This Saturday competitors in the sport of cheerleading are taking part in the national championships in Liberec: the Liberec Cheer Double Cup. Ahead of the event Radio Prague spoke to Nikol Smiley of the Czech Cheerleading Union, which works hard to popularize the sport.
“The aim of our organization is to increase the popularity of the sport. It is a sport nowadays, no longer just a leisure activity. It kind of is in diapers when it comes to cheerleading as a competitive sport but not on its own as a show during sports events, which has been happening for 15 years.
“It was a half-time show or show between hockey periods here as well and another aspect was to represent schools and school teams. To cheer up the audience and raise team spirit; but that has now changed. Cheerleaders can compete and those can take part now want to prove they are athletes.”
Has the sport become more acrobatic?
“Most definitely. Of course, you have different categories, you can have dance, for instance, but on the whole everything is more acrobatic, with all kinds of different moves, including tumbling. It’s not just about the dance and you have to train very hard. Tumbling is a very important aspect: running fast and doing a walk over, or cartwheels. A lot of the moves require many skills that take a long time to learn.”
Do potential cheerleaders face try outs? I imagine that the sport is not for everybody…
“Schools or clubs can and do… at the CCU we try to teach coaches that each teams need some basics, where you have an easy level with all beginners who learn how to listen to music, how to move to it, how to work with pom-poms, how to stretch and become flexible. It depends on the age group but everyone needs to master some basic skills and then you can have groups for which there are try-outs.”
Because of the skills which need to be learned and the training aspect, is there an ideal age to start?
“The sooner the better, as with most sports. Children are amazing and can learn anything they want. A good age is around four or five, to start with gymnastics. In our competition, you can find competitors at the age of six are really, really good and are already successful. But you can start later: it only depends on how much you want to learn.”
How is the sport organized in the Czech Republic and is this where your union comes in?
“There are teams all over the Czech Republic and we try and bring them together. It is nowhere near the level like you would have in the US. Here, cheerleading is an afternoon sport, it is extracurricular, you have to do it in your own time and go for it.”
“Of course. Kids train on special mats to provide a softer landing in the case of a fall. You have coaches and assistants on hand to catch someone who if they slip and the team has to be very careful and members have to build a trust and know they can depend on each other. In a choreographed move, if a girl is thrown high in the air, she has to know someone will catch her.”
How is the sport divided in terms of gender?
“Cheerleading is a sport is certainly not just for girls anymore: especially at older levels you have more boys taking part, who are stronger and can provide support in trickier moves. It’s not just girls with pom-poms anymore.”
Let’s look at the performance aspect: how do performances come together?
“This is interesting: unlike dance, where you start with the music, here you begin with the moves, you put together and build a routine. Only then are original music and effects and voice overs added. The music is made especially for the routine, really customized, for a ‘Wow’ effect.”
What does cheerleading ultimately offer young people or kids in the Czech Republic today?
“It is a good team sport and it is more than dance and acrobatics alone. It combines those elements and brings in music and tumbling in one package. You need to do every single part of the routine perfectly. You need to jump high, to be tight, you need to smile because this is cheerleading! You need to work with your partners. It is not just one thing: you need a lot of skills and you need to have to trust each other and work together. It is one a tough team sport. It’s not like football, if someone is not playing well or are injured they can be sent off. Here, every member is essential.”
Does it build life-long friendships, do you think?
“I would say so. It goes with team spirit and the connection we have across teams. Kind of like a big family.”