Cheerleading is an organized activity which involves leading a series of cheers to rally the crowd at sports events. On high levels, cheerleading is itself a sport, with participants performing dances and complex tricks which are extremely physically demanding. Cheerleaders can often be seen on the sidelines at professional sports games, and organized cheerleading also exists in schools, from elementary school all the way through college. Some people are dismissive of cheerleading as a sport, because it may not initially appear to be very strenuous, but cheerleaders at the top level of competition are actually very serious athletes, comparable to top-tier athletes in other sports.
Many people associate cheerleading with the United States, since the sport is most widely practiced in this nation. The roots of cheerleading began in the 1880s, when crowds at university sports games started shouting out cheers to support their teams. In 1898, the first documented cheerleading event occurred, when Johnny Campbell led a cheer at a University of Minnesota game. Initially, cheer squads were all male; women did not join the sport until 1923. Many collegiate teams still have large numbers of male members which have included several well known American Presidents during their time in college.
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Although cheerleading started at colleges and universities, it quickly trickled down through lower rungs of the education system as well. Many high schools have cheerleading squads which travel to games along with their sports teams, and some middle schools do as well. Middle school squads are much less physically demanding, and are usually designed to more fun, so that cheerleaders become interested in pursuing the sport as they grow older. Some elementary schools also have very basic cheerleading squads, in the spirit of pee-wee football and other diminutive versions of popular sports.
Cheerleaders wear very characteristic uniforms, including snug tops and short skirts for women, with men wearing more conservative pants. They also tend to wear bright, bold colors in basic patterns, and they may carry batons, pom-poms, and flags to use in their routines. A cheerleading squad works like a well-oiled machine, with members being very aware of each other when they work on routines. Small slips can result in serious safety issues, especially when a cheerleading squad involves “flyers,” cheerleaders who go up into the air on each other's shoulders in complex pyramids and other tricks.
In addition to cheering on athletic teams, cheerleaders also compete against each other in regional competitions. These all-star games feature cheerleading and dance teams who may not necessarily be associated with a particular school or athletic team, and they represent the cream of the cheerleading crop. In the 2000s, the risk of injury among cheerleaders began to be seriously discussed, and several safety commissions formed to set basic policies and oversee the sport, ensuring that athletes are at a minimal risk of injury.
One of the biggest concerns that critics of cheerleading have is that it places extreme demand on the bodies of young women. In addition to the physical demands of routines and tricks, cheerleading squads also encourage a very specific body type which can be difficult to achieve. Members of squads may punish themselves with severe regimens that threaten their health in an attempt to conform with this desired body type.