Lynn Hailstone’s house in rural McKinney was the perfect place to throw a slumber party for 26 teenage girls. At the end of a long gravel driveway, tucked behind a stand of trees that shields it from a county road, the more than 8,000-square-foot house and its amoeba-shaped pool sit on 25 acres. There is a barn and, beyond that, a hayfield.
The girls were all Panthers, a cheerleading squad based out of a private training facility called Cheer Athletics. (It moved from its Garland facility to Plano this April 1.) At the time, in July 2011, they were the reigning world champions of competitive cheerleading. The Panthers had just taken on 15 new girls, though, so their moms thought that a night together at the Hailstone house would help the girls bond before the new season began.
Scherry Armstrong was the squad’s longtime head cheer mom. Her daughter is Shelby. Around 11 pm, Scherry was called into the media room so the girls could show her how they were making each other pass out for fun. Instead of watching Bring It On: All or Nothing, they were taking turns holding their breath, crossing their arms, and having another girl inhibit their ability to breathe by pushing them against a wall. One girl had fainted and hit her head on the edge of a doorway. Hailstone suggested that the girls do something that killed fewer brain cells, maybe light fireworks by the pool.
Ignoring a statewide burn ban and the fact that Texas was in the middle of a crippling drought that had contributed to catastrophic wildfires, the girls grabbed matches and went outside. The first few ballpark-proportioned explosions were lovely. The girls posted pictures on Twitter. But before long most of them grew bored and went inside to put on bikinis.
Shelby, 17, and Victoria Swain, 18, were the oldest girls on the squad. They were also both a little left of the sweet center of the cheerleading world. Victoria’s short, choppy hair was unable to support a bow, a very powerful talisman for the Panthers. Shelby was a stout, athletic tomboy and liked cheerleading for the stunts, not the glamour. The two girls weren’t yet ready to model swimwear. They wanted a bigger show.
They first tied two large fireworks together with a bow and ignited them. “Nice,” Victoria said. But not enough. They each tied three large launch tubes together, for a total of six fireworks, and set the bundles side by side. Shelby and Victoria had been cheering for as long as they could remember. They knew that when it came to partner stunts, timing was crucial.
The girls lit the long fuses and hopped back. Shelby’s fusillade shot off half a second early and knocked over Victoria’s bundle. It ignited while lying on its side, shooting fireworks across the driveway and into a yard bordering the neighbor’s house. The explosion kicked the launch tubes back at Victoria and Shelby, forcing them to dive for cover. When Victoria opened her eyes, there was an ember in the grass in front of her. She patted it out, relieved. Shelby couldn’t stop laughing, staring up at the stars. Then she rolled over on her stomach and looked across the gravel driveway. There were five rings of fire stretching across 50 feet of dry Bermuda grass.
“Girls! Get up!” Shelby’s mom yelled. She asked Hailstone where the water hoses were. Hailstone’s daughter called 911. Shelby ran into the utility room looking for buckets but returned with a few bottles of water. She dumped them out on the fire, with no effect. By the time the rest of the squad strolled outside with beach towels, ready for a swim, the patches had merged into a blaze with 8-foot flames dancing in the air.
Out came the iPhones. Fourteen-year-old Carly Manning tweeted her 7,900 followers, “The Panthers start fires! #BABS,” using the team’s shorthand for “Bad-Ass Bitches.” The Panthers tweeted so much during the fire that their followers began tweeting back, “Shouldn’t you be putting out the fire?”
Then Hailstone noticed the grass fire was now within 40 yards of an 800-gallon propane tank. She ran to the garage to find a large ice chest. “Girls,” Scherry screamed, “get off your phones and help!”
That’s how the best cheerleading squad in the world bonded at the start of a season, with an assist from the McKinney Fire Department. Back in the media room by 1 am, after the chief of police had left, having scolded Hailstone, the girls collapsed onto the floor. They had found their theme for the year: the Panthers were hot. They googled the Chinese symbol for fire. They definitely needed to get t-shirts made. Fire also needed to be a part of their routine music. They tweeted their followers more: “We’re hot! #BABS! #fire.”
This was a good moment for Shelby to explain to Victoria and the new members of the squad what it meant to be a BAB. “It’s not about just saying it or wearing the t-shirt or the bow,” she said. “You have to act like it, not just tweet it. We need to all act like it this year.”
“I just want to win.” For Shelby, that’s what cheerleading is about. It’s a few months after the slumber party, and she’s at practice, inside the Cheer Athletics facility in Garland. She has a second-degree ankle sprain, so she’s lying on the floor. Someone has brought in Scentsy candles. Shelby picks up a tin and takes a whiff. “Oh, God,” she says, squinching her entire face. “That smells like Mystic Tan.”
Shelby is a base, which means she’s literally a supporting cast member. She and other bases are nicknamed “the men of Panthers” or “Manthers” because they can hold up the daintier girls, the flyers, so that everyone can behold their flexibility and flat abs. She and her mom drive 60 miles round trip from Caddo Mills to Cheer Athletics three days a week.
Shelby looks at her teammates, some very tan, most very made-up. She leans back on her elbows, her triceps bulging. The Bishop Lynch High School senior whispers, “Sometimes when the girls sweat, they actually smell like Mystic Tan.” She rolls her green eyes, fidgeting with one of eight earrings, most of which she herself did the piercings for. The 5-foot-2 powerhouse is pale and doesn’t wear lip gloss. “It’s becoming more about how people look than what they can do,” she says. “I like the work and winning, not worrying about how pretty I am.”
This will be Shelby’s ninth and final season at Cheer Athletics. She’ll go off to the University of Oregon on a tumbling and acrobatics scholarship, a new college sport called acro. It’s a different cheer world now, she says. Teammates Carly Manning and Bailey Payton have thousands of Twitter followers and get mobbed at competitions. Shelby says she sometimes feels like an outsider on her own team. “I see it heading away from athletics, this whole ‘hashtag perfect’ thing,” she says, referring to how other Twitter users tag posts about girls like Carly and Bailey. “ ‘So-and-so is such a Barbie, she’s perfect.’ A lot of cheerleaders are famous now, but they don’t understand they’re on a team.”
Forget the girls on the sidelines, the ones in pleated miniskirts who high-kick and yell, “Go team!” when the pigskin nears the end zone. This story is not about those cheerleaders.
This story is about the Panthers, a team of 5-hour Energy-filled athletes I followed for a year, through practices, competitions, tears, tweets, and tickle fights. The squad includes 90-pound freshmen who can fly through the air like Tinker Bell and land in the palm of a base, a sneaker pulled over her ponytail. They are 12- to 18-year-olds who can transition uniformly from balletic dance sequences mixed with hip-hop box arms to Cirque du Soleil pyramids, all choreographed to thumping gay bar music. Most Panthers are Olympic-caliber gymnasts. You’ve probably watched them on ESPN. They are one of 2,000 all-girl and co-ed squads across the world that compete in a brand of private, pay-to-play cheerleading known as All-Star.
“Anybody in cheerleading knows who the Panthers are,” says King Harrison, a consultant and coach who runs a popular online cheerleading forum called Fierce Board that is generally considered the place to get daily cheerleading scoop. Harrison says that every time the Panthers are mentioned on Fierce Board, “it blows up.” “In our world, the Panthers are celebrities. Make that cheer-lebrities.” He notes that Cheer Athletics is dubbed Cheer Ab-letics, for some of the girls’ well-toned midsections, and says that it’s no accident that a squad like the Panthers—so talked about, so winning—is based in North Texas. “Texas, in general, has a unique cheerleading environment. And people care most about cheerleading in Dallas.”
A brief history lesson: this all started here. We even get to claim the Herkie.
At SMU in the 1940s, Lawrence Herkimer created his signature jump, the Herkie, a sort of sideways hurdle. Herkimer also later created the Spirit Stick, patented the pompom, hosted the first cheerleading camp ever, and founded the National Cheerleaders Association in Dallas, which birthed an entire industry of North Texas-based uniform companies and peppy paraphernalia outlets. The New York Times called him the “grandfather of modern cheerleading.” (Herkimer sold his stake in his company in 1986.) At last count in North Texas, there were 69 private cheer clubs, stretching from Addison to Wylie, the highest concentration in the United States. We’ve got spirit. Yes, we do.
From his 6,000-square-foot condo with ocean views north of Miami Beach, the 86-year-old Herkimer says, “When I cheered at SMU, well, back then it was much simpler. It was bonfires and pep rallies.” Herkimer, a Dallas native, is wistful for cheerleading’s simpler days, fondly recalling games at the Cotton Bowl with legendary running back Doak Walker charging toward the goal posts. “I was there, right alongside him, cheering him on. That was my job. When he made the touchdown, I did back handsprings the whole way back and passed out. I missed the extra point.” I asked him if he keeps up with the Panthers and other All-Star squads. “No. I like what they’re doing, but that’s not really cheerleading.”
It might not be the old-school way, but competitive cheerleading is growing in popularity. At this year’s National Cheerleading Association All-Star National Championship at the Dallas Convention Center, registrations were up 20 percent, creating the biggest field of competitors since the event’s inception in 1986. Nearly 18,000 cheerleaders and dancers competed. There are two reasons for the surge in popularity, says NCA vice president Justin Carrier. He gives social media a large amount of credit. “Those girls live on Twitter,” he says.
The other reason for the rise in popularity of private-club cheering: girls really do rule. “Cheerleading is unique,” Carrier says. “They get to maintain their femininity. They get to perform, and they get to be athletes. I don’t know any other mainstream sport like that. You know, teenage girls want to be cute.”
Herkimer isn’t sure what to make of All-Star. “These squads just perform a canned routine that fits in with the stunts and other gymnastics they do,” he says. Then, over the phone, he demonstrates the right way to cheer. “Let’s get one big fight! FIGHT! Let’s get two big fights! FIGHT! FIGHT! Let’s get three big fights! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” Slightly out of breath, Herkimer continues: “Now, that’s a much better cheer than this dum-dadum-dum-dum-dadum-dum, with stunts and a two-and-a-half-minute routines at the contests.”
It is easy for me to find the Panthers at their first competition of the season. “Just look for the cars that say ‘We’re hot!’ in shoe polish,” Shelby’s mom, Scherry, tells me over the phone as I navigate the streets around UNT one morning in November 2011. “After that fire, they’re still obsessed with how hot they are.”
In her East Texas accent, Scherry calls herself a “baby sitter for older girls.” She makes it her business to “know everything Panther.” She monitors Facebook closely. “They put everything online,” Scherry says. “I tell the girls, ‘You want to hear it from me. You don’t want to hear from Brad [Habermel, the Panthers’ coach].’ You should have seen his face when he heard about the fire.”
The small competition at UNT has about 204 squads vying for bids to the 2012 NCA national contest. I find the Panthers backstage at the Athletic Center. The 30 girls are war painted—bright lips, dark eyes, bronzed legs—and standing in a circle with the squad’s three coaches. This is their precompetition ritual. They stand with their knees locked, their backs straight, and their arms crossed, holding hands with the girls on either side. They close their eyes and bow their heads.
“Lord, help us out on that floor!” yells 14-year-old Bailey Payton, the team’s de facto chaplain. Her voice bounces off cinder block walls. “Help our tumbling pass, help our timing be good, help us be confident. Help us not hold back. Help us be the team that you know we can be. Help us be the best, dear Lord! We know that through you anything is possible, Lord Jesus! In your name we pray! Amen!”
“Amen!” the circle of 30 girls answers.
“This is the beginning of your journey this year,” says Brad Habermel, one of the Panthers coaches and part owner of Cheer Athletics. From the competition floor, instrumental music swells. Habermel starts to yell: “I want each of you to take the floor and put everything you have into the two and a half minutes. I want it on pogo sticks from the very beginning. Have a blast, because that’s all that’s important.” The 39-year-old former college cheerleading champ looks like Cheer Ken in a Cheer Athletics staff t-shirt and jeans. He turns to look at the handful of 8-year-old girls standing outside the circle. They belong to the junior division. They are all holding iPhones, taking pictures. Habermel realizes there’s something besides having a blast that’s important. “The minute you finish performing, your routine will be on YouTube. Do your best. All the fame and glory come with this. But. No. Mistakes. Today. Be the smart cheerleader.”
As the Panthers line up, several girls slam Pixy Stix for a sugar boost. I jog behind Habermel and the two assistant coaches, Joe O’Toole and Brandon Arbogast, across the floor, just in front of the judges. “You know, this competition isn’t that big of a deal,” Habermel tells me quietly. The former University of Louisville cheerleading captain who led his squad to three national championships crosses his brawny arms. “There aren’t really any big squads here anyway.” He laughs awkwardly. “Except for us.”
“Please welcome the world-champion Panthers!”
The girls stalk the padded basketball court in skin-tight $400 blue-and-silver uniforms. The cropped long-sleeve tops and miniskirts with hot pants make them look like cocktail waitresses from the future. The music starts.
The Panthers got that glow! We’ve only just begun!
They’re out of sync from the start. The back handsprings are off. The squad’s energy is low, and many girls seem about two beats behind. Then comes the “arabesque full-around” stunt, an exceedingly difficult maneuver in which seven groups of bases heave flyers into a one-legged yoga pose in air, followed by a spin and a kick. Seven Panthers go up; only six land on their feet.As the girls softly chant eight-counts in an effort to establish rhythm, Carly, the 14-year-old with 7,900 Twitter followers, steps into Shelby’s palm. Victoria grabs her waist and helps fling her up. The first pose is fine, but as a fellow flyer tumbles to the ground, Carly falters. Eight feet off the ground, standing on one leg and trying to spin around and put her ankle on her ear, she starts to crumble. Victoria and Shelby try to hold onto Carly’s leg. The stunt starts to look like Larry and Moe weaving around with Curly on a ladder.
“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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