The day before I am due to rehearse with the London Revolution cheerleading squad, their coach, Emily Moss, texts to say they are making me a uniform. She adds a partially reassuring postscript, saying that there are already male cheerleaders in the group, but I still wonder if I should be photographed. I’m not sure I can carry off a tight top or a rah-rah skirt. As it turns out, my uniform is unexceptional—a black T-shirt with the squad’s name in yellow. But just as I begin to relax, I’m given the bad news: cheerleading is not as focused on waving pompoms, chanting and bitching as film and television would suggest. This is a shame, as these activities are well within my skill-set.
Instead I am told that cheerleading is a combination of athletics, gymnastics and weightlifting. These activities are as outside my skill-set as fiscal competence and sexual decorum are to Silvio Berlusconi’s. This becomes apparent in the warm-up exercises when I am asked to sit with my legs splayed and my chest pressed to the floor. I can only manage a slight lean. Luckily everyone else has their face in a mat, so my inadequacy goes unremarked.
The plan is to take me through the main elements of a routine, starting with tumbling. Emily demonstrates a somersault that she rolls out of into a standing position. I can launch myself into a somersault, just as I can probably launch myself off a ski jump, but in both instances the landing will be unorthodox. I sense I will end stuck on my back like a scrabbling beetle. No one needs to see that. For reasons of pure vanity, I hear myself suggesting that a somersault is “a little basic”, and that I’d like to try something “more challenging”. I haven’t thought this through.
Angel, a male cheerleader and instructor with ten years’ experience, steps forward to perform the Toe Touch. In as long as it takes me to blink, he leaps skywards, flings his legs up until they’re level with his ears, reaches for his feet with his hands, then lands with the grace of a (very lithe) cat. “Wow,” I say, “you’re an incredible gymnast”—applauding excessively loudly, so I can pretend not to hear him say it’s my turn. The second wave of vanity has rolled in and I’m having fevered flashbacks to forced participation in school activities I had no aptitude for: over-arm bowling, rugby tackling, speaking to girls.
I can’t touch my toes in a standing position, so it’s unlikely to happen when I’m levitating. A climb-down is necessary. I invent a hamstring injury to garner sympathy. As Emily steps in to show me the less demanding Pencil, I feel old and fraudulent. The Pencil is essentially a pogo, but with both arms outstretched during the jump to make a high V-shape. All around me people half my age and with twice my flexibility are stretching, bending and flipping. I am determined not to slink out of here.
So I volunteer for a Prep, where a “Flyer” is lifted in a standing position by a “Back” and two “Bases”. I am asked if I want to fly. Fearful of looking like I fold quicker than a Greek austerity programme, I acquiesce. Getting up is easy; with Angel as my Back, I spring on to the hands of the Bases—and suddenly I’m up high. Because I’m being supported under my feet and steadied by the ankles, I have to lock my knees to remain upright. This is frighteningly counter-intuitive, but if I bend to steady myself I risk crashing down like a statue of an Arab dictator.
I’m encouraged to extend my arms up into another V-shape. Terrified of looking down and having a panic attack, I fix my gaze straight ahead. Unfortunately I’m opposite a wall of mirrors and so have to stare at my own horror-struck face as I slowly raise my arms. The squad clamour for a “cheesy facial!” And then a miracle. Slowly, a smile of euphoric, adrenalised joy spreads over my face. For a moment, I have poise, elegance and power. I may have even yelled “Go, Will!”
After a clumsy dismount I’ll draw a veil—or a pompom—over, we do another Prep, this time with me as a Back and the most petite member of the squad as Flyer. I stand behind the Flyer, grab her by the hips and, as she springs up, lift her onto the hands of the bases, who raise her up to their shoulder height. I hold her ankles to steady her, before she dismounts by sitting back in my hands. I begin to understand the appeal of male cheerleading—it’s summed up by a slogan on Angel’s website. “Why lift weights when you can lift girls?”