place, but the Woodlands Elite Generals are right behind us,” Scherry says. “People say that they copied our routine. It was all over Twitter.”
She looks at her Tag Heuer and back into the bedroom at Shelby and yells, “Time to do your hair!” Scherry turns back to me and says, “Everyone always asks the girls for a YouTube video of how to get Panthers hair. You have no idea what goes into the Panthers hair or how important it is.”
Start by grabbing the front section of hair, Shelby says, acknowledging that not all the blond tresses are hers. Back comb close to the scalp. Picking up an enormous can of Big Sexy Hair volumizing hair spray, she spritzes right onto the knots she’s creating. Her hair has to stay buoyant while she’s airborne, while she’s upside down, while she’s standing on the shoulders of teammates. Spray and tease, spray and tease. Back comb. Tease. The occasional expletive when the comb gets stuck. The process takes about 45 minutes. Finally, she flips her hair back and gently smoothes over the tangles. There sits a speed bump of hair, a pompadour, really. A Panther Pouf.
“We have to be pretty,” Shelby says without emotion. “We’re cheerleaders.”
There’s an art to the right pouf, ponytail, and bow combination. Done right, the holy trinity can attract a judge’s eye. But if it’s too much (i.e.,
large, metallic, cheap, expensive), one risks looking like a Christmas present with legs.
“They love the panthers and their bows,” Scherry says. “Somebody posted on Twitter, ‘Panthers, you better watch your backpacks. I am
not afraid to steal your bows.’ ”
She heads for the door. Without looking back at her daughter, Scherry says, “Good pouf, Shel.”
They walk across the street to the Convention Center. Outside on the grass, a squad from California heaves into a pyramid, eight-counting the whole way. Shelby’s teammate Kayla Fields joins us. Scherry takes up the rear, pulling a roller suitcase filled with candy. The girls have monogrammed black backpacks that are covered with extra bows, in case of thieves, and stuffed with 5-hour Energy and cans of Monster Energy, Starburst, Sour Patch Kids, teasing combs, ankle braces, athletic tape, hair spray, makeup, and Advil. Talk is of which boy cheerleaders are straight (not as many as they’d like) and which Panthers are cheer-lebrities (that’d be Bailey and Carly), and the Generals copying their routine.
“Yes, they came up to us and apologized,” Shelby says. “Everyone is talking about it.”
That’s so Bring It On, I tell them, remembering Kirsten Dunst spying on the East Compton Clovers.
“I still love that movie!” Kayla says. “Anytime anyone asks what we do, I tell them to watch that movie.”
“Really?” Shelby says. “Just tell them to google us.”
As they enter the Convention Center, the sheer, well, Bring It On-ness, is overwhelming. It’s like walking into the #cheerleading part of Twitter, a crowded airport concourse packed with brightly dressed kids, each backpack, bow, and fake eyelash bigger than the last. As Kayla and Shelby ride an escalator to the practice room, a team of girls in bright green uniforms and enormous metallic, ear-like bows heads the opposite way, following an incongruous dad in a hunting cap.
“See?” Shelby says. “Bows too high on the head. They need a pouf.”
A young girl asks Kayla for her t-shirt, and Kayla just smiles. They walk past their teammate, Bailey, who is signing young cheerleaders’ bows.
“Will you follow me on Twitter?” one of the little girls asks Bailey. “If you do, my life will be made!”
You know how this story ends. At the NCA All-Star National Championships, in front of a crowd of 5,000 cheer moms and adoring tweens, Shelby lifted Carly without problem. Victoria nailed her Herkie. Bailey landed her tumbling pass with a kiss. As seven Panthers flyers were being tossed into the air for one of their signature pyramids—perfectly to the beat of B to the A to the B to the S, C to the A, you know the rest!—the look on Victoria’s face said it all. They had done it. As the girls unstacked, in perfect rhythm, like sparkly dominoes, the other Panthers seemed to know, too. They would win. Habermel uncrossed his arms and wiped his eyes.
This story ends the same way it started, under a sky of fireworks. The pyrotechnics were digital at the Convention Center, courtesy of a 40-foot screen at the awards ceremony. Sitting in a circle, holding hands, and waiting for the top two spots to be announced, the Panthers were 30 sparkly red bows. Their heads were bowed in prayer when their score was announced. They earned a 97.07, edging out the Woodlands Elite Generals. The digital screen shimmered with explosions, and confetti snowed down onto the girls as they were awarded another NCA championship banner. The girls hopped up and down, grabbing each other and punching the air, cheering for real this time, cheering for each other.
Two months later, the girls went to Orlando for Worlds. The day before they won that competition, too, the Panthers practiced their routine outside their Disney World hotel. The girls wore their coordinated workout clothes: black hot pants and black sports bras bedazzled with “XXX” on the back and “BABS” on the front. As Shelby threw Carly into the air and the girls strutted and heaved through their two-and-a-half-minute routine for perhaps the thousandth time, more and more people gathered. Fellow cheerleaders, and cheer moms and dads packed the hotel’s balconies. Everyone wanted to watch the team of bad-ass bitches from Dallas.
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