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Give me a 'C!' for controversy



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MIAMI -- They're still perky and often ponytailed, but teenage cheerleaders who rev up the fans at high school football games are drawing attention for shaking more than their pom-poms.

Some coaches, school administrators and even state lawmakers are concerned that skimpy skirts, revealing tops and MTV-inspired routines are becoming too hot for the crowds in the stands.

At some school districts in Georgia, policies limit suggestive gestures and outline appropriate attire for cheerleaders, band members, drill teams and pep squads. A national organization that oversees such activities has banned bare midriffs effective next fall. And a Texas legislator stirred up a national debate when he tried to pass a law prohibiting suggestive performances by cheerleaders, drill teams or dance teams. The proposal was referred to by some as the "cheerleader booty bill."

"I can't describe what 'sexy' is to you or somebody else," says the bill's sponsor, Rep. Al Edwards. "But if you're an adult, you know it when you see it."

Still, about 100 girls at a three-day National Cheerleaders Association summer camp here don't see what all the fuss is about.

"Cheerleaders, I don't feel, are too provocative," says 17-year-old Chelsea Anderson, a high school senior and cheerleader from Cooper City High School in Broward County, Fla.

She's one of 17 juniors and seniors who are varsity cheerleaders -- along with 16 freshmen and sophomores on the junior varsity team -- at the Golden Panther Arena at Florida International University. Their school's opening football game is Friday.

They jump and holler, practicing basic cheer motions such as lunges and hand clasps. They perfect stunt techniques with names such as the "bottle rocket." They build body pyramids.

"I think Britney Spears is more provocative," Anderson says. "It's not like cheerleaders are trying to get attention that way."

But just what is appropriate -- from pelvis-thrusting movements that could be too provocative, to music whose lyrics could be questionable, to uniforms that could show too much skin -- is a question that's bigger than the stadium.

Depending on your age or the part of the USA you're from, acceptability is in the eye of the beholder.

"Like it or not, there is a very high threshold for what is 'crossing the line' in terms of being overly suggestive," says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm. "These teens today are exposed to a lot in popular culture."

Patti Ershowsky, whose daughter Cori, 17, is a Cooper City varsity cheerleader captain, says she hasn't been shocked by what she has seen in the cheerleading world.

"It's just society today," she says. "It's different than it was."

Sexually suggestive routines aren't on the agenda at the camp, attended by girls from elementary through high school.

"What you're seeing now is pure high school fun cheerleading, and that's not sexual at all," says Kelli Bazo, 27, an English teacher and Cooper City cheerleader coach.

Camp instructor Tami Garcia, 26, says the routines she teaches are innocuous.

But "if they go home and the cheerleaders themselves change the moves and want to do it another way and maybe make it more risque, we can't control that," Garcia adds. "We can only control what we teach."

Blame it on Dallas

Sexuality entered the cheerleading domain with the 1972 debut of the transformed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, dressed in hot pants, white boots and cleavage-revealing tops.

Their gyrations were viewed as entertainment, says Natalie Guice Adams, an associate professor in the college of education at the University of Alabama and co-author of Cheerleader! An American Icon.

"The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were absolutely instrumental in changing cheerleading from being the All-American girl next door to the idea of a cheerleader as an erotic sex symbol."

Including them in the book created an uproar, Adams says, because they are part of the professional sports world and not the traditional cheerleading arena.

Adams, a former cheerleader and the mother of a high school cheerleader, says the American public has for decades had a fascination with cheerleaders. Her 2003 book estimates almost 4 million cheerleaders are in the USA alone.

In decades past, cheerleaders were the sideshow, but now, with their elaborate stunts and pyramids, they are themselves a show. Most who try out must have gymnastics experience. Few teams are co-ed.

Stunts have become so expected that safety is a recurring concern. A Massachusetts freshman died this month of a ruptured spleen after a stunt in which she landed on her stomach in the arms of her team members rather than on her back.

That stunt training also begat the All-Stars, who exist to compete and are, in effect, cheerleaders without a team.

Run by local gyms, not schools, they have looser standards -- and often skimpier uniforms -- than the schools. But they give more kids more chances to cheer.

And with competitions, costumes and training in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 a year per competitor, it's a powerful part of the cheerleading industry.

Some teens on the Cooper City teams also are All-Stars.

"All-Star is the fastest-growing segment of cheerleading, but it's the facet that perpetuates those stereotypes of cheerleaders being more akin to Las Vegas showgirls than cheerleaders," Adams says.

But teams that push the limits of propriety get deductions from judges in competitions, Garcia says. "That's usually the misguided squad where they think they can either get away with it or they think it's real cute and they don't see a problem with it."

Protecting families

Families are the audience Edwards says he was trying to protect with his legislation. Even though it didn't pass, a resolution asking the state education commissioner to intervene did. "We got the same effect," he says.

Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley sent letters to all superintendents last month, pledging she will monitor extracurricular activities, including dance teams, drill teams, marching bands and cheerleading teams to prevent "inappropriate performances" and apply disciplinary action if necessary. Failure of school districts to monitor their students "could result in further state action and monitoring," the letter says.

Some Georgia public schools have taken matters into their own hands.

DeKalb County schools near Atlanta developed new standards for uniforms sparked by drill teams, whose outfits had been criticized for showing too much skin and fitting too snugly. Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools established rules for appropriate movements.

The National Federation of State High School Associations' first apparel rule for cheerleaders -- no bare midriffs -- is effective next fall.

"We have found that cheerleader uniforms have become a little more revealing," says the federation's Susan Loomis. "They just wear the crop tops and the skirts that V to the bellybutton or below."

She adds: "We've had overwhelming acceptance, and coaches telling me how glad they are we wrote this rule."

Donna Lopiano, executive director of the non-profit Women's Sports Foundation, says schools should take a close look to make sure their activities aren't treating women as sex objects.

"Every school should determine whether or not it is allowing sexist and inappropriate activities to occur under the guise of school activities," she says. "What is the purpose of cheerleading? Is it to lead cheers or be sexually suggestive?"

To see more of USAToday.com, or to subscribe, go to http://www.usatoday.com

© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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